How Undergrad Shaped My Attitudes Toward Physics

I’ve been thinking a lot about the demons that have influenced my attitudes toward science and teaching and my world line through those areas, and I’ve decided it’s time to make some public confessions. 1985 was a big year for me. I graduated from high school, Comet Halley was coming back around, and I began my undergraduate career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an astronomy major. I had applied to UNC-CH the previous fall and I never understood how or why I got accepted. I’ve always assumed it was simply because I completed a prescribed set of  courses for which my high school diploma supposedly showed a stamp or sticker declaring that I was “college ready.” I think the laugh was on my high school.

The only reason I even applied to UNC-CH was because at the time, it was the only college in North Carolina offering an undergraduate major in astronomy. Appalachian State University offered, as I recall, a minor but that wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to major in astronomy. UNC-CH was the only college to which I applied, and I confess that it was, at the time, the only college offering a course in celestial mechanics. I had decided that if didn’t get accepted at UHC-CH I would apply to App. I had been interested in astronomy since at least fourth grade. It became a trademark by which almost everyone knew me. Teachers called me “the science boy” and that would bother me now, but back then it didn’t matter. In high school, I had very little, if any, use for the math courses I was required to take. At the same time, my interests turned to mathematical aspects of astronomy: predicting rise/set times, orbital motion, celestial mechanics, ephemerides, and computation. All of my spare time was devoted to reading about mathematical astronomy and learning to program in various dialects of BASIC. I learned how to create planetary ephemerides from orbital elements. I learned about vector methods. I learned about angular momentum. I learned how to predict sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset times. I wrote software to do all this. I even wrote code on a Commodore VIC-20 to reproduce parts of the Astronomical Almanac; parts of that code survived to appear in my book. (Note that Amazon incorrectly lists the publication date as 1998. FEC was actually published in early 2000 and has a 1999 copyright date. Also, one of the two reviews on my books page isn’t even for my book. Amazon has refused to correct the errors. Yes, this is a shameless plug.) I think the most important thing I learned was that mathematics and science as taught in high school, bore essentially no resemblance to how it was used outside of high school. I could compute asteroid orbits so who cared whether I’d memorized a bunch of trig identities?

So, I showed up at UNC-CH in August 1985 (I arrived early for marching band camp) ready to immerse myself in academia and “real” astronomy. Before the first day of class, I spent tens of hours in the math/physics library poring over the classics in astronomical literature. I touched and read books I’d only seen referenced in other books. So one day, I went to introduce myself to the astronomy faculty (I had previously met Wayne Christiansen and Morris Davis that summer). I told them I was an astronomy major (later on, many of these same people would try to talk me out of majoring in astronomy, which I never understood) and that I was eager to participate in any research projects going on, especially anything related to Comet Halley (remember this was 1985). They told me two things that I found strange. One was that there was no research going on in the department that I would be interested in. The other was that I might be interested in joining the local astronomy club, which wasn’t affiliated with UNC-CH but nevertheless met there. The first thing was puzzling to me, especially since UNC-CH’s information for potential students boasted almost entirely about its research activity. Yet, I was told there wasn’t any “that I would be interested in.” Those words have lingered in my mind since the fall of 1985 and I will never forget them. I attended one astronomy club meeting, but can’t even recall anything about it other than meeting Rodney Jones, a PhD astrophysics student doing research with Bruce Carney on RR Lyrae stars in globular clusters. I’ve tried finding Rodney over the years but he seems to have vanished.

Now, you have to understand that I was pretty clueless back then. I believed them when they told me there was no research going on. Who was I to question them? What I didn’t know, and didn’t discover until near the end of my undergraduate years, was that they were lying through their teeth to me. Of course there was research going on, just not anywhere locally. Professors were going to Kitt Peak and certain undergraduate students were going with them. No one ever asked me to get involved with research, so I assumed that research wasn’t important. Heck, the signal was quite clear as far as I was concerned.

