Archive for the 'Quest University Canada' category

Image of a Thermomnuclear Supernova Progentior

Holy cow, it's been a long time since I blogged.

The class I'm teaching right now is 3d Computer Modelling and Animation. Perhaps the hardest thing about it is figuring out if the word Modelling has one or two l's in it... it depends on whether you're in the USA or Canada, I think.

For this class, I'm making all of the students do a major project. Some of them are doing some pretty interesting things, and already several of them have figured out things about Blender (the 3D software we're using, a quite powerful free package that you should check out yourself) that I don't know myself. A couple are playing around with motion tracking, in order to add 3D rendered elements into a live action video scene. One is building a game using the Blender game engine. Others are doing various other animations.

I've decided to take on a project myself. For this project, I am going to model a white dwarf in a mutual orbit with a main sequence or red giant star, pulling matter off of it into an accretion disk. During the animation, the white dwarf will go critical, and explode in a supernova, blowing itself way, and blowing off some of the outer layers of the companion star.

So far, I've managed to create the basic progenitor model, and do a little bit of animation of the textures so that the disk is spinning, the star's surface is roiling, and the gas bridge between the star and the disk looks a little like it's streaming. Here's a rendered frame from what I've done so far:

sn1aprogenitor
Click to embiggen (CC-BY-3.0)

I'll certainly post the full animation once I've completed it. Next, I'm going to have to start worrying about how to deal with the supernova. Eventually, I'll set the whole thing to music.

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"Of the Wonderful Kind", a play by Claire Hately

You wanted to see a picture of me in a onesie, riding a unicorn and weilding a light sabre? Why, yes, I can accommodate that:

One of the fun things about being at Quest University is the diversity of student "majors". Students don't actually have majors; instead, they choose a "Question" that they focus much of their last two years on. Most of the students I have working with me have a Question that's focused somewhere in the physical sciences, although some are a bit more diverse. One of the ones that is entirely out of the physical sciences is Claire Hately's question, "How Can We Keep Creativity Alive?" For her keystone project (the project that all students do by the end of their tenure here), she wrote and is now producing a play entitled "Of the Wonderful Kind". The one performance is tonight.

The play takes place in two locations: first, in the bedroom of an 8.5-year-old boy who's created a startling and potentially world-changing invention for the next day's school science fair. Second, inside the mind of that boy, as his confused imagination tries to deal with growing up. The play is quite funny and lasts about an hour.

And, yes, I play the 8-1/2 year old boy. Everybody else in the play is a Quest student, and is 24 years old or younger (mostly 4 or so years younger). So, naturally, I was the obvious choice to play the little boy...! Claire herself plays the role of my little sister, and various other students play my mother, the Nymphs of the Night (faeries who carry on like drug dealers), Jesus, as well as various characters in my imagination including a train conductor, the psychotic favorite doll of my little sister, a couple of cats, a foul-mouthed and wryly philosophical toad, a bevel of hard-drinking poker players, a kindly old train conductor and his assistant who turn evil, and, of course, Cowboy Bill, the flying cowboy who does nice things for people but never stops to ask for any thanks.

Sadly, I've had a cold since last week, so I've sort of lost my voice. But, I'll make it through.

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Quest University Canada, Class of 2011

May 01 2011 Published by under Quest University Canada

Click to Enbiggen

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This Morning: Quest University's First Ever Graduation

Apr 30 2011 Published by under Academia, Quest University Canada

In an hour and a half, I will head up the mountain to Quest University's first ever graduation. As you can imagine, we've had a number of events this week to celebrate the completion of our first class of students' studies. Of course, I've only been here for a year; those who've been here four years or more are (visibly) much more affected by the fact that Quest has managed to get to this state.

Yesterday afternoon, the five students whose capstone projects received distinction all gave presentations in front of an audience of a few hundred, including students, faculty, parents, and maybe even a few members of the community. They all did an impressive job, and showed tremendous poise. They also performed very well when receiving questions from the audience, showing a comfort both on stage and with the material they'd studied. The projects varied quite a bit, from a study of human perception from primarily a literary and philosophical point of view, to a study of just war theory and military response to terrorism, to a psychology experiment testing whether environmentalism corresponded to a "world view" under a particular definition, to a survey of wildfire managers about trying to reintroduce what used to be the natural wildfire cycle in BC, to a combined biological and social study of the factors influencing the spread of a particularly nasty virus in Bolivia. Everybody I talked to was quite impressed with what the students did, and I think that the first through third year students were a little scared by the standard that had been set.... (We must remember, however, that these were what we identified as the top five projects out of the 45 or 50 in the graduating class!)

