Learning Physics by Making Stuff

Any physics tutor should appreciate the maker movement
One of the few things I regret about being an online physics tutor is that I only get to help my students with theoretical work. Of course they sometimes ask me questions about how they should write up their lab reports but I never have the opportunity to help them “get their hands dirty” while investigating the real world by having their own ideas and testing them out.

When I was young I was curious about everything. Whenever anyone asked me what I liked to do my answer was always “I like to make stuff that does something.” By that I meant radios, cameras, telescopes, microscopes, airplanes, rockets, etc. Somewhere in my basement is a photograph of Venus and Jupiter that I took with a camera that I built specifically to photograph Comet Kohoutek in the winter of 1974. One of the very few advantages of living on a farm in the middle of nowhere was that I had access to dozens of tools, hundreds of surplus parts, and abundant scraps of a wide variety of materials. I am still using some of the same Sears Craftsman tools and rolls of electrical tape. My favourite thing about university was the physics labs. I was thrilled to use expensive laboratory equipment instead of the junk I had salvaged and/or built myself.

I ask every new student what they plan to get degrees in. Most of them answer with something in the life sciences but some mention engineering. When I ask the latter what they have built they are invariably disoriented by the question. Other than doing some heavily-supervised activities in school or possibly assembling some toy kits at home, they have never built anything more complex than a snowman. I feel very sorry for them.

This is why I am so excited about the maker movement that I mentioned in a recent blog post. I am also very pleased that Victoria has a makerspace. I have not been to it yet because I have appointments with online students at the times when Victoria Makerspace is open to visitors but that might change after most of my university students are finished with their courses in April.

This KQED blog post describes how makerspaces are having an impact on mainstream education.

“engineering programs could learn something from art schools when it comes to the application process. No art school accepts a student without examining a portfolio of work that demonstrates the student can do the work required required of them and has the potential to grow.”

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Learning Physics with Help from Makers

How cool it would be to tutor physics in an environment like this

Most of the students I tutor live here in Victoria but meet with me online. Pre-calculus, calculus and physics are my specialties. In previous posts and elsewhere on this site I have described how I use some very appropriate technology to overcome the limitations of Skype so that my online math sessions are every bit as effective as the in-person ones of the past. Today I want to talk about online physics.

Physics is obviously about the physical world. When I have worked with students in-person at their homes I have frequently used common household objects like pencils, erasers, paper, coins, elastic bands, string, etc. to demonstrate key concepts. This is fine as far as it goes but far too limited. Now that I deliver most of my lessons from home I have more options because I can have, within easy reach, a much wider variety of props than I could carry with me or reasonably expect to find on someone’s dining table.

The little alcove from which I deliver my online lessons is gradually morphing into a combination of video studio and physics lab and I fear that I will soon outgrow the space because it’s getting increasingly crowded with solenoids, magnets, resistors, capacitors, speakers, graduated cylinders, test-equipment, lenses and too many other items that I have accumulated over decades of being what it is now fashionable to call a “maker”. I will not show a photo of my tutor space because it’s starting to look like the basement of my house. If I had known things would turn out this way I would probably have just set up an online studio down in my workshop. Fortunately, I have another online math and physics tutor coming to visit next week so I have an incentive to get organized and restore the space to the way I originally envisioned it, with an emphasis on good audio and video quality.

Regardless of how good I get at delivering physics tuition online, I will never be able to be as helpful as I could if I worked with students in an environment like the one shown in the photo above. It links to a wonderful article about a project-based-homeschooling student who, with some some help from a local maker guild, learned far more from a project of her own imagination than she would have from a standard school physics lab.

“One of the most popular things about her exhibit was the fact that she displayed all the failed versions of the collar. She is now working on improving the collar to get it to a point where she can sell it, and in the process she is learning all about what it takes to run your own business.”

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Victoria Tutor’s Exam-Time Sympathies

A book this tutor should read

Here in Victoria this is final-exam time for some of the students I tutor in math and physics. One of the few that I still work with in person (rather than online) should have written the final for Pre-calculus 12 this morning. As I left her home yesterday after the last session for this semester, she was asking her usual semi-rhetorical questions about why we have exams, why they have to be so cruel, etc.