Fast forward to fall 1988, the beginning of my senior year, and my thoughts turned to what I would do after graduation. That’s when I discovered that many of my fellow students had been involved in some sort of research with the same professors who had told me that “there was nothing going on.” My eyes began to open and I began wondering whether or not I’d been duped. I began questioning things, and wasn’t getting any satisfying answers. There were three professors with whom I’d spent most of my time: Morris Davis, Alan Schiano, and Bruce Carney. With his background in celestial mechanics and computing and with his contacts at the U.S. Naval Observatory, Dr. Davis was royalty to me and I felt privileged to be in the last section of celestial mechanics he ever taught and I aced the class. I never took a class under Dr. Schiano (who also seems to have mysteriously vanished) but he was nurturing and was particularly approachable to undergraduates. I took no fewer than three courses from Dr. Carney. I convinced myself I learned from him. Yet, sometime in the spring of 1989 he looked me in the eye and said, “Joe, you’ll never be a scientist or make it to graduate school, but you’ll be a pretty good teacher.” This was the man who let me run public nights with the grad students at Morehead Observatory (in the same building as Morehead Planetarium). This was the man from whom I took my calculus-based astrophysics courses, galactic astronomy (a graduate course…first time ever offered at UNC-CH…Physics Today editor Stephen Benka was a PhD student in that same class with me), and stellar atmospheres (again, the first time it was ever offered at UNC-CH). His words have never left me, and that by itself has shaped my view of me, what I do, and how I do it. Sometime in the mid 1990s, I emailed Carney and asked him what he saw in other students that he never apparently saw in me (one of those fellow students is now a professor at a nearby university). He replied, but I deleted the reply without ever reading it. I wasn’t interested in his answer so much as I just wanted him to know his words affected me deeply.

There seems to be a strong trend these days to get undergraduate students involved in some kind of research as soon as possible. Other than padding a grad school application and getting an advisor’s name published, I’ve never understood the big deal about undergraduate research. Obviously, this is connected to my experiences at UNC-CH. I tried getting involved, but was basically told to go away and that research isn’t important, and that was that I took away from UNC-CH. But there’s another thing I’ve observed. I don’t know that many undergraduates want to do research. I’ve always been under the impression that research skills were the mainstay of a graduate program and that an undergraduate program focused mainly on “book learning” or at least mostly the classroom experience. I’ve sat through student presentations at AAS (a horrible organization I finally left after sharing a lunch table with a group of astronomy grad students arguing over whose advisor was the most prestigious…true story) and AAPT meetings where it was quite clear the student didn’t understand the topic, and therefore neither did I because the presenter should teach me something. More often than not, it seems the advisor is the person who gains the most from undergraduate research, which leads me to consider the option that pushing students into research is a political maneuver. Research is also the gateway to all manner of funding, more than anything another cv padder.

I understand that research is important and necessary for science, but I don’t think it should take the place of sound classroom instruction, especially at the undergraduate level. It galls me to see job postings demanding that the chosen candidate will have a PhD and will be expected to establish an undergraduate research program, but teaching experience is nearly always a secondary, sometimes tertiary, criterion. Duplicitous.

So I’m still quite conflicted about all this. I was told point blank at UNC-CH that research doesn’t matter, unless you’re one of the chosen ones for whom it will matter, and apparently I wasn’t and no one told me until it was too late. How does one become a chosen one? Was I lied to, and if so, then why was I lied to? Whatever the reason, I now view pretty much all undergraduate research as a trick to get the advisor’s name out there. I can’t help that, and unfortunately after twenty years I don’t see my attitude changing.

