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.

Young Galileos

Today was another very long day. I woke up early enough to complete a lab survey and take a leisurely stroll to the breakfast dinning hall with some of my floor mates. I then walked back to my dorm to gather my learning tools and headed down to the Physics building with Alex and Brian.

Today's class was a little more lecture heavy, but honestly, I enjoy the lectures almost as much as the labs. Bill (not Dr. Berner, he insists) showed us the basics of video analyzing. He showed us the example of a traveling cart that shoots a ball up in the air and then catches it as it falls back down. Using Logger Pro, he was able to trace the trajectory of the ball through the air. With this technology, it was really easy to see the parabolic 'y' graph and the linear 'x' graph. The lecture got even more exciting when he started to explain how we would be using both video analysis and an accelerometer to collect data about the roller coasters are going to ride next Friday

After that lecture, Mary talked about Newton's Laws. Even though I have already learned about them in detail, she described them in such a way that I got a much deeper understanding of the concept. She also had some exciting demonstrations involving a 3kg weight on a bungee cord. The lab we did after her lecture was also a review of what we have done in class, only instead of using timers to try and estimate average velocity and then acceleration, we used motion detectors at the connections between force, mass, and acceleration were much clearer.

At lunch, I walked with my lab group to the dinning hall that serves lunch. Even after only two days, I've gotten to know all three of them quite well and they we are usually able to work constructively even during labs that might be confusing or frustrating at first (the four younger teachers as well as Bill who walk around during labs are very helpful so those moments are short).

After break, we worked more with lenses, specifically building telescopes (both Keplerian and Galilean. We started with just a table, two lenses, and a sheet of paper to find the focusing point and we were able to build a functional "telescope". We figured out how exactly to position them based on the lectures and labs we had done yesterday. It was pretty amazing getting a clear picture of the end of the long hallway.

Next we assembled a more typical telescope with PVC pipe. Using our make-shift telescope, we read a fortune cookie fortune that they had taped to the bottom of a 2-meter-long tube. We also fiddled around with creating different focal distances using different lengths and installing cross hairs to make focusing easier. By the end of the day, I had many charts of data and an sound knowledge of the workings of lenses in a telescope.

When I got back to my dorms, after I completed another lab survey, the rest of my day was spent getting to know my peers. I relaxed in my room for a while and chatted with my roommate about her Bio-med classes. She tells me that they spent a lot of time learning pipetting calibrations and technique. It sounded really interesting to me, as does every program offered for the summer courses (excepting, perhaps, the SAT enrichment class).

I also played a game of Frisbee, featuring some unique behind the back, through the legs, and spinning in circles throwing techniques. A few of them actually compete in Ultimate Frisbee at their high schools, so they could do some pretty cool tricks.

After dinner, we once again ended the day in the buildings lounge playing board games and sharing stories. Because we come from such totally different cultures, there is always something for us to talk about. For instance, today I met someone who was born in India, moved to Russia when he was three, and then to England where he lives now. Sadly, he says, he has forgotten all his Russian, and although he can understand Bengali, he can only speak it fluently when he is dreaming. Each person is so unique and exciting to get to know, it is extremely hard for all of us to go back to my room at the end of the night. Fortunately, we have a month of tomorrows to look forward to.

Bill Berner Teaches Physics...and Defies it...

Today was another excellent day. Our breakfast group was much smaller than yesterday because people are starting to flesh out their own unique schedules for waking up, getting meals, exercising, etc. It was only Brian, Fred, and I today, but we had an enjoyable meal nonetheless. Even though I only met Fred a few days ago, I feel like I have known him for much longer and we have become great friends already. Even though we are in different classes, we hang out every day. After a brief breakfast, Brian and I met Julia and the three of us walked to class.

Today’s class continued our discussions on mechanics and optics. These two topics are the theme of this week. Bill began today’s lecture with a very brief discussion on why we needed to see physics principles instead of just studying them. He used optics as an example by making a connection between his lecture on virtual images and how a mirror works. He stood on top of a table where he set up a waist-high mirror. He put one leg on each side of the mirror and explained that his “right leg” was a virtual image because it was just a reflection of his left leg, but it looked like it existed behind the mirror. He then defied physics by suspending himself above the ground…kind of. He picked up his left leg by grabbing his pant leg and it made it look like he was floating. Bill is very good at making class entertaining and making sure that we are aware of real world connections. He told us that this is why we do not get credit for this class. He wants us to do science, not play the game for a grade. He won’t be giving us tests because he feels that would change the dynamic of the class from something that should be a wonderful experience. It is rare to find people that are this devoted to education and I feel very fortunate that I have the opportunity to learn from such an individual. After his quick demonstration, Bill continued to lecture on mechanics. Today’s lecture started as more review because we went over Newton’s Laws of Motion and forces. Later in the day when we returned to optics, all the information was new again. Bill expanded upon his lecture involving lenses from yesterday by discussing telescopes and the different ways that different lenses can work together to produce an image. I’m finding the material confusing at first, but I am able to grasp it thanks to how thorough Bill’s lecturing is and thanks to help from my lab partners. That was basically what our lectures consisted of today.

After each of the lectures, we had labs. The first lab involved measuring the acceleration of a small platform with an adjustable cardboard sail across rails being propelled by a fan. The purpose was to notice trends in the data. Unfortunately, we had to work so fast that we did not have time for group data analysis. We will have to review it by ourselves and discern the meaning(s) of the data upon reflection later. The second lab had several parts to it. First, we had to construct a telescope using with two lenses and different pieces of tubes that we were given. The goal was to read a fortune cookie message at the end of a five foot long tube. Everybody in my group was able to see it except for me. Apparently this was expected because everybody has different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to their eyes. It also takes a different arrangement of lenses to make something visible for different people in a lot of cases. The other part of the lab involved creating an image on a screen using several different kinds of lenses. This part of the lab was relatively easy because all we had to do was arrange the lenses in the right order and at the right distance to get them to create an image. I thoroughly enjoy Bill’s labs.

After class, Brian and I returned to our dorm to drop off our things and hang out for about an hour. At 5:00, we went to dinner with Abheek and Fred so we would be back in time (5:45) for the sponsored “Kmart Run.” There were about fifty of us total. Four RC’s were in charge of the entire group while we were given free roam in the store to grab whatever items we needed. I bought several things, such as a flat of water, another pillow, and laundry detergent. Brian and I also purchased a couple of plastic lightsabers, just for fun. We clipped them to our belt loops and several people turned their heads or got some good laughs out of them, ourselves included. After we got back, Brian, Julia, Alison, Onur, Fred, Abheek, Richard, and I sat in the quad for a couple of hours just talking and having some fun. I find that these are the perfect ways to unwind after the day. Our friendships are all so new, but we all feel very close to each other. Spending group time together is quite the way to finish the day. I look forward to what new experiences await me tomorrow (other than watching 127 Hours).