It’s the Study of Everything
For the uninitiated or for the just plain intimidated, physics can boggle the mind.
But as Dr. George Moschelli explained, “Physics is the natural science that studies matter, its behavior and motion through space and time, and the related entities of energy and force. Physics has applications in every scientific and technological discipline including medical science, astronomy, materials science, data science, and every type of engineering.”
What is the role of basic science in society? Through research and investigation, basic science helps us better understand our world and how it functions with more clarity, more accuracy, and more precision, and it allows society to continuously advance. Students take this training into careers both inside and outside of science. This is how science benefits society.
Moschelli is an associate professor in the Department of Natural Sciences and the principal investigator on one of two grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), an organization of the U.S. government that supports basic science research with both intellectual merit and a broader societal impact. Click on the link for a summary and details about Moschelli’s NSF award (Award No. PHY-1913005).
“Research at Universities like LTU paves the way for the discovery of new phenomena and creation of new knowledge.”
Dr. Bhubanjyoti Bhattacharya
Faculty in LTU’s physics program have led exciting work, from helping undergraduate students to engage in hands-on, practical, and timely research, to instituting a teaching modality known as course-based research experience, or CRE, to innovating ways learning is done in the laboratory, to building leadership skills and diversity and equality awareness through the Student Physics Society.
Dr. Bhubanjyoti Bhattacharya, assistant professor in the Department of Natural Sciences, is the principal investigator on another NSF award (Award No. PHY-2013984). He says physics is the basis of innovations we will see in the future. The work that comes out of the University is based in discovery. Research at universities like LTU paves the way for the discovery of new phenomena and creation of new knowledge. These discoveries often have practical applications and lead to the emergence of new technologies, sometimes decades later.. What we might not think about as we use our smartphones, for example, is that wireless technology is derived from physics research developed in the early 1900s! New information filters down so that the investigative work physicists are doing today predicts the probability of new technologies 100 years into the future.
The mission of LTU’s physics program, in addition to teaching the basic science, is training students to use critical thinking to problem solve, consequently helping them acquire skills that have an immediate impact on academic performance and in their careers.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
HUMANITIES, SOCIAL SCIENCES, + COMMUNICATION
MATH AND COMPUTER SCIENCE
Innovation in the classroom is a hallmark of the physics faculty at LTU. As part of the university-wide CRE program that is supported by a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, students who wouldn’t normally be afforded research opportunities are included because research is done in the classroom with all students rather than select research assistants. Dr. Scott Schneider, an associate professor in the Department of Natural Sciences, has spearheaded the effort at LTU to replace traditional lecturing with “flipped” classrooms. Instead of sitting passively in the classroom and just listening to a professor talk, the students are given materials like videos or case studies to review ahead of time. Then they come to the classroom to work actively with the professor, applying their knowledge to problems and activities. Another alternative to the traditional lecture model is the “think-pair-share” approach, where instead of being given facts, students are presented with situations to analyze and discuss with classmates, sharing their insights. The students gain knowledge by themselves through the practice of deductive and inductive reasoning rather than just remembering facts. The professor is there to be the “guide on the side.”
Since the early ’90s, the physics faculty have been immersed in changing the way physics, and science in general, is taught, with the goal of introducing contemporary pedagogies, such as problem-based learning (PBL), in the science classroom early on: in middle and high school. Emeritae professors of physics, Maria Vaz and Marilyn Rands, were the initiators of the Master of Science Education and other outreach science programs involving K–12 teachers. Professors Vaz and Rands both retired recently after more than 81 years of accumulated service to Lawrence Tech, its students, and the academic community at large.
PBL involves students working on an open-ended problem and presenting their investigation for assessment. Active collaborative learning (ACL) and PBL continue to be hot in physics pedagogy. . These contemporary pedagogies are used by the physics faculty to engage students with diverse ways of learning and to increase content retention.
Bhattacharya is the principal investigator on a grant from the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN) to apply Entrepreneurial Minded Learning to teaching students about “building” things, because ultimately they will be designing and creating things that are useful. They practice skills related to the “three Cs of an entrepreneurial mindset”: curiosity, connections, and creating value. With the KEEN Program Transformation Grant, students are given open-ended assignments so they can find things out for themselves. He said, “We’re trying to develop critical thinking skills … what innovations can I do and figure out the answers. We do not give them the answers. We’re teaching skills that are transferable from the classroom to their lives after college.”
Innovation in the physics laboratory is happening at LTU, too. Dr. Changgong Zhou, senior lecturer in the Department of Natural Sciences, has been working for several years to change the experience in the introductory physics labs. Historically, it’s been “give the task, follow the task, and evaluate the correctness of the task,” he said. “Instead we're offering students the opportunity to investigate how the equipment works and come to conclusions about their problem. After exploring on their own, their writing is much more pointed. We’re also changing the grading model. Now we’re working on ‘experimental error analysis.’ Students are motivated to test the equipment as they run the task and, based on exploration and testing their hypotheses, they’re able to see the effect of their decisions.”
“We are committed to instilling a love of learning and building life skills. Thinking, learning, creating.”
