Remote version of Physics 132 in response to COVID-19

TL;DR: My syllabus addendum for the second half of the semester can be found at this link. For comparison and reference, the original syllabus is at this link. (I hate it when people bury the information you really need behind a bunch of stuff. Recipe websites, I am looking at you! I don’t want your entire life story.)

March 9-13: what a week before spring break! At the beginning of the week, things were very much up in the air. By Wednesday morning the other four colleges in the 5-College Consortium (Amherst, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke, and Smith) had all closed for the semester, with UMass still undecided. Then, mid-day on Wednesday, we found out (via the Boston Globe!) that UMass would be doing remote learning for essentially all undergraduate courses for the two weeks after spring break until April 3. By Friday, it was announced that all courses (including graduate courses) were to go remote until the end of the semester and all faculty were to avoid campus as much as possible.

How to teach a two sections of a team-based learning class with a total enrollment of 458 remotely? Moreover, what about those students who may not have internet off campus, are in time-zones with 11 hour time differences, or now have new additional responsibilities? One of the things you quickly learn about teaching large courses: minimizing special cases is key. You simply cannot deal with each student individually. There are simply not enough hours in the week. You must find systems that work for most people giving you the bandwidth to deal with the individual students who most need your attention.

In my class, the material that can be placed into short videos already has: those videos form my prep homework. Replacing class with a series of video lectures and online homework would rob my students of yet one more community they have; I know for a fact that some of the teams in my course have become quite close. I cannot rob them of that right now.

So how to do this while at the same time acknowledging that many of my students are working under less-than-ideal circumstances? A combination of synchronous and asynchronous delivery modes. There are a few small carrots to attending the synchronous modes, but no punishments for not being able to attend them. This encourages students to attend the synchronous modes if they can, but allows for other options for those who cannot. Finally, I thought a “syllabus” was important, I want to be as clear to my students as I can to try to put their minds at ease.

We will see how this goes.

Discussion of Open Textbooks in the NYTimes

NYTimes Opinion 11 December 2019 – How Professors Help Rip Off Students: Textbooks are too expensive.

Another interesting article from the NYTimes related to our work here at the physedgroup. This most recent article talks about the fact that textbook prices have increased over 1000% since the 1970’s! The article specifically talks about economics, but many of the details mentioned are relevant to physics as well: $250 books, with $50 access codes for homework systems, all familiar refrains for undergraduates taking physics courses.

Continue reading “Discussion of Open Textbooks in the NYTimes”

A Neat and Different Way to Organize Content

A colleague working in Open Educational Resources at UMass’s W.E.B. du Bois Library just brought my attention to an article: Vo, Mai K., and Jonathan C. Sharp. “Design, Development, and Content Creation for an Open Education Physics Website for MRT Education.” Journal of Medical Imaging and Radiation Sciences 50, no. 2 (June 1, 2019): 212–19. This article describes a new open-education physics website I encourage folks to go check it out.

This Open Phys site is meant to be a way for medical professionals to learn more about modern physics, specifically those that underpin the MRI. However, what is really interesting about the site is its structure: the fundamental topics are displayed as tiles.

The topics at OpenPhys are presented as tiles
The main page of Open Physics presents the various topics as tiles. Students can, after exploring the “User Guide” can proceed in any order they wish.

When the student selects a topic, they are directed to a map with the information. This structure is more flexible than a standard book as there is no requirement for a linear progression. I feel that for some topics, such a non-linear presentation is particularly useful; I remember as a student having trouble with statistical mechanics because, to me, it felt very non-linear. My study strategies involved outlines – a very linear organization. This method worked great for electricity and magnetism which, I and every textbook I have ever seen, feels has a very linear progression. However, this method failed me in statistical mechanics. Only when I took the course again in graduate school, and made a map at the end of the semester did the material “click.” As an instructor, I have drawn on that experience and sometimes suggested to students that a map may be helpful. I never know which topics a given student will see as linear, as it depends upon their own perceptions and educational background.

The topics of the electron model of the atom are arranged in a map showing the connections between topics.
The map of content for the “Electronic Structure of the Atom” unit

In addition to content presentation, this site makes use of multi-modal presentation, mixing videos and text, as well as H5P to incorporate formative quizzing.

I really like the idea of this method of presentation and the fact that this source code for this site is on GitHub under Creative Commons Attribution 4. 0 License makes it easy to adapt and incorporate into my own materials. I do wonder, however, about the accessibility of this format. The multiple points of access and variety of paths through the material would seem to be a plus, but the format could also be confusing. Moreover, how effectively could someone navigate this site if they use a screen reader or are reliant on input devices other than a mouse? These would be important questions to explore before incorporating it into my curriculum.

Admitting humanity in this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics

One-half of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics went to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for their discovery of 51 Pegasi B – the first planet observed to orbit a sun-like star other than our own. While the work marked a turning point in our understanding of the Universe, more than 4,000 such extrasolar planets have now been discovered, I think that some honest comments about a common experience in science made by Dr. Queloz deserve some attention as well.

