Posted by: Jamie | November 14, 2013

Introduction for the Layperson – Part 2

Oh wow. Look at this beautiful Standard Model diagram I found today:

Diagram of the Standard Model of particle physics

Diagram of the Standard Model of particle physics

Here’s the source:

I may try to adapt this (possibly with a little less information – don’t need to include the spin, I don’t think) for use in my dissertation. Does anyone *without* a physics background find this picture useful? More or less useful than the one from the post in Part 1?

Also, I’m thinking about re-writing those paragraphs to be less authoritative. By which I mean, to give more of a sense of how up-in-the-air a lot of this information is. I don’t want to get bogged down in a bunch of “as far as we can tell” or “our best model so far is” disclaimers throughout, but I don’t want to give the impression that all of this is a done deal in the same way that, say, Newtonian mechanics is. Suggestions?

Posted by: Jamie | October 17, 2013

Introduction for the Layperson – Part 1

I have started the process of writing my dissertation. In it, I will be including an “Introduction for the Layperson”. I want to test out some of that material here, to see whether I’m actually doing a good job of breaking down the technical stuff. Here is what I have so far. Comments and criticism are welcome.

Everything you see around you is made up of atoms. Atoms, in turn, are comprised of three components: electrons, protons, and neutrons. Protons and neutrons are made up of even smaller particles, called quarks. The electron, as far as we know, is not made up of anything else, and neither is the quark. Quarks and electrons, together with a collection of more exotic types of particles, and a description of the interactions between them, make up what particle physicists refer to as The Standard Model. The full extent of the fundamental particles in the Standard Model are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Visual representation of The Standard Model

Figure 1: Visual representation of The Standard Model

Physicists think that interactions between particles can be described in as few as four different ways.
The most familiar of these interactions (or forces) is gravity. Of these four fundamental forces, gravity is the one force which is not currently described by the Standard Model. The electromagnetic force is the other force likely to be familiar to the layperson. There are two other forces that physicists use to describe the physical world. One of these is the strong force. The strong force is involved in two important interactions. It is the force that binds neutrons and protons together inside the nucleus of an atom. It is also the force that binds quarks together inside of protons, neutrons, and other quark-based particles. The second of these two final forces is the weak force. It is responsible for, among other things, radioactive decay. In fact, over time, most quark-based particles will decay via the weak force.

Next, I’ll go on to explain what is interesting about the weak force and how it relates to my research.

Posted by: Jamie | March 13, 2012

This is what it’s all about. (continued)

Yesterday I introduced the K-12 science education framework that has been developed by the National Research Council of the National Academies. Today I’ll follow up by sharing my notes on the talk given by Dr. Helen Quinn.

Interesting changes

One significant and interesting change that the framework seeks to introduce into the notion of “core ideas” is that they should not necessarily be what experts in those fields would normally call “core,” but rather that they should encompass what is teachable and learnable. For example:

Physical Sciences

  1. Matter and its interactions
  2. Motion & stability: forces and interactions
  3. Energy
  4. Waves and their applications in technologies for information transfer

Items 1-3 on that list are pretty standard as far as core concepts in that subject go. Normally, though, number 4 is covered under the topic of Energy. The framework highlights and draws out this concept because it is now extremely relevant and applicable. This makes it a concept that is both teachable and learnable, and also one that is (perhaps most importantly) relevant. There isn’t really an excuse for a modern citizen not to have a good grasp on the science underlying the “technologies for information transfer” – aka radio, internet, cell phones, etc. (I’ve got my fingers crossed that with this particular idea drawn out and prioritized, we might see a decrease over the next few decades in the number of folks freaking out about electromagnetic radiation coming from power lines.)

A second interesting development is in the categorization of core topics. Physics, Chemistry, and Biology are the typical science subjects at present. The new framework recommends, for example, making “Earth & Space Sciences” into its own subject.

Earth & Space Sciences

  1. Earth’s place in the universe
  2. Earth’s systems
  3. Earth and human activity

There is also a separate set of Core Ideas defined for applications and engineering. Engineering and “pure” science are usually lumped together, but that underserves both the topics.

Ultimately, the goal of this framework is this:

In K-12 education, students must develop a coherent framework onto which they can attach new ideas and future interests.

A K-12 science education should serve the best interests of all of its students, not just those who will one day pursue a career in a science, technology, engineering, or medical field.

