Shout Out to Prospective Students

One of my goals for this blog is to provide a window into the physics department for prospective students interested in physics or engineering who are considering whether to come to Richmond.   Are you reading?  Is anybody out there?  Please drop me a quick comment here (or fire me an email if you’d rather) to let me know that you’re reading.  You can also ask a question, or tell me if there’s anything you’d particularly like to see here.  Thanks!  –Matt

We Put the “YOU” in NYOU-ton’s Laws…

Finding out I’m a physicist apparently evokes bad memories for some people I meet.  “Ooh, I hated physics in high school,” they often say, or “That was my worst class in college!”  Why so many negative reactions?  (Do people say the same about their history classes?)

Over the years, I’ve begun to realize that at least some of the problem probably comes from how physics is taught: often in a large lecture format, with a teacher filling the board with dense equations…and a room of compliant students dutifully copying them down.  Fortunately, that doesn’t describe the physics department at UR.  Cheesy puns about Newton aside, the culture in our department tilts strongly away from standard chalk-n-talk lectures, and we really do try to teach our courses in a way that focuses on the student and builds real understanding.  Below are some of the general principles I personally try to teach by.

Teach concepts and build intuition first, use math later.  Some students are very skilled at mathematics, and for them a short mathematical description of a physics principle is all they need.  Mathematics is the natural language of physics–quantitative and logically precise–and it’s an extremely powerful tool.   But for many students, mathematics serves as a barrier to entry, at least initially.  I always try to teach by first “getting the gist” of something across: an idea, an analogy, or just a mental picture of how something works.  Once that’s in place, then mathematics can really help pin the concept down.

Use inductive as well as deductive reasoning.  Humans are hard-wired to find patterns.  We learn to associate light with heat by using inductive reasoning through our daily experiences, observing that the two usually come together.  (Few of us have used deductive reasoning to make that connection based on the absorption of photons, blackbody radiation, etc.)  Yet physics is often taught deductively: Given A and B, we can prove C, from which we can then derive principle D, which has the special cases E, F, and G.  While it’s certainly important to understand the logical structure of our physics knowledge, that’s probably not the most natural way to learn it, at least for most people.  In my classes, I often teach inductively: I note the often familiar cases E, F, and G, then show how they are all special cases of a general principle D, which happens to be related to yesterday’s lesson about A, B, and C.  (As a professor who knows the subject well already, the deductive sequence A to G always seems the most logical; and that’s always how the textbooks teach it, too.  It’s hard to remember that that’s not always the most natural way to learn the subject.)

Above all: make learning active–without making it embarassing.  If you have to fix your bicycle, the very last thing you’d do would be to read an entire book about bicycle repair from cover to cover before ever getting your hands dirty.  (Or worse: attend a 14 week series of long-winded lectures on the subject, where you have to write down your own notes!)  Instead, you might look at a book, then try to tinker with the bike, read some more, get some advice, then tinker some more.  Over the course of a few repairs, you’d eventually get to be a real expert in bicycle repair, building up some real understanding about how bikes work.  Why should physics be any different? 

The small class size at UR let’s me teach my classes so that all of my students are active learners.  I can talk at the board for 10 minutes or so, and then ask my students “now, everybody draw me a graph of velocity versus time,” as I circulate around the room to see how they’re doing.  We also use many other modes of active learning (interactive laboratories, group problem solving etc.) that force students to use what they learn immediately, building connections and creating real understanding.   For example, all of our introductory classes are “workshop physics” courses, where the laboratory and lecture are integrated together (typically three 2-hour meetings a week, with 1 professor and about 20 students), which makes the laboratories a truly useful tool for learning concepts and building intuition, as opposed to a once-a-week chore that may or may not have to do with what’s being covered in the lecture portion.  (Incidentally, calling on students at random to answer questions in class is “active learning” too–but often only for the one student who gets picked.  Many students in my classes don’t like to be called on, and that’s fine with me.  I don’t care if my students are calling out answers, as long as they’re all thinking–and there are plenty of other ways to make that happen without the public humiliation.)

None of this is about watering down the content of physics courses.  (In fact, I’m as much of a hard-ass numbers guy as anybody I know.  Try one of my exams if you don’t believe me.)  It’s about teaching material in a way that’s consistent with how most humans learn best.  If that makes me too much of an old softie, then I’m guilty as charged.  I simply call it “doing my job well.”