The conflict manifests itself in other ways too. I don’t know what to call myself. I used to call myself an astronomer, but my experiences in the AAS make me want to have nothing to do with that title. In the AAS, non-PhD members are not permitted to chair sessions or to participate in the actual organization in any way yet, the AAS gladly took my money ($$$/year) for several years. I attended a few meetings (I hadn’t yet overcome my fear of flying and was restricted to meetings within driving distance). Even PhD members are awarded privilege according to the year in which they received their PhD and who their advisor was. Okay, it’s their organization and they can run it as they see fit. I could call myself a physicist, but since I don’t make a living at a four year college or university doing research, I don’t know that I’m entitled to do that. Gary White (now TPT editor) once told me that anyone who has an undergraduate degree in physics or astronomy can legitimately be called a physicist. I don’t know that the community agrees with that. I could call myself a physics teacher, but that has many negative connotations (“those who can, do…” etc.) I’m most definitely not a researcher. I don’t know what I am. I really don’t know. It bothers me at AAPT meetings when new acquaintances ask, “So what’s your research area?” Am I less of a human because I don’t do research? Sometimes I really feel that’s the message that comes across. Expertise in research isn’t expertise in teaching. Expertise in teaching isn’t expertise in research. One can be both, but remember that there’s no teaching equivalent of a PhD although I’ve argued there should be. (Also see this and this.) So if I’m not an astronomer, a physicist, a researcher, or a teacher, then what am I? Am I an instructor? I don’t know. I just don’t know.

So with me, it’s all about the students. What’s the bottom line? The bottom line is that I will always, always try to give my students a better undergraduate experience than I had. They have something I apparently never had: an instructor who genuinely cares about the classroom experience. Furthermore, I am acutely aware that my words may affect my students decades from now. I want them to look back and think, “I’m where I am because Joe gave me a good foundation, not because he told me I could ever do it.”

So, do I need therapy?


Dealing With Unprepared Students

When I reported to work on August 24, 1992 (also the day I turned 25) to begin my teaching career, I was expected to be on time every day and to be prepared for each class I was assigned to teach. Those expectations have not changed over the past twenty years. For the first five or so years of my career, I tried very hard to prepare detailed weekly plans for my courses, blueprints showing where I wanted students to begin and end. Keeping to these plans was difficult for several reasons, among them the reality that students sometimes needed altered pacing that threw us off schedule. Okay, I thought, because one of the advantages of taking their courses at a community college is that I could alter course parameters to best provide students with the help they need when they need it.

Fast forward to 2013. The expectations of me by my institution have not changed, but in all these years, there has never been any explicit articulation of expectations from our students. Apparently, all of the expectations are rather one-sided. I’m expected to do everything right, but students aren’t expected to do anything. The fall 2012 semester was especially difficult. I had a failure rate of over 50% in my introductory astronomy course. This was previously unheard of, and instructors in other disciplines reported similar happenings. Still, some of my students lodged formal complaints with my department chair and dean. Two of the complaints were especially disturbing. One student complained that it was “unfair” of me to expect him to write in complete sentences because he was never expected to do so in high school; all his tests were multiple choice. Another student, who happened to be foreign-born, complained that it was “unfair” of me to expect all students, but especially him, to write with correct English because of his having most of his early schooling in another country. I should point out that this student spoke fluent English and has been in this country for many years. As I recall, he attended high school in this country too. These complaints got no audience with me, but the students then went to my chair, who indeed gave them an audience. Oh, and only slightly less enraging was the glib comment from quite a few students that the course material was too advanced for them and more appropriate for astronomy majors. Yeah…they actually said that without laughing, which is more than I can say for me. You’ve seen my Twitter posts about my astronomy activities, all of which are written at about a high school reading level. Astronomy majors? I think not.

Afterwards, my chair (who did eventually dismissed the students’ “complaints”) suggested that perhaps I should document in writing that instruction would be delivered in English and that writing, much more than students might expect in an introductory science course, was expected in the course. Really? REALLY? Was I really being asked to state up front that all instruction would be delivered in English? REALLY? IN A COLLEGE TRANSFER COURSE? Okay, so for the spring 2013 semester, I took a cue from Linda Elder and Richard Paul and drafted a sheet showing various expectations I had of my students. Students would get this sheet on the first day of the semester, read it, and initial every expectation as indication of their acceptance. I called it a Student Understandings sheet and offer it here for inspection. It has been modified to reflect my adoption of standards-based grading and to emphasize that my courses are not to be taken specifically as preparation for standardized professional school admissions.