The discovery of 51 Pegasi B was during Dr. Queloz’s Ph.D. work, Dr. Mayor was his advisor. At the time, 1992, the only planet outside of our solar system that had been found was around a pulsar: the rapidly spinning ember of a dead large star. The wobble caused by the planet in the otherwise regular radiation emissions of the pulsar made it comparatively easy to detect. However, the probability of life as we know it on such a planet is exceptionally low. One common attitude in the community at that time, according to Dr. Fischer of Yale, was that “Maybe most stars don’t form with planets and our solar system is unusual and life is incredibly rare.”

It was pretty clear I had no hope

Dr. Queloz describing beginning his Ph.D. work which ultimately won the 2019 Nobel Physics Prize

Thus, while starting a Ph.D. to search for extrasolar planets, Dr. Queloz was not expecting to find any, “It was pretty clear, I had no hope,” he said to the New York Times. Part of this hopelessness was rooted in the expectations of the time that any planets whose effects would be large enough to detect would orbit at such a distance that many years would be required to detect them. For example, Jupiter’s impact on our star has a period of over 11 years.

However, I know that these feelings of hopelessness are actually a quite common expectation of many students at the beginning of their Ph.D.’s independent of the particular field of physics. I know I had them. Here you are, joining this community of brilliant, and exceptionally hard working people, and you think to yourself, “what are the odds that I will find something that these other people, who have been working at this potentially their entire lives have not?” These feelings can be quite daunting.

Even when Dr. Queloz did find evidence for 51 Pegasi B in 1994, he was reluctant to show the results to Dr. Mayor, his Ph.D. advisor who was at the time on sabbatical half-way around the world. The evidence pointed to a planet unlike anything in our solar system: a huge Jupiter sized planet that is so close to its parent star that it orbits in only 4 days (Mercury, in inner-most planet in our solar system by comparison, takes about 88 days). Furthermore, the models of planet formation prevalent at the time suggested that forming such a large planet so close to a star should be impossible.

Again, doubt crept into Dr. Queloz’s mind. Which was more likely, that he had found something completely new far faster than anyone had predicted, or that, as a new student he had made a mistake? According to the New York Times:

Dr. Queloz did not feel ecstatic, but rather ashamed, certain that something was wrong with the instrument or his software.

“I really panicked at that time,” Dr. Queloz said. “I didn’t talk to [Dr. Mayor] at all.”

Chang, K., & Specia, M. (2019, October 8). Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded for Studies of Earth’s Place in the Universe. The New York Times. Retrieved from

I really feel that this is a set of emotions that all students have at some point: “I must be wrong,” “my advisor is the expert,” “who am I to…” Getting over these feelings is I guess part of maturing into an independent scientist.

In this case, the results were real and 24 years after their announcement in 1995, resulted in a Nobel Prize. I think acknowledging that most most Ph.D. theses don’t follow such a trajectory is important. Instead, we as Ph.D. students add our small bit to the cumulative knowledge of humanity and, perhaps more importantly, learn to become independent scientists along the way. However, the feelings expressed publicly by Dr. Queloz are, I think, common, and I hope that through expressing them we can further debunk the “super-brillant professor” stereotype, which can exacerbate equity issues in science according to Leslie, S.-J., Cimpian, A., Meyer, M., & Freeland, E. (2015). Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines. Science, 347(6219), 262–265.

An article in the NYTimes on equity in classrooms

I Was a Low-Income College Student. Classes Weren’t the Hard Part from the September 10th New York Times, is an excellent piece by Anthony Abraham Jack, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, on his experience as a low-income student at our neighbor: Amherst College. The article articulates several, perhaps less commonly considered, challenges that students with lower incomes face in the college environment. What can we do within the structure of our classrooms to mitigate some of these challenges? A few thoughts from our experiences here at UMass

Moving to free and open textbooks and homework systems. In physics 131 and 132, I use a custom free-and-open educational resources. These textbooks reduce the cost down to $35 for access to the online homework system. This cost is quite low compared to other courses on campus. However, even so, I still usually have a handful of students who come to me asking for an extension on the first homework because they need to wait for a paycheck to afford this. Fortunately, I can make an arrangement with the textbook company who manages the homework system to get a temporary access.

A bias still exists, however. I can only help those students who come forward and ask for it. I have also experienced students who, at the end of the semester (when students start to calculate their grades), come forward and tell me. I, of course, make allowances, but my range of options reduces as the semester progresses.

While I am currently working to develop a system that will be completely free-to-students, until that project is finished, I will make a note in my syllabus explicitly inviting students to see me if they are having financial challenges that prevent them from accessing this required resource.

Another important consideration is the fact that students with lower incomes, almost uniformly, must work. These additional scheduling constraints, also an issue for students with familial obligations, can make attending traditional office hours a challenge. These issues are why we offer a TA-staffed consultation room with a wide variety of hours, including later in the evening. Since moving from individually selected office hours to this more centralized system, we have observed an increase in office hour usage.