It's pretty exciting to be a part of this experimental University. I'm just happy to be teaching again, but I'm particularly happy to be teaching at a place that really cares about teaching. Quest's mission is focused entirely around teaching. What's more, the students here by and large are great. At Vanderbilt, at least in my large introductory classes, I wouldn't see the whole class except on the day of an exam. Here, if one student is missing one day, I'm surprised, and will often e-mail afterwards to see what's up. Everybody comes to every class, pretty much; that's unheard of at most any other University. (I will say that in my upper division physics electives at Vanderbilt, generally almost everybody was there every day, but certainly not by any means in the introductory classes.)

After today, Quest will for the first time have alumni. I hope it has many more, and I hope that I'm able to stay around for a few decades and participate in this experiment.

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Teaching Quantum Mechanics to "Liberal Arts" Students

Before I even get started, I have to get defensive about the "scare quotes" around "Liberal Arts" in the title. The word "Liberal Arts" students is used to mean a lot of different things. The context I'm using it in here could very easily be interpreted as the context that I most dislike, hence the scare quotes. Often, when science types talk about "liberal arts" students, there is a subtext of "people who can't handle math and science"... that is, somebody who, at least as far as the study of science goes, is a lesser. That's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about "liberal arts" students as in the vast majority of students who are at higher end colleges and universities in North America. Students who aren't getting a technical degree, whose studies aren't "training", but who are studying a broad range of topics with the goal of becoming broadly educated. Yes, even many/most physics majors are "liberal arts" students, because they do things other than just pure physics. Even some engineering majors are this!

At Quest University, students in their first two years take (for the most part) classes that are part of a "Foundation Program". There are 16 of these classes, five of which are science courses (which I think is pretty impressive, if you compare the ratio of science that shows up at most places). One of these is "Energy & Matter". This course has never been extremely well-defined, and indeed each time it's been taught it's been a different course, but at its core is the course in the Foundation that introduces students to physical science at the fundamental level. (Another meta-course, "Earth, Oceans, and Space", is about the "larger systems" applications of physical science.) Thus, it's been taught as standard introductory chemistry course, among various other ways. The last time I taught it, I tried to go for my own ideas as to what the most important things to get out of a course with that title would be. The result was mostly physics, with some chemistry mixed in.

More recently, some of us have been trying to make it so that students will have some idea what this course will be when they sign up for a given iteration of it. As such, we've taken to subtitling the course. A colleague of mine will be teaching it entirely as a lab course. Another (if he ends up full-time at Quest) will teach it focusing around understanding the energy needs and uses of a realistic city. One constraint we always have is that there is a huge range of abilities in this class. Some people have a strong background in physics, some people can barely do algebra (like all too many college students). In order to not bore the stronger students without blowing away the students with weaker backgrounds, one tactic is to teach something that you know that none of them will have had in high school. To that end, I've created the course "Energy & Matter: Our Quantum World", which tries to really get into the meat of quantum mechanics, but at the level approachable by a student who has had no previous physics nor any calculus.

Although I still need to tune it up, I think it worked. The thing about this class is that I wanted it to go beyond the descriptive level that you do often see in non-majors general physics courses. I wanted students to struggle quantitatively with the notion of probabilistic reality, with calculating amplitudes and probabilities. The result was that this time around, I spent much of the course focused on electron spin and thought-experiments based off of the Stern-Gerlach Experiment. Towards the end, we got to talking about quantized energy levels in general, and the Hydrogen atom in particular. We also talked about fermions and bosons, and the notion of a "Fermi gas" (including the electrons in a conductor). I did give them the Schrödinger Equation, but only in its most abstract form:

\(hat{H}left|psiright> = E,left|psiright>\)

Since I wasn't using calculus, I wasn't able to give them the full differential form for the kinetic energy part of the Hamiltonian. Then again, the notion of coping with mathematical abstractions was a major theme of the course. Some of the material I covered is stuff that physics students may not see until a junior year quantum mechanics class: Dirac notation, propagating amplitudes, Dirac spinors, matrix representation of angular momentum operators. This did mean I had to teach a wee bit of matrix multiplication to the students in the class, but it was all quite approachable.

Although there are definitely things I will tune up next time around— I'd like to figure out a way to actually talk about waves so that the term "wave function" can be more than jargon, if I can figure out how to make it fit without making the class overfull— I believe that overall the effort was successful. It was quite a marathon for me, as I was effectively writing the textbook as I taught the class. (I would joke that I would write the reading assignment in Google Docs, and the students would watch as a typed it. It wasn't quite that bad; for one, I used LaTeX, and for two, all but two or three days I had the next day's reading assignment posted before the beginning of the current day's class....) There were a few students who felt quite lost, but frankly, that was as a result of a particularly weak grounding in algebra, and they would have had trouble in my previous iteration of Energy & Matter. Many students, however, seemed to get it, and really seemed to grasp what was going on with these probabilistic systems. A few students also commented on how cool they thought it was. My favorite quote was from a student at the end of her presentation about the Quantum Zeno effect: "Quantum mechanics is something that's hard for us to conceptualize, but it's also very very awesome."

