Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Encouraging high school students talented in physics

...and astronomy

In the afternoon, I spent about 5 hours in Techmania, our local science center/museum built in some no longer operational construction halls of Škoda Works, a major factory in our city.

Your humble correspondent was partly invited as a (now aged) kid who could have benefited from similar events and who could have an idea what kind of aid may be helpful to the kids. There were high school teachers, primarily from a gymnasium in Cheb (a town in the very Western corner of the Czech Republic) and a sport gymnasium in Pilsen (which has educated many excellent and famous Pilsner soccer, ice-hockey, tennis players, and more).

We were also shown a small model of the fulldome planetarium that will be opened in several months and that will probably be the most modern digital planetarium in Europe, or at least a part of Europe. (Some related YouTube videos.)

Everything is digital over there, one can project almost anything (not just the night sky), and visitors may also wear the 3D glasses. The facility will replace an old mechanical planetarium that old people like me knew at the "Hamburg" buildings – which nowadays host a court – when we were kids. Of course, nothing from the mechanical planetarium may be directly imported. Nevertheless, I guess that the new facility has a much greater potential because it can show everything. It's less obvious whether this potential will be correspondingly exploited. Less may sometimes be more. I am somewhat worried that the kids will be so overwhelmed by visually impressive animations that they won't learn much and they won't have enough time to focus on anything and/or fall in love with the subject.

I just sent a mass e-mail to some folks who have worked in the visualization of relativity with the proposal to update their videos for the high-resolution, 3D fulldomes like the Pilsner one – there may be just dozens of places in the world that use the same technology. It could be fun to see the relativistic rollercoaster or the infalling observer in the black hole from this totally realistic perspective.

(Andrew Hamilton of Colorado immediately replied that in 2006, NASA and NSF funded a fun dome show called Black Hole: the Other Side of Infinity.)

Concerning the discussion about the identification and support for the talented high school students, lots of ideas were presented, echoed, questioned, improved, abandoned.

I would spend hours if I were just enumerating all the aspects in this discussion and my opinions about them – lack of excitement, the role of applied vs theoretical training, agreement or disagreement between the school curriculum and the activities promoted by physics/math olympiads and science centers, experimental vs theoretical, inclusiveness of the search for the talented students, other nations' having more money, other nations' being more hard-working, how to motivate teachers to do something beyond their elementary duties, how to motivate and reward schools, whether physics olympiads and/or other contests are still "in" or obsolete, and so on, how to make sure that such debates will infuence more than about 5 high school teachers that happened to gather (together with a similar number of the Techmania employees) today ;-), and so on.

Please feel free to offer your ingenious opinions.

When I was returning home, I spent almost one hour with a de facto homeless guy, a construction worker from Carlsbad who is building our new theater (to be opened in 2015), if I believe him, who was left in Pilsen by his drunk colleagues today (or they were high, I forgot). I only gave him a dollar because paying him the full bus ticket to Carlsbad seemed too much for a person I didn't really know. He told me he was released during the 2013 Klaus amnesty. He had been arrested because he had attacked a cop who was spitting on the guy's friend. ;-) If that's true, it's another piece of anecdotal evidence that it's right to support an occasional amnesty. But yes, it's also a reason not to trust such people too much. I gave him a tour of Pilsen of a sort and dragged him through various places such as an information center at the city hall and some booths of charities. Of course, no one would help him, not even 10% of what I did for him, so I am not surprised that he identified me as a sort of the ultimate saint.


  1. When you do a good deed to a less fortunate fellow man you make Jesus happy ;-)

  2. Think how happy Jesus would be if Lubos endorsed relative locality

  3. Tools and programs are great but nothing can replace an inspiring teacher. I had two that were just amazing, a world history teacher in high school and David Judd, who taught my first physics class at UC Berkeley more almost 60 years ago. Both had the ability to generate in their students a desire to learn more and a yearning to deeply understand the world around them.
    But the best students, such as our host, have always been self-motivated.

  4. I tried to do a good deed yesterday, by helping to (partially) debunke a crackpot from what I have learned on TRF and other places:

    But now I have just learned that the OP is a real hardcore quantum zealot and a fan of the crackpot who's work he asks about. He has no clue about QM, the relationship between quantum theories and their classical limits etc, but tries (together with some other zealots) to drag me into an annoying, nonconstructive, pointless discussion ...

    As it seems, that the quantum zealots have taken over at present, so Jesus should now join in if he is happy with my deed and restore the correct order of things in accordance with their physical correctness :-D

  5. Jesus might have received a message from God to never get involved in QM discussions, because it's His business only ;-).

  6. Yep indeed :-D

  7. Lol! So frustrating !

  8. Dear Lubos, What kind of help did you get as a kid? Seems like you got off to a fast start. Was it family, friends of your family, a teacher, what?

  9. Well, there is a lot to be said about math and science education approaches. Unfortunately, the mundane fact is that true mastery often takes a lot of practice, and unfortunately the drudgery of solving practice problems is discouraging for most people. I have to agree somewhat with the idea that best math and physics education can be facilitated via the internet, games, and videos, with regular progress checks incorporated in the gaming approach. Basically, most teachers are useless in teaching math and science, so lets just admit this, spend the money on "teacherless" approaches by building the "one great lesson" and then using proctors to monitor the engagement. At some level math and science needs to be "self taught" so that the feeling of discovery is maintained, and "self paced" so that progress is not measured against some overly arbitrary baseline.

    As an example, I frequently learn more plowing through the multitude of self help videos on youtube, and my kids eat up the games and apps found on the web. At the end of the day, people aren't going to learn something well unless they want to and those who can't keep pace end up feeling discouraged and ashamed even when they shouldn't.