On page 2 of this sheet, one sees the following:

  • I understand that if an assignment is due for a class day and it is not completed when I get to class, then I am not prepared to participate in the current class period and may be asked by my instructor to complete the assignment in a designated place and to show it to my instructor before being permitted to begin the next body of work.

It occurred to me that although I am expected to do my job, I can’t do my job unless students come to class prepared to participate and to engage. I’m held accountable, and punished (or at least threatened), for not doing my job so why should students not similarly be held accountable when not prepared for class? Students are aware of my definition of teaching and are aware that I will stick to that definition. They did not, however, expect me to hold them accountable for coming to class unprepared.

My introductory astronomy students purchase no textbook, but are required to purchase a College Astronomy Kit from the bookstore for this course and its second semester followup course (the same kit works for both courses). In past years, I devoted about two hours of class time to assemble the celestial sphere, but this year I’ve adopted a flipped classroom model so I asked students to do the most time-consuming portion of the assembly outside of class, over a weekend, to free up classroom time. Most students did not do it, and thus were unprepared for class meetings. In accordance with the above previously agreed to understanding, the unprepared students (some of whom had not even purchased the kits yet!) were moved to one part of the room to do assemble their kits (or to work on some assessments on WebAssign if they had no kit with them) while the prepared students completed their kits and were given the information scheduled to be discussed in class that day. This worked. Great, right? Well, almost.

On Fridays, my two daytime astronomy sections meet concurrently for fifty minutes. This lets me better ensure that they are at the same place in the course. I had previously warned that students MUST have completed spheres with them for this past Friday’s class meeting. Still, approximate ten students showed up with either incomplete spheres or no spheres at all! I anticipated this (remember…twenty years of watching students) and asked a department co-chair (my department is split into physical science and biological science areas, with a co-chair over each area) what hu would do in this case. Well, hu told me that in hus classes, unprepared students are sent away and are counted absent. I didn’t expect to hear that! I told hu about my expectation issue and hu agreed that I should enforce it as written. So, I calmly gathered the unprepared students together and told them that they would gain nothing by attending class today and they should leave. As consideration for their showing up as expected, I would not count them absent (I have to indicate this in my attendance records however). Some were like, “Hell yeah!” while others were like, “You’re kidding, right?” I told them that I was serious about being prepared for class and that I would not compromise on that. They seemed shocked, but also seemed to accept the situation. I fully expected them to go straight to the chair or, as students more frequently do, to the dean. To my knowledge, neither happened. Meanwhile back in the classroom, the handful of prepared students from the previous class meeting ran the class and did well. One even called out a fellow student for not participating in the discussions.

Okay, so here is what I want to know. I want to know how others deal with students who come to class unprepared and prevent us from doing our jobs? Are we expected to alter our plans to accommodate unprepared students at the expense of prepared students? Are we expected to drag the prepared students down to the level of the unprepared students? Is this problem unique to community college students? Is it unique to my specific population of students? I’ll be honest in admitting that this has been a persistent problem I’ve had to deal with from day one of my career and it has not improved significantly in my estimation.

Anticipating student complaints (which, I’m sorry to report, I have to do a lot of these days), I have the following justifications:]