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More thoughts about teaching on the block system

So, yes, it's been nearly two months since my last post, and posts were few and far between even then. Well, right now I'm on winter break (and have been for almost a week), and I'm back into a state of mind where I can post. There may be a torrent of them in the next several days; we shall see.

A few months ago, as I was just getting started here at Quest University, I posted about teaching on the block. The block system is how classes are organized here, in the same way as Colorado College. Students take one class at a time, and hyperfocus on it. That also means that I'm teaching one class at a time, but cram a full semester's worth of teaching into 18 extremely intense days. When I'm teaching on the block, I can do almost nothing else. It really does take away your focus. It's not just the hours. Yes, because I try to be available to my students, many days I'm spending several hours talking to students in my office outside of the three "contact" hours in class. (There are also students who aren't in my class, but with whom I talk, either just because they drop by, or because I'm taking them on as a mentor for their last two years, or because they want to talk about future classes and independent studies.) However, it's also the "energy" level. I put energy in scare quotes, because of course it's not something that's measured in Joules and that would be recognizable as energy to a physicist, but it's the sort of "energy" that we mean when we tell each other that we're feeling particularly low energy today. There's only so much creativity and intellectual effort that one can put into something until one is exhausted, until the point of diminishing returns is indistinguishable from its asymptote. (This is why the notion that grad students are supposed to work 80 or 100 hours a week, and the schedule that medical residents or programmers on a "death march" are put on, are fundamentally absurd.)

I'm learning other things about teaching on the block— things that, to be fair, I was told about ahead of time. The most important lesson is probably "less is more". This is true of teaching in general. When I first started at Vanderbilt, there were seminars about teaching for the new faculty where they basically told us this. (Faculty would say that every time they taught the same class again, they'd try to cover less than the previous time.) This is even more true on the block. The format just does not lend itself to "survey" classes (of which I have to admit that I'm dubious anyway!). Because you're working closely with students for three hours, probably three consecutive hours, each day, it's far more suited to getting into stuff in depth than it is to driving by a large number of topics.

This last block, I taught a first course in calculus-based physics. I used Thomas Moore's books Six Ideas That Shaped Physics. I'm finding that (with one or two caveats) I like these a lot. There are six books. At Pomona, he uses three each semester. Each chapter is designed to go with a single 50-minute lecture period. Already, you can see that I have to adapt a little. I find, however, that three chapters is far too much for a single 3-hour class meeting. Thomas Moore goes through three books a semester, and I'm doing the same thing right now: three books in December, three books in January. However, next time I teach this, I think I'm only going to use two books each course. That does make me a little sad, as the third book from Physics I is Relativity, and I think it's very cool that if students only take one calculus-based physics course, they get some Special Relativity. (I also really like the way he does Relativity, emphasizing the metric (or the "invariant interval"), and getting to that before the "cool effects" of time dilation, simultaneity, and length contraction.) However, my observation is that we rushed through the material too fast, and that students didn't digest the material as well as I had hoped. On many things, I wished we had a second day to work through problems and work with the things we were working on. So, in the future, I'll do Conservation Laws and Newtonian Mechanics in the first physics course; Relativity and Electromagnetism in the second; and save Quantum Physics and Thermodynamics for the third. (That will be two years from now; Quest isn't big enough at the moment to teach introductory calculus-based physics every year.)

As time goes by, I hope to find a way to keep up with blogging while teaching on the block. However, if I'm slow to post, it's almost certainly because teaching on the block really does take over your life. It may only be during the summer, or during blocks I'm not teaching (which at the moment appear to be being taken over by planned independent studies!) that I will be able to keep up with blogging!

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Do science students do their reading?

Many science professors hold it as an article of faith that students do far less of the reading in their classes than they do in humanities and social science classes. I heard this expectation expressed at the APS workshop for new faculty I went to several years ago, and in other presentations I've heard about physics and astronomy education. The technique Just In Time Teaching was invented partly as a way of allowing science classes to make better use of textbook reading. Is it not a waste to spend classroom time in information transmission, telling students in a linear fashion what they could just have easily read from the textbook? Physics education research has shown that active learning is much more effective in getting the students to really understand the concepts.

When I've heard talks about this, the view I've heard expressed is that it would be crazy to expect students to come to a literature class without having done the reading. They would be completely unable to participate in that day's discussion. On the other hand, the view is, the norm is that students don't do the reading for their physical science classes, except perhaps in a last-ditch attempt to figure out how to do homework problems ("find an example that matches!").

