Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Fiat Lux

Today was especially exciting as it was the first day of class for us in the Experimental Physics Academy. We walked over to the David Rittenhouse Labs as a group at 9:00 for our morning lecture. Once there, our professor, Bill Berner, showed us to our room and told us a little bit about what to expect. It was very clear that he knows what he is talking about, but also that he is the kind of teacher who listens to his students as much as possible and is absolutely willing to answer any questions we may have. He taught high school for 25 years before he joined the UPenn faculty and is in many ways the perfect person to teach the course (complete with the unkempt white hair and beard). We also met Mary Pandya and some of the assistant teachers there to help understand the lesson. The simultaneous casual atmosphere and sophisticated material made the first day of class both unique and enjoyable.

We covered some material that was review of simple mechanics because there are a good number of students who have never taken physics before, but we were able to cover about a months worth of curriculum in just over an hour. And afterwards we got to play around with the motion censors wile learning more about the nature of motion.

After that, Bill Berner covered some topics relating to light, lenses, mirrors and optics that was all new to me and very exiting. He talked about parabolic mirrors in practical use, such as cosmetic mirrors and rear-view mirrors on cars. He also discussed why objects appear closer when viewed from the bottom of a pool. During his lecture, he used physical demonstrations with lasers, mirrors and tennis balls with pupils drawn on them (to represent the eyes of the viewer) to help us understand what he was teaching us. These and the occasional joke slipped in made his lecture very engaging. What I liked most about his speaking though, was how much he stressed that sciences are not separate from each other or the outside world and how often he tried to highlight those connections for us.

We took break for lunch, where Alex, Brian and I discussed the appeal of American schools with a student from Istanbul, Turkey and after that, it was to the lab where we spent the rest of the day hands-on experimenting with light, lenses, focal points, and refractions. The equipment available to us, even on the first day made lab work more exciting than it has ever been for me. We had a huge lens set up where we could experiment with standing close to it and seeing people across the hall enlarged or standing back further than the focal point to see their image flipped on its head. We also had some high-powered lamps set up at the very end of the hall in order to experiment with "infinite" light sources. We spent three hours in the lab, all of it fully entertained collecting data that proved what we had learned in our earlier lecture. Because, as Bill Berner says, "just because the old man in the front of the class said it, doesn't make it true".

Once our classes ended, our day was nowhere near over. We still had ultimate Frisbee to play (say hello to the MVP on the wining team), dinner to eat and a campus to tour, all three of which involved meeting more new and interesting people than I would have ever thought imaginable. The campus tour felt more like a stroll around the city. We passed clothing stores and movie theaters and angry taxi drivers. For some, it may have seemed a little overwhelming, but I found it to be thrilling and very enriching.

After the tour, we had some time to relax, and get some of our course work done. I took the opportunity to familiarize myself with our programs website where we will be posting the mandatory surveys about our labs. One great thing about our class is that there are no grades or credits so the motivation for completing work is purely based in investigation and comprehension. Likewise, the system for completing assignments is more oriented towards helping everyone understand the material than giving individuals credit (hence the online surveys viewed by question not student).

At 10:00 we had a pizza party and played some pool, ping-pong and card games in the dorm''s lounge. It was a good way to unwind at the end of our first day and I got to know some of the people on my floor much better because of it. I can't believe this is only my second day in the program. I have already learned so much.

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