Visiting campus? Look me up.

Just a quick note to pass along to anyone who’s planning on visiting the University of Richmond.  If you’re interested in physics and want to find out more than is usually possible from a campus tour, please feel free to contact me directly, either by phone or by email.  (Or, for that matter, you can post a question here on my blog.)  I often meet with prospective students and their families on campus, and I’m happy to do it.  Looking forward to meeting you!

What is Undergraduate Research, Anyway?

I’ve gotten several questions recently from prospective students and their parents asking how undergraduate research works.  Who does it?  When does it start?  What do they do?  What is undergraduate research, anyway?

As a professor, I have two jobs.  One is to teach students, as I do every day in my classes.  The other is to do research, which in my case involves doing experiments, taking data, figuring things out, and then presenting it at conferences and in articles in scientific journals.  At big universities like Ohio State and Princeton (where I was before), research is done in groups involving at least one professor plus a small army of post-docs and graduate students.  At Richmond, we do the same thing but with undergraduates.  We study the same kinds of problems, present at the same national and international conferences, and publish in the same journals.  (Does size and lack of graduate students put us at a disadvantage?  Only a little bit.  Some projects require millions of dollars and dozens of graduate students; other projects don’t.  I have to be a little bit careful picking my projects, but there are plenty of unanswered questions out there that I can find the answers to just fine here, thanks.  In fact, most of us collaborate with colleagues from other schools, too.)

In our physics department, all six of the tenure-line faculty are research active.  (That’s not true at all small colleges, where it’s common for some of the faculty, particularly senior professors who were hired under different expectations, to support their school’s mission in other ways.  Some other colleges may also lack the resources to support research at the level we do.)  If each of us works with three or four students, the total number of physics students involved in undergraduate research is…well, pretty much all of them, including students only in their first or second year.  Note that in our department, research is not just for seniors doing “senior projects” or for only the top honors students.  Students typically do research during the year for course credit, and most do research over the summers for money, paid by the University or from a professor’s research grant.

Students here do research on whatever topics the faculty are studying.  For me, that means copolymer materials, nanotechnology, and atomic force microscopy.  (Other professors here study nuclear physics, particle physics, biological physics, and cosmology.)  Although in principle a student could pursue a topic independently, in practice that never happens, simply because figuring out what problems are truly new and interesting (and practical) at the forefront of human knowledge is virtually impossible for a novice.   (And if it’s not at the forefront of human knowledge, we’re not generally interested in it here at UR.  Topics like “the physics of skiing” are fun and might even be a good learning experience, but that’s just not what we do.)  There is no formal process for matching students with faculty; by their sophomore years at the latest, our students generally recognize the benefits of doing research and tend to be drawn to one professor’s lab or another.  The professors are always on the lookout for new students too, and in a department as small and informal as ours, connections just happen.

Doing research is a great experience for our students.   They are often authors on journal articles, and they get to travel to national and international conferences to present their work–all of which looks pretty good on a resume for graduate school or for jobs.  The skills they learn, both specific technical skills and a more general ability to tackle open-ended problems and deal with complexity,  are applicable wherever they go.  And for me, it’s great to see how students grow from their first tentative steps as incoming students, to confident and capable seniors who go on to do great things.  In this way, my two jobs–teaching and research–are really just one job, like two faces of the same coin.

Matt needs more research students!

One of the nice things about teaching is seeing my students graduate and go on to do cool things elsewhere.  Of course, it’s not so nice when my entire lab group graduates all at once, as happened this spring!  (Nate…Jill…Brian…David!  Please come back!)

Anyway, I just want to put the word out there that I’m very actively looking for some students to join me in fall of 2008 and beyond.  I have a handful of projects I’ll be involved in; some projects will entail using the cool and expensive atomic force microscope in our lab; others will involve more computer coding and analysis.  I’m especially interested in finding a strong first or second year student.  I’m imagining working for course credit initially,  but I also have some grant money that could support a student over the summer.

One project I’ve written about here recently involves writing software to correct for distortion in atomic force microscope images.  This is a neat project involving a real-life application of numerical computing and image analysis; the resulting software package will be shared with potentially hundreds of scientists and engineers using around the world who use scanning probe microscopes.  Requirements: must be comfortable programming in C/C++, and must know some calculus.  (Everything else is learn-as-you-go.) 

Please contact me if you or anybody you know might be interested!