Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Education, Friends, and Fun

Hello and apologies for not posting for the last few days! I have finally overcome the internet problems that I was having with the UPenn network. Over the last few days, I have learned a ton and made lots of great friends. To start roughly where I left off, two days ago I moved into the University of Pennsylvania’s Quad along with about 300 other Summer Discovery program students. I was pleased to see that Alex Elms and I were roommates, and we have been getting along very well since. From being the first person I see in the morning, one of the friends I walk to class with, a friendly face at lunch, and someone to hang out with in the evening, Alex has been the best roommate I could have asked for.

With regard to my academic experiences so far, I have had an amazing time. From the moment I walked into our classroom, I knew that Bill Berner would be an amazing teacher. I have repeatedly heard people describe Bill as looking like Einstein, and honestly he is so knowledgeable about physics and education in general that he could pass for him. The first thing that we did in class was to listen to a quick review of basic kinetics. While the students in our class range from having no physics background at all to having taken 6 years of physics, Bill made a promise in the beginning of our first class that everyone would learn a lot. Even with our review of basic concepts that is old hat for some of the class's students, they are all engaged and enjoying Bill’s lectures and cleverly designed labs. 

Our first lab was displaying the relationships between position, velocity, and acceleration. By mounting a motion sensor at one end of a table and linking it to a program called Logger Pro, we were able to analyze our changes in position, velocity and acceleration in real time as we walked towards and away from the motion sensor. While you can always be told about these things in a textbook, seeing a graph of yourself and being able to ‘play’ around with the situation makes the information feel a lot more concrete to me. 

For lunch, I headed to the Houston Market which is a large dining area with many different types of food available. I enjoyed their pizza, and then power-walked back to the physics building which is about 10 minutes from the Houston Market. 

For the second part of the day, we listened to an interesting lecture by Bill as an introduction to light and optics.

Today tied together a lot of what I learned yesterday and in my physics class a couple of years ago. While I have learned about light and it’s properties as both a wave and a particle, at school we have had neither the time to teach about optics nor the money to purchase expensive demonstration equipment such as lasers, lenses and many other materials that we have access to here at UPenn. The lab that we did took what we learned in our lecture about optics yesterday and gave it the very real application of telescopes. While the details would take pages, we first experimented with both concave and convex lenses and learned how they affect incoming light. While convex lenses tend to gather a large amount of light into a smaller area, concave lenses tend to do the opposite and they scatter all incoming light. Our challenge was figuring out how to use these lenses and to make a working telescope. 

After a lot of tinkering around, we finally got our telescope to work, and we were able to magnify far-away objects using a combination of lenses that were normally used in magnifying glasses or other close range magnifiers.

One cool thing I’ve found about this class so far is that the several teachers have wildly different approaches to understanding science. While I have been lucky enough to have a fantastic science teacher at my school who emphasizes making science into your own way of thinking about the world, I really saw different approaches to the exact same thing today. While Bill was eager to have us tinker around with our telescopes and then take data from that, one of the TA’s claimed that he was much more comfortable with taking calculus equations he knows, predicting results and then testing to see if the predicted results were correct. So from today’s lab, I both learned a lot about optics, but also about approaches to science as a whole.

After class, I have found that I am surrounded by the most intelligent, diverse, and accepting people I have ever known. While I could just say that I feel like these young men and women are all these things, I’m here to learn about science so I’ll be precise and back up my last statement. I believe that the students here are the most intelligent students I have met anywhere because many of them speak several languages, they speak their minds on any subject, but more importantly explain and back-up their viewpoints, and they ask amazing questions about everything. I believe that the students here are the most diverse group of students I know because close to 40% of them come from other countries, they speak many languages, and they also have an amazing diversity of thought. Finally, I know that the students here are the most accepting people I have ever met because less than 2 hours after my arrival at the gates to the quad, I had already been hugged by several people that I barely knew.

I am at home here.


  1. I believe that being given a chance to meet such influential and ambitious people must be certainly one of the greatest presents that you've ever got. Glad to hear you're doing great!

  2. Brian,

    You're seeing first hand just how difficult a research project can be. Even with very bright people, they might have diverse ideas on which direction to take. That's why every project needs a strong leader so the skills of each person can be properly channeled.

    This is what made J. Robert Oppenheimer the right choice to head up the Manhattan Project in WWII when they developed the atomic bomb. Even so, he had people like Edward Teller who steadfastly demanded that the project focus on his ideas. [This eventually cost Oppenheimer his security clearance and put teller at the top of the heap as he pushed for the development of the H-Bomb.]

    I'm surprised that they partnered you up with someone you knew as a roomie. While there are advantages to that most of the time they want you to experience new people from different worlds. Although, there are some that would say that Kensington and Pinole are on different planets, too.

    When you mentioned the strangers hugging you it reminded me so much of my own college days when we had cultists and others who would walk around welcoming you with a hug. Moonies, Hare Krishnas, People's Temple, Scientologists--you really had to watch out or you could get sucked in big time.