Dr. Valentina Tobos
Fifth-year Electrical Engineering-Computer Engineering major Daniel Piotrowski is one of the students helping Zhou reimagine the physics lab. Through the KEEN grant that the physics team received, “we’re developing a lab experience that encourages students to explore, to think out of the box. It’s kind of like an experiential lab where students can apply what they learned in the lecture classes and discover the answers for themselves. Rather than tell the students exactly what to do to find the answers, in this ‘best in class’ (pun unintended) lab, we’re following a model of an open-ended lab. The lab, after all, is designed for exploration and theory-testing.”
“We’re not talking about the physics majors only,” said Dr. Valentina Tobos, also an associate professor in the Department of Natural Sciences. Physics is a required course for engineering, mathematics and computer sciences, and architecture students who learn skills they can apply to their specific coursework and career. “Their next class is going to directly benefit from what and how we teach in physics, since critical thinking and problem-solving reach beyond the physics requirement.”
“All of us share the same philosophy,” she said. “We are committed to instilling a love of learning and building life skills. Thinking, learning, creating.”
At Lawrence Tech, the mission of the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) is “To inspire faculty to create, share, and use methods and technological tools for effective teaching, communication, and assessment conducive to a student-focused education which is transformative and supportive of developing critical thinkers, skilled professionals, leaders, and lifelong learners.” Three of the four CTL directors have been from the College of Arts and Sciences, including Physics professors Scott Schneider and Valentina Tobos. This is a matter of pride for CoAS, which is committed to high quality and standards of teaching! What they share with fellow faculty is what they implement in physics classrooms and labs.
An exciting and uplifting experience for LTU physics students is the opportunity to join the Society of Physics Students (SPS). Co-presidents this year, Mark Kocherovsky and Andrea Houck, believe SPS is a great way to give back. For their outreach programs, the SPS was awarded the prestigious Blake Lilly Prize by the American Institute of Physics, a national organization. The Blake Lilly Prize, named in honor of the late Blake Lilly, recognizes SPS individuals and chapters that make a genuine effort to positively influence the attitudes of schoolchildren and the general public about physics. The LTU SPS chapter has held several outreach events. The one that resulted in the Blake Lilly Prize was Amateur Experiment Day, a campus event held a couple years ago during which physics and non-physics students, faculty, staff, and the general public could interact with student-made physics experiments. Partnering with the LTU chapter of the American Chemical Society (ACS) that day, the campus could make ice cream with liquid nitrogen.
Student clubs, including SPS, ACS, and the Math Club, periodically hold Geek Week on campus, and events include a student lecture, game night, and fun experiments.
Kocherovsky, who holds a B.S. in Computer Science with a minor in physics and is to graduate with his M.S. in Computer Science in spring 2022, said his physics interest was piqued while he worked as Moschelli’s research assistant. He has been working with Moschelli on a project in relativistic heavy-ion collisions. Moschelli received an NSF grant to study the “interactions of quarks and gluons, the elementary particles that feel the strong nuclear force.” “This work established the first ever externally funded active physics research program at Lawrence Tech that integrates this research activity into undergraduate education,” said Kocherovsky. He explained that “simulating these particle collisions at very, very, very high speeds tests our knowledge of the physics of the interactions between those particles.” He does data analysis on the results of the simulated collisions to create a benchmark for Moschelli’s theoretical calculations. Kocherovsky, Moschelli, and collaborators from Wayne State University are presenting a paper in Boston at the American Physical Society’s fall meeting of the Division of Nuclear Physics in October 2021.
Andrea Houck, double majoring in math and physics, is on the research team for Dr. Bhattacharya’s NSF grant that asks, “Where is all the antimatter?” Bhattacharya and his team of undergraduate researchers are “developing new methods of understanding the properties of different types of new physics, with an emphasis on hypothetical particles called ALPS.” The students will “apply newly developed theoretical methods to analyze data and test new hypotheses about CP (Charge-Parity) violation.”
Houck said that this opportunity to work with Bhattacharya allowed her to “learn a ton of new math, like group theory. I’ve learned a lot on how to approach these weird problems and learned a lot of just the basics of particle physics. “Oh,” she clarified, “it’s math that’s been around for a while. It’s just new to me.”
What both these students have to say about their professors speaks volumes. Kocherovsky said, “LTU has provided me with an excellent education, I can say that without a doubt. It’s taught me not only the technical material, but it’s also taught me communications, the research process itself, which is very important, and … I’ve established a close relationship with the physics faculty especially. Because of SPS and because there are fewer students in the Physics program, it’s easy to approach the faculty.”
“It’s definitely its own little community within the university,” Houck said.
Piotroski is in full agreement with his fellow students on the reasons he loves physics at LTU. As he put it, “The physics program is so small and yet they have all these amazing professors, each with their own teaching style, but wonderful! It’s one of the small gems of the college and the University. I’m welcome to bring my expertise in electrical engineering to a physics problem where I can learn so much more!”
These students are excited about the program’s commitment to the American Physical Society’s Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Alliance (APS-IDEA). According to the APS website, APS-IDEA is an initiative to “empower and support physics departments, labs, and other organizations to identify and enact strategies for improving equity, diversity, and inclusion,” particularly to increase the number of women and racial minorities working in physics. “It’s important work,” Kocherovsky said. LTU’s physics team is working with departments around the country and the world on this initiative with the vision of making APS-IDEA “not only an LTU Physics Department goal but a university policy.”
by Renée Ahee