In my statistics class that met this last September (ending last Friday), all of the students had a project; they chose a question, obtained data, and analyzed it. One student, Julian Seeman-Sterling, surveyed students at Quest to find out how much of the reading they did. Below are a couple of his results:

Histogram about Reading

You can tell just looking at the histograms that there's no appreciable difference between the amount of reading that students claim to complete in the natural sciences as compared to other disciplines. And, indeed, Julian ran a statistical test on these, and there's no evidence of any difference. (Note that Julian calls "physical science" what is more commonly called "natural science"— that is, it includes things such as biology.)

I do have to say that I was surprised to hear that, but of course it all comes with caveats. These are the results of a survey of students at Quest. Quest is an unusual place; students only take one class at a time, and it's very intensive. They don't have stacks of reading for many different classes to do; they only have the one class. As such, they tend to be very engaged with the one class they are taking. Also, these are the results as reported on the survey. As Julian pointed out during his presentation in class, he couldn't know if they're really true without following a lot of students around throughout their day... and that wouldn't be entirely practical.

So, do students do less of their reading in physics and astronomy than they do in their humanities courses? I don't know. Julian's data suggests that that is not the case at least at Quest.

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Teaching on the block

As you will know if you've read the sidebar of this blog, I teach at Quest University Canada. I've started there this year, and started teaching my first class just under two weeks ago. The class is "The Practice of Statistics". Because Quest is so small, the faculty here teach a wider range of subjects than they would elsewhere. At Vanderbilt, I taught only astronomy (with undergraduate General Relativity having been defined as an "A" course so that students could count it towards an astronomy minor without our having to revise the catalog description of the minor). At Quest, the first class I'm teaching is a math class.

Quest runs on the "block system". This is a system for scheduling courses that was pioneered (I believe) at Colorado College; certainly CC is the best known college that's on the block system. Students take only one class at a time. However, they hyperfocus on the class. Class meets three hours a day, every Monday through Friday, for three and a half weeks. Then there's a two-day block break (next to a weekend, so it's sort of a four day weekend), and the next block begins. Full-time students take eight blocks over the course of two semesters, so it amounts to the same number of courses. (You aren't really able to overload, however.)

Professors teach six blocks during the year. This is also a similar load; at the higher-end private liberal arts colleges, the typical teaching load (I hate that term, but that's a rant for another time) is either three courses a semester, or two one semester and three the next. (Lots of details about lab courses complicate this.) (This is in contrast to a research University, where scientists might only teach one course a semester.) However, if you think about it, at a typical college those six courses are spread out over eight months. On the block system, those eight courses are condensed into less than six months. Everybody who has taught on this system has told me, and I can now confirm this from my limited experience, that the course you are teaching takes over your life, and you can do basically nothing else while you are teaching.

Each day, I teach from nine to noon. I usually decompress a bit, and then spend the afternoon trying to get some grading done, but in practice I spend a lot of the time talking to students. In the evening, I complete whatever grading there is to do, and then try to figure out what we're going to do in class the next day. Then I collapse, go to sleep, and start over the next morning.

Because students are there for three hours straight— we do take a break in the middle, but that's it— you can't approach the class the same way you would if you saw them for an hour three times a week. Straight lecturing just doesn't make sense; you can't just talk at people for three hours straight. Or, rather, you can, but you will probably dull their minds permanently. Of course, astronomy and physics research has shown that straight lecturing basically doesn't work anyway, so that's just as well! In statistics, I talk at them a little bit, but try not to talk at them uninterrupted for more than 10 minutes or so in a go. We spend a lot of time working through processing data (using GNU R), there are "labs" that the students do in small groups, and I'll sometimes give them problems and challenges to work out individually during class.

So far, I like it. Yes, I'm pretty damn busy, but I knew that that was going to happen going in to it. I like the fact that the students are hyperfocusing on my class. There's no other classes whose tests and homework compete with mine. They aren't going to neglect my class because another has a big project due. Their attention isn't divided. I don't know if this is the best way to do things for all students, but when it comes to how I, personally, have learned things throughout my life, it's very unnatural for me to try to learn several things at once and spread it out over several months. If I'm learning (say) a new computer language for a project I need, I will dig into it and focus primarily on that for a long time. It means less multitasking. Generally, when people talk about multitasking, they're talking about switching tasks several times a minute or an hour, but switching tasks a few times a day is also a form of multitasking, and it can also be distracting.

This year, after the statistics class, I'll be teaching a class that's part of the foundation courses entitled "Energy & Matter". After that is an astronomy course, and then two courses in a sequence of calculus-based physics. That will have been five blocks in a row, each with a different course, so I expect when it's over and February rolls around, I'm going to be completely used up. I plan to get nothing done in February; I am just going to recover. In March, I teach "Energy & Matter" again, and then the year is over for me. One of the advantages of having your teaching condensed into six months is that in the other months, you may actually be able to focus on other things and get a real amount of research or development done. I'll see how that goes this coming April! (And maybe in February, but I really do expect I'm going to need to decompress.)

I will have a lot more to say about what it's like to teach at Quest as time goes on.

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