Challenges ahead

As I’ve emphasized repeatedly, the framework is a vision. It defines no requirements, writes no curricula. Those tasks are up to the states to take care of, though an organization called Achieve is working with partner states to complete this goal. And there are a lot of challenges to be overcome.

Challenge: Teacher Preparation
Most elementary school teachers take only one science class in college. Middle school science teachers are hit or miss. And many high schools have only one science teacher with more than one year of college-level science courses. The new framework seeks to teach science progressively over the entirety of K-12 education (as opposed to mostly lumping it into discrete subject matters in a given year). This goal will require a new approach to teacher preparation. One item on the list is a serious revision of most college “Science Teaching Methods” courses. There must also be new resources applied to teacher in-service days to bring the right information and tools to currently-practicing teachers.

Challenge: Curriculum Materials and Courses
How many years of science should be required? (Most high schools do not require nearly enough to cover all the information laid out in the framework.) How do AP classes fit in to this new regime? How does one test adherence to the standards, and at what levels does that testing happen? These are all questions that have to be addressed by the states as they begin to develop their new curricula. The partnership of the states and Achieve will be absolutely crucial to meeting this challenge.

Let me explain. No, there is too much…

There is so much work left to be done. But after listening to Dr. Quinn give her talk on Monday, I am encouraged that there is a clear direction to take in completing that work. The Next Generation Science Standards have begun their development process, now that the framework has been released. There are a lot of really smart, dedicated people working on this project, and I intend to support them, especially when it comes time to convince legislators to sign off. Every student deserves a meaningful, applicable, accessible science education.

Posted by: Jamie | March 13, 2012

This is what it’s all about.

On Monday I went to a talk at SLAC entitled, “A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts and Core Ideas.” (A tip of the hat to Dr. Brown for drawing my attention to it.) It was given by “theoretical physicist and SLAC Professor Emerita Helen Quinn.”

TL;DR version: There hasn’t been a big push for science education standards since the 1960s. Cognitive science has learned tons more about our brains and how we learn in the half-century since that time, and this framework sets forth a vision for updating primary and secondary science education in the United States.

To expand on that thesis, there is currently no set of common standards for science curricula in the U.S. There aren’t a lot of common standards at all, since curricula are defined at state and local levels. Something called the Common Core State Standards – a state-led initiative – exists to provide guidelines for English-language arts and math, but that initiative does not plan to set standards in any other subject areas at present. The explanation given in their FAQ is:

English-language arts and math were the first subjects chosen for the common core state standards because these two subjects are skills, upon which students build skill sets in other subject areas. They are also the subjects most frequently assessed for accountability purposes.

I hope I don’t have to explain why, in the 21st century, science – the process and the core knowledge realms – also qualifies as a skill upon which students should be building.

So yay! Now we have a framework – a vision – for how to take the first steps in building a stronger, more coherent approach to science education. You can read the entire 400-page framework online for free, or buy a paperback copy for $39.95. The next step will be for states to develop curricula based on this framework. 26 states, including some that might surprise you, such as Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee, have already signed on with an intent to do so (whether they can get their respective legislatures to sign off on those curricula…). So there is fairly widespread interest in a framework like this.

The framework’s goals include:

  • Making science education more coherent, more about what science is and does than about random facts.
  • Providing a contextual framework for the facts that are taught.
  • Supporting engagement in the process of science.

I indistinctly remember the one day of chemistry class in my sophomore year where we were sat down to learn about The Scientific Method. One day. All the other days were about other subjects. Turns out this is pretty common. For the most part, the process of science and the facts science has uncovered are taught in a completely separate way. This new framework proposes “three dimensions of what to know” and argues that every science lesson should be three-dimensional. (Dr. Quinn notes, these three dimensions are not orthogonal.)

  1. Science and Engineering Practices
  2. Crosscutting Concepts
  3. Disciplinary Core Ideas

Physicists know that a fundamental step in solving any problem is defining your coordinate system. Without it, you’d be completely lost. You’d have to re-figure which way you’re facing at every step. In the current educational framework, students are often lost. The facts that are delivered to them lack a coordinate system to help them put each new element they learn in a context that relates it to things they’ve learned before.

These three dimensions – this coordinate system – simply define what is meant by “inquiry” when we talk about “inquiry-based learning.” Currently, there is a lot of doing but not so much thinking and analyzing. By considering all three dimensions every time a lesson plan is constructed, we can move forward from “doing stuff” to “doing stuff, thinking about it, analyzing it, understanding it.”

I think that’s enough for one post. I’ve got two more pages of notes, so I’ll follow this up with another one in a couple of days.

