Six physicists at Florida State University have received a $5.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation to continue their cutting-edge research in nuclear physics and nuclear astrophysics.
The grant supports operations of the John D. Fox Accelerator Laboratory at FSU and the research of professors Ingo Wiedenhoever, Samuel Tabor and Paul Cottle; assistant professors Sergio Almaraz-Calderon, Vandana Tripathi and Mark Spieker; and their respective graduate students.
The grant covers a variety of experiments over the next three years that align with the researchers’ various specialties.
“Many of these experiments complement each other,” said Wiedenhoever, a nuclear astrophysicist and the lab’s director. “They may use different methods or study different aspects of a larger subject.”
For instance, Wiedenhoever and Almaraz-Calderon both work in nuclear astrophysics and try to understand how nuclear reactions play a role in stars and star explosions. They are respectively researching specific types of thermonuclear explosions and will have opportunities to collaborate on projects to detect and measure their properties at the FSU accelerator laboratory.
“Nuclear astrophysics questions how the chemical elements we find on our planet came into being, where they were made and why we see the different elements and isotopes that we observe around us,” Wiedenhoever said. “We call this the chemical history of the universe.”
His work is often aided by research from the lab’s broader field of study, nuclear physics, which researches the physics of atomic nuclei. Paul Cottle, the Steve Edwards Professor of Physics at FSU, is a nuclear physicist at the lab.
“A lot of heavier elements are made in supernova explosions,” Cottle said. “But we can’t figure out how elements were made unless we also understand the physics of how nuclei work and how they collide.”
Another promising nuclear physics project comes from Vandana Tripathi, a specialist in gamma spectroscopy. Over the next year, Tripathi will collaborate with a researcher from Oak Ridge National Laboratory to bring a multimillion-dollar array of gamma ray detectors, called Clarion 2, to Tallahassee. The detectors can measure the properties of fast-spinning nuclei, for which a rotation takes a fraction of a billionth of a second. As rotation slows, a nucleus will emit gamma rays that Clarion 2 can detect and researchers can then study.
“That is a whole new opportunity for what we can do at FSU,” Wiedenhoever said.
Both Cottle and Wiedenhoever said the university’s exceptionally strong education programs are key to the lab’s strength. Since 1960, 188 U.S. nuclear scientists have earned their doctoral degrees at the Fox Lab.
One FSU alumnus, Thomas Glasmacher, is currently overseeing the construction of a nearly $1 billion nuclear physics lab at Michigan State. Another, Eric Diffenderfer, is working on proton therapy as a cancer treatment at University of Pennsylvania.
“We’ve had enormous influence on the way nuclear science is done throughout the nation,” Cottle said.
The reasons students give for abandoning STEM majors point to the retention strategies that are needed. For example, high-performing students frequently cite uninspiring introductory courses as a factor in their choice to switch majors. And low-performing students with a high interest and aptitude in STEM careers often have difficulty with the math required in introductory STEM courses with little help provided by their universities. Moreover, many students, and particularly members of groups underrepresented in STEM fields, cite an unwelcoming atmosphere from faculty in STEM courses as a reason for their departure.
Of course, math background isn’t the only stumbling block for students in introductory college science courses. A recent study by physics education researchers at Stanford, Cornell and the University of Colorado demonstrated that a lack of high school physics preparation – as documented by poor pre-test scores on physics concept inventories – is correlated with poor performance in the calculus-based introductory physics courses taken by students majoring in engineering and the physical sciences. And that’s at Stanford, Cornell and the University of Colorado.
With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the problem of underprepared students entering college majors in engineering and the physical sciences is about to get much worse. Public school budgets will be gutted, and those schools will focus their remaining resources on what state law says should be the highest priorities – coaching students to passing scores on state reading and math exams and graduating from high school. At schools where physics enrollments were already low, the subject will likely fall out of the list of course offerings as schools redeploy science teachers remaining after layoffs to the required biology classes and other straightforward science electives needed to ensure students meet the three-science-course graduation requirement. Demoralized parents and students will not be looking for additional challenges, and principals and guidance counselors who were mostly already reluctant to advise students to take elective courses outside their comfort zones are not going to push students toward physics. The situation will be the same for math and calculus.