We have been working together for years so I gave her a version of same tired speech that she has come to expect every time she complains about being tested. It goes something like this: “People need some indication of how well you understand mathematics and can use it as a skill so that they know when you are ready to learn more advanced material, like the calculus course that starts next week and the harder ones that you will get at university. As you know from your own experience, tests and exams are very crude instruments. Much of what they measure is simply your skill at test-taking and your temporary mental state. Unfortunately, after decades of research, no one has been able to convince the majority of educators that they have invented a better way.”

This time she threw in the twist of asking, “Why don’t you invent something better?” My reply was that doing so was more her job than mine because she had the motivation. She is still at the stage of life where she has many more exams to come, whereas I am comfortably beyond such misery.

In this article, Anya Kementez describes her provocative 2010 book The Test in which she delves very deeply into the whole issue of academic testing.

“If outdated tests continue to define the experience of public school, the danger is that the parents who can afford to will increasingly opt out of public schools. (Great teachers are leaving the profession over testing too.) When schools lose parents with resources, they get weaker. Weaker schools mean weaker cities, a weaker democracy, a weaker economy, and ever-rising inequality.”

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The First R

Every tutor can appreciate reading

Since pre-calculus, calculus and physics are the subjects I spend most of my time tutoring, it’s not surprising that most of my blog posts are about those fields. In a world that is becoming increasingly influenced by science, it makes perfect sense for me to advocate for STEM literacy.

However, paradoxical as it may sound, science, technology, engineering and mathematics are not what I most want kids to be good at. Old fashioned as it may sound, I still think reading and writing come first. As far as I am concerned, the most important academic skill is the ability to clearly communicate complex thoughts through use of the printed word.

Knowledge may be power but the ability to read is one of the most important ways of acquiring knowledge. Of course, most kids can read by the time they get to the ages at which I tutor them. They are functionally literate but most are only able to read just well enough to get by in school. They can read the material assigned in their English and history classes and what they find in casual Internet browsing but they have a terrible time extracting any information from their technical textbooks.

To most of the math, physics and chemistry students I have met, a textbook is simply a book in which to find questions that a teacher has assigned for homework. The vast majority of the time that a student asks me to explain a concept or the method for solving a problem it is clear that it has never even occurred to them to read the textbook. This is not simply a matter of them being lazy. Often they will have slogged away for hours trying to solve problems but made no progress. Since part of my role is to turn them into independent learners, I always try to draw their attention to the exact places in their books where the techniques they need are thoroughly explained.

Some educators are eager to blame authors, editors, and publishers for producing useless books. While there certainly is room for improvement, the best textbook in the world will be of no value to a student who does not think of using it. The problem is not that kids don’t read enough. They are  eager to read what they find on Facebook and many of them read fiction for recreation. The problem is that most of them do not push themselves to read the more difficult material that, out of necessity, uses more sophisticated vocabulary and sentence structure to accurately convey intricate, abstract ideas. Serious works of physics, chemistry and computer science are definitely not easy reads.

In his latest post, Cal Newport, one of my favourite bloggers, talks about the value of reading difficult material.

“There was a time when intellectual engagement necessarily included long hours reading old-fashioned paper tomes. But in an age when a digital attention economy is ascendant, it’s now possible to satisfy this curiosity without ever consuming more than a couple hundred highly digested and simplified words at a time.”

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Science Literacy in Context

As an independent math tutor and physics tutor, I suppose it’s inevitable that I pay more attention than most people do to public perceptions of people like me who are interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects. A particularly ridiculous but popular notion is that “science people” have a very narrow range interests and know little about anything outside their fields. The anecdotal evidence against this is overwhelming. Using myself as an example, since leaving university decades ago, the majority of courses I have taken have been in subjects like music appreciation, writing, drawing, painting, history and literature. More of the same are on my “to do” list, along with learning at least one foreign language and one musical instrument. That is not at all unusual. The diversity of my interests is no greater than that of any of my “science friends”. Contrast that to my liberal arts friends. I have never seen any of them take a physics course or put as much effort into learning calculus as I did into learning Farsi.

Can anyone explain to me why artistic illiteracy qualifies a person as a barbarian but mathematical and scientific illiteracy is so socially acceptable?

This topic has become a hot one in the United States because of the Common Core State Standards that try to get students reading more non-fiction. Apparently some people are afraid that it will lead to a death of the liberal arts. Considering how reluctant people are to learn new things that require much effort, I find that very unlikely.

In the above YouTube video Neil deGrasse Tyson touches upon the same issue but with more humour than I can. The best part starts at about the 4:30 mark.



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