  • Students were aware of this policy by virtue of signing the Student Understandings sheet.
  • My chair was aware of the Student Understandings sheet and even enacted this very policy in my absence last semester (while I was at AAPT in New Orleans).
  • Students may complain that they were denied entry into class given that they were paying to take, but I contend they were denied nothing. Well, they were denied an opportunity to learn, but only because they were not prepared.
  • As students have previously been told, my job consists of ensuring a good learning environment which includes ensuring they show up prepared.
  • At the semester’s first class meeting, students were told to purchase their kits as soon as possible, and were reminded of this at least weekly.
  • I will no longer allow unprepared students to interfere with the learning opportunities of prepared students, and part of my job is to ensure that the prepared students get priority.
  • I will no longer allow unprepared students to sit idle in class, wasting their time and my efforts.
  • Since my courses are supposedly college transfer courses and must maintain a certain level of rigor, I am obligated to ensure that this certain level of rigor is present and if students are not prepared, that cannot be my problem.
  • Now, if students are truly not prepared for this liberal arts level introductory science course despite having completed, or having placed out of, developmental (my institution’s word for remedial) courses, then there is a serious institutional problem that needs to be addressed.
  • Depending on which fellow instructors I ask, students do or do not display this behavior in other courses. Turns out that this behavior is more frequent in science and math courses than in other courses. These same students complain that my course is far more rigorous than any other courses they have taken and that they consistently earn As in those other courses. My course is always the first one that they do poorly in, although their definition of poorly is not earning As.
  • If I am not permitted to do what is best for my students, then I must be relieved of my job immediately because I am not qualified to do the job for which I was previously duly hired.

After twenty years, I’ve had an epiphany. That epiphany is that I can, and will, no longer let unprepared students keep me from doing my job. I’M FREE!


Physics Standards, M&I Chapters 1-3

Here are my M&I class’s standards for chapters 1-3. Students had considerable input into the formulation of these standards.

Standard: I can use consistent and correct vector notation.
Proficiency Indicator(s): Correct vector notation is used consistently throughout a problem or explanation.
Mastery Rubric: Vectors are indicated with arrows. Vector components are indicated with appropriate subscripts or indices. Vector magnitudes are indicated with single or double bars.

Standard: I can recognize the signs of an interaction.
Proficiency Indicator(s): Given a system’s behavior, I can state whether or not an interaction is present.
Mastery Rubric: List or otherwise articulate which signs of an interaction are present or absent.

Standard: I can correctly write and apply the momentum principle for a chosen system.
Proficiency Indicator(s): Given a system, I can write the momentum principle as it applies to the system, including terms for the individual momentum contributions to the total momentum and for all external interactions affecting the system.
Mastery Rubric: All parts of the system, and their contributions to the total momentum, are accounted for. All external interactions affecting the system are accounted for.

Standard: I can infer physical consequences from the momentum principle for a chosen system.
Proficiency Indicator(s): I can determine whether or not the system’s total momentum is conserved. I can choose my system to make certain calculations mathematically simpler.
Mastery Rubric: Inferences must be directly drawn from the momentum principle.

Standard: I can draw a correct schema for a chosen system.
Proficiency Indicator(s): Given a problem, I can draw a schema that includes all relevant entities, the interactions among those entities, and a choice of system.
Mastery Rubric: Persistent interactions are drawn with solid arrows. Temporary interactions are drawn with dotted or dashed arrows. Arrows representing interactions must be labeled.

Standard: I can draw a correct free body diagram for a chosen system.
Proficiency Indicator(s): Given a system, draw the free body diagram for that system within the current context.
Mastery Rubric: The system must be represented as a solid dot. Interactions must be represented with correctly labeled arrows. Arrows’ magnitudes and directions must be correct relative to each other. The diagram must correctly represent the physical content of the problem.

Standard: I can correctly calculate gravitational, electric, and spring forces.
Proficiency Indicator(s): Given particles or entities that can be approximated as particles, calculate either relevant force (magnitude and direction) on any one of the entities.
Master Rubric: Calculations must include relevant units. Magnitudes and directions must be correct and must be explicitly accounted for. The relevant arithmetic and algebra must be correct.

Standard: I can predict motion using iterative calculations.
Proficiency Indicator(s): Given a particle and all relevant interactions affecting that particle, correctly predict the particle’s future motion using the momentum principle.
Mastery Rubric: The update form of the momentum principle must be used. Momentum must be updated to reflect relativistic velocity if necessary.