In the past, one-third of my first-semester students didn’t have a high school physics course. In the future, it will be double that – two-thirds.
Many more students who could make fine engineers but who attend high schools where no physics is taught will be deterred from majoring in engineering, physics, meteorology or chemistry in college because they know they would be unprepared for those majors.
So what can college physics professors do?
Let’s start by considering the students without high school physics who will be the majority of students in our calculus-based physics classes by the fall of 2021 (except at the University of Florida – but I’ll get back to that). One option is to keep racing through the full menu of topics for the sake of maintaining the same rigor we have always had. If you choose that option, there will be twice as many students in your class without high school physics, so it is likely that your failure rate will be twice as high as it was previously.
Here’s some really bad news: Lots of students in your first-semester calculus-based physics class who haven’t had a high school physics class need work on the basics of vector addition, subtraction and components. If you spend some time coaxing students through vector practice, they will likely learn their physics with greater understanding later on. But once again, you’d have to give up something else to make room for that.
By now, I’ve lost half my readers – and they probably grumbled something about lowering the bar as they were hitting the little “x” on the browser tab.
For those of you remaining, let’s think about that second group of students – the ones who would make perfectly good engineers and scientists but who are deterred from those choices because they know that they need a high school physics course to be well-prepared. What can we do for them? That’s a tougher problem in a way. We can’t teach them high school physics because we already have full-time jobs. Or maybe a few of us can find a way to do that, anyway. After all, our department chairs should understand by now that we are going to have to work harder than before to recruit students into our undergraduate programs. Perhaps they are willing to invest some or all of your teaching assignment in that task through the dual enrollment route. Maybe. If they are particularly enlightened.
Now I’ll return to the other way of attacking the problem – what we might call the Gator Way. That is, to require students without a high school physics class to extend their undergraduate education by a semester to take a high school physics substitute course. At the University of Florida, everybody is on a Bright Futures scholarship that covers 100% of tuition, so what difference does it make? Extending a student’s undergraduate education makes a ton of difference. Because being in residence at a university is an expensive proposition, and as of today there are many, many more students whose families are in financial distress than there were even three months ago.
Florida has changed in fundamental ways during the last few months. The economic dislocation affecting our students’ families is profound, and ignoring that in making instructional decisions is counterproductive – and cruel.
College professors are going to have to roll up their sleeves and figure out how to give the state’s students the best possible opportunities to succeed in their fields. In engineering and the physical sciences, we will have the toughest task of all.
Democratic leaders in Congress have thrown in the towel on K-12 education.
The federal aid package now being considered by the US House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats, includes only $58 billion for public K-12 schools out of its $3 trillion total. (From Education Week)
And even with all that, the $58 billion for K-12 is just the opening negotiating position for Congressional Democrats. The final K-12 number (if there is such an aid package at all) will be considerably smaller.
So get ready. What happens next in K-12 – as with so many other things that have happened the last several months – is going to be serious.
K-12 schools will be forced to narrow the scope of opportunities they provide. There will be a tighter focus on simply getting students graduated from high school. Courses and other services that are not directly related to getting students graduated (think courses in calculus and physics courses and perhaps opportunities in the arts) will be reduced or cut in many high schools.
Those of us at the university level who want to open the doors of opportunity to fields like engineering, science and the health professions will have to think differently about our work. If we want students, we will have to be actively involved in inspiring and educating high school students. We will be able to reach relatively few students, but the alternative will be reaching no students – and I (at least) find that unacceptable.
Shortly after Hurricane Michael devastated Bay County, where I’d been involved in considerable K-12 outreach, I was very discouraged about what I could do to help from my home a hundred miles to the east. So I asked my hero and (now former) Bay County School Board member Ginger Littleton what I could do to help. She gave me some very simple advice – encourage the teachers. So I will do what I can to encourage teachers now.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio is interested in providing substantial federal aid for state and local governments.
He said so during an appearance on Fox and Friends on Wednesday. The Senator said he would be interested in replacing state and local tax revenue that’s been lost because of the pandemic “because ultimately what you’re going to see affected is garbage pickup, police officers, firefighters, essential services…local governments we are counting on them to provide a lot of these services in the front lines of some of this response and those workers shouldn’t be the ones paying the price.”