UPDATE: part two.

Posted by: Jamie | March 9, 2012

Reality sinks in

I feel like I might be getting a bit of a glimpse of how big a boost I was given in my REU just by the data having already been downloaded and prepared.

I’ve been feeling a bit like a slacker (aka proto-failure, obvs) because as an undergraduate I was able to make really fast progress on an analysis in just 10 weeks.

At the time it didn’t strike me as anything special. The analysis was fun. It has only just now struck me that there was a lot of work and preparation that went into that project that I didn’t even see, let alone do.

While I am still running behind schedule on the long road toward a doctorate, realizing that it isn’t because I’m somehow half as competent as I was in 2008 makes a huge difference to my morale.

Posted by: Jamie | March 8, 2012

Interesting stuff going on at SLAC

If you are in the Menlo Park area and available at 4:00 pm on Monday, March 12, there is a public lecture happening at SLAC that sounds pretty interesting.

A Framework for K-12 Science Education,” given by SLAC Professor Emeritus Helen Quinn, “based on her work as chair of a National Academy of Sciences committee.”

Current research in education finds students learn better when they understand how new information fits with what they already understand, Quinn says. She notes that as a criticism of U.S. curriculum today: There’s so much information that students don’t see how it all fits together.

If you are not in the area, there is something for you, too. Margot Gerritsen, a professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford, is an advocate for energy literacy. Recently, she assisted the U.S. Department of Energy in developing “a set of essential principles for energy literacy.” There are lots of interesting links at the article, so I encourage you to click through and take a look.

Posted by: Jamie | March 3, 2012

Crank Central

I recently decided to rejoin the LinkedIn network – basically a social network site geared towards professional networking.

Once you’ve got a profile, you can join groups. Your university probably has a group for alums, for example. One of the groups I joined was the official American Physical Society (APS) group.

It is a depressing place to be. Its discussions are populated largely by cranks looking to “disprove” various well-established theories. The sort of people that think that because physical behavior at relativistic and quantum scales defies our common sense expectations, the theories must be wrong, despite the fact that repeated experiments confirm that those theories do, in fact, describe reality exceptionally well. Of course, these people rarely have any physics background. One of the current worst offenders is a petroleum engineer, of all things.

I realize there isn’t a very good way to keep non-physicists out of the group, nor would I wish to. I also wouldn’t want to see any sort of rule trying to define “crank” discussions – where does the line get drawn? Nevertheless, it is frustrating that genuine discussion of actual interesting results has to get drowned out amongst all the pseudo-scientific, denialist drek. It makes the group a very poor networking opportunity, in practice.

Posted by: Jamie | November 12, 2011

West Coast Adventures, Part Whatever

Curried vegetables in a stir fry pan on a gas stove.

So tonight I finally cooked. I stopped by an open-air market and thought to myself, “Okay, self, what the hell are we gonna make for dinner?”

And my self replied, “I see yogurt. Go with that.”

A few minutes of wandering later and I had amassed sufficient fixin’s to attempt a curry taco (because I heart starches but am really bad/impatient when it comes to making rice).

It turned out awesome, so I’m going to take that as a good omen for the rest of…well, the weekend at least.




A filled flour taco shell on a white ceramic plate held by a white person's hand.









Posted by: Jamie | November 11, 2011

West Coast Adventures, Part 3

Getting Settled In, Part 2

Yay, I’m moved in to my place!

A twin bed in the center with a black bedspread. Red wall shelves filled with various items on either side of the bed.

Yes, that is a bottle of Crown Royal next to the bed. >.>

Posted by: Jamie | November 10, 2011

West Coast Adventures, Part 2

Getting Settled In

So here is my office.

A spare office room with three rolling chairs and lots of desk space. It’s a pretty spare place. I share it with folks from a couple other institutions, though I don’t think most of them will be here much of the time. Some of the stuff belongs to my advisor. I’m not sure if I’ll end up trying to make the place more home-y, or just leave it as is. There are a couple big kitchenettes in this building, so any food needs I have will be taken care of out there. I will probably end up keeping some tea in here, and I’ll definitely need to invest in some facial tissues, but for now I can’t think of anything else I’ll need.A desk with various office items on it, including a laptop, purse, coat, and keyboard. Yeah, it’s a little ugly, but I feel like attempts to prettify it would ultimately be wasted money, since this isn’t a permanent relocation.

Anyway, I’m happy. It’s not too frigid and the chair is comfortable.

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