I agree. But the Senator left out schools and teachers, an omission I find alarming.
Teachers have been on the front lines of the response to the pandemic. Admittedly, some have made the transition from in-person to online instruction better than others. But overall, Florida’s teacher corps has made the shift better than anyone had any right to expect.
When the next pandemic federal aid package makes its way through Congress, it should include a substantial fund for the nation’s K-12 schools – and perhaps $2,000 per student is the right number. That per-student amount, distributed to both public and private schools (making it both pro-public education and pro-school choice) would amount to $113 billion (there were 56.6 million K-12 students in both sectors this past fall).
Perhaps it’s too soon for such a federal aid package to move. Here in Florida, the Office of Economic and Demographic Research – the office that provides the Legislature with revenue forecasts – hasn’t provided any public guidance on the future of the state’s sales tax stream yet. So we don’t yet even have a really good guess about how bad the bleeding from the fiscal year 2021 budget will be.
But it seems to me that it’s time for influential members of the Senate like Rubio to start including schools and teachers in their discussions about the next federal aid bill. The future of our children – and of our economy – depends on them doing so.
The last few months have shown how important scientists, engineers and health professionals are to the future of Florida and the nation. Children from every school and neighborhood in our state deserve the opportunity to join the next generation of professionals in those fields.
But our K-12 schools are heading for a fiscal train wreck that would cut off our children from that opportunity. A large package of federal aid of more than a hundred billion dollars is likely needed to avert this educational catastrophe.
This amount of money would have seemed extraordinarily large only a few months ago. Now it is dwarfed by other expenditures that the federal government is making. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that this $113 billion is probably the price of keeping the nation’s most important supply chain – the supply chain of opportunity for our children – intact.
The most effective way to teach physics is with interactive engagement pedagogy in a physical classroom designed specifically for that purpose.
During a Zoom meeting yesterday, some of my colleagues expressed concern that those in positions of authority at our university might forget that the most effective physics instruction is in-person if we make fully online instruction available this fall.
I am working hard to prepare the best possible fully online calculus-based physics course for the fall semester. I am accessing the best research I can find on effective online instruction in physics that is produced by the nation’s leading physics education researchers and developers.
But I promise to do everything in my power to remind those in authority from my department chair up to those at the policy-making level that the most effective physics instruction is in-person. If necessary, I will tell them that over and over and over again. They will get annoyed hearing from me about it. I say that based on past experience.
When I am medically cleared to enter an in-person classroom (I am not right now), I will do so with joy and pour every bit of energy I have into teaching the students in my class. And I will not look back at my online work with any sort of nostalgia at all.
In the course of identifying tools for online instruction, I have found some resources that will make my in-person instruction better. One example is PhET’s vector operations tool, for which I’ve composed an exercise that will replace worksheets I’ve used previously.
When I return to my physical classroom, I will probably also deploy Tracker video analysis software to analyze projectile motion. This fall, my online students will be analyzing previously recorded tennis ball tosses. When I return to the physical classroom, my students will be using Tracker to analyze video recordings that they make of their own tennis ball tosses.
I will be using the iOLab device this fall so that students can make hands-on measurements in their own homes or residence hall rooms. One of my colleagues pointed out that students can perform experiments with the iOLab device that we have been unable to have our students perform during our in-person classes with the lab equipment we already have. So iOLab will probably become part of our in-person courses as well.
In happier times, my Studio Physics classroom is a very busy and crowded place (see last fall’s class below). Of course, that physical situation cannot be allowed right now. In fact, the basic pedagogical building block of our Studio Physics classes – the three-student cooperative learning group – fundamentally violates social distancing if it is done in a physical classroom. Ironically, the only way to salvage any of the cooperative learning dynamic right now is to have a group of three students interacting in a Zoom (or similar conferencing software) breakout room. Interpersonal communication happens through many channels that can’t be reproduced in a Zoom discussion, which only communicates voices and rudimentary bits of facial expressions. Therefore, in-person cooperative learning is far superior to cooperative learning on Zoom. But the Zoom version is the best we can do right now – so we will do it.