    Talented individuals would be easy to spot by tracking online progress, and devotion, and they should be encouraged, but there is a social aspect to being talented in math and science that I think lend to many stereotypes, I don't know how to address those explicitly.

  10. Hi Lubos,

    One thing you highlighted --- lack of excitement --- stuck out to me. This is a big issue, I think. Smart kids often know they're smart, but don't know where to apply their talents. In my experience, many think physics is more or less a closed book and aren't aware of the many fundamental and interesting open questions. How can they be expected to excel until they're actually interested? Educators need to emphasize how much we know, but also that there are many interesting open questions.

    KITP has been ramping up outreach to local high schools this year, putting postdocs in front of classes for an hour to talk about some interesting problem. My approach was to explain how great the standard model is as a model of particle interactions, but then also to emphasize open questions --- why this gauge group, why three generations, and why the mass hierarchies, etc. As a candidate answer to the generation issue, we talked about topology (a totally new concept to them), in particular intersecting one-cycles on a torus as a toy model for intersecting D-branes. It went over very well --- emphasizing a big open problem grabbed their attention, and they were interested to hear about a possible answer.

    I'm not sure how this would translate to a museum, but in a classroom setting emphasizing interesting open questions seems to work well.

    Thanks for the nice posts, as always.

  11. In Australia, we have the opposite problem. There is official policy to keep all kids in school for 13 years from age 5, and a goal that 40 percent go to University.

    Government and high levels of the bureaucracy are dominated by lawyers. Nearly all trades and professions have their credential boards dominated by academics.

    Result; many bored kids in school being offered courses in soft topics like psychology. To quote the vice principal of a local equivalent of your gymnasiums. "its much cheaper to run these courses than anything requiring labs and equipment. And the kids like them".

    They get to University and do Arts/Law.

    We have a huge and growing number of under-employed tertiary qualified people and a desperate shortage of welders, electricians and plumbers.

    There are private schools who search for bright kids. But their parents and teachers steer them towards the Law Economics direction. Many engineers and scientists remember times when they couldnt get jobs in their field and steer their kids away from things like geology and other technical careers.
    We dont have the idea of commercial apprenticeships like Germany and other countries.
    This means that the academics have control over credentials and training of the bulk of the population and a disconnect between demand and supply.
    Please dont let you country go the same way. Dont let academics dominate the credential process. Its like handing foreign policy over to arms manufacturers.

  12. Dear Richard, I am not sure why you think it's the opposite problem. Your reports from the happiest country in the world (according to OECD) sound like many of the things we have here.

    The overhyping and attraction of arts/laws is here, too, and the same thing holds for the shortage of technically skilled labor. German and other companies complain about that.

  13. Wow,, teacherless maths and physics, it's quite a revolutionary proposal. ;-)

  14. Dear Gene, I mostly agree. The human contact with an inspiring teacher probably beats tools and programs.

    Concerning self-motivation, I was also nearly infinitely excited about some "authorities of science" or its presentation as a kid, and so on, and I also had some highly influential teachers.

    Above a certain level of complexity of the subject, it becomes nontrivial for the teacher to be both inspiring and actually correct. There may be an inspiring teacher who brings a kid or many kids to a completely wrong track.

  15. It would be an interesting experiment wouldn't it? John Henry vs the machine all over.

  16. I 100% agree with this comment.

    The media are full of shit and sometimes they outright troll about fundemental physics pretending to "report" etc ...:-/.

    If I had no other sources to rely on, I would probably not be attracted to physics either.

    "Learning and doing (cool physics) such things is still a way to place himself above the
    ordinary and often boring and frustrating world full of mundane

    This is exactly what busying myself with physics (by reading TRF and other nice blogs, hanging around at Physics SE, going through books and papers at an appropriate level, watching physics talks, etc ) does for me. It makes me feel happy and excited, and it makes me forget everything that annoys me about everyday life etc :-).

    I guess I am addicted to physics, maybe I should do something about it :-P :-D


  17. I must disagree with you about an over-emphasis on the humanities, which I understand as a study of the history, literature, and philosophy of the West. History in particular (whether US, Western, or comparative world history) is a sadly neglected subject at all levels. What I've noticed about the curriculum at places like Harvard is a lot of lip-service to the idea of developing "critical thinking skills" while in actuality discouraging those very skills in the name of political correctness.

    Probably by the humanities you mean something else -- squishy things like creative writing, gender studies, deconstructionism, and academic decadence generally, etc.. If anything the hard sciences are in better shape at the university level than the true humanities. As one who has spent his life in the humanities I feel quite strongly about this.

  18. Hi Lubos,

    Thanks for the kind response. I see your point and agree with it --- in particular that in emphasizing the many interesting open problems, one must not slight what we have learned so far about Nature and give the impression that physics is "a flexible chaos with nothing of lasting value."
    While I emphasized the importance and precision of the standard model in my talk, I hadn't given thought to the barrage of opinions they might be getting from the popular press, and will take this into account next time. For example, I'm sure many of them have their minds clouded by the "faster than light neutrinos" --- though bright students may realize this for what it is, there may be some who don't.

    I also agree re: learning, that learning the best picture of the world painted by fundamental physics is and should be enough in itself; if everything was solved, it may be even more worth learning. But if, in addition to this, open problems intrigue and challenge the student --- whether due to personal ambition or simply the desire to be a part of the process --- all the better, right?


  19. A lot of people in Silicon Valley did what career counselors have told
    them to do: went into STEM fields, studied hard, got good grades, and
    went to work for big successful firms like Apple, Google, etc.

    And how did these companies respond?

    They set up no-poaching agreements with other firms in the Valley to
    limit their employee's salaries and enhance the incomes of management.

  20. On Physics Stack exchange (a Q&A site initially targetted at professionals and students of physics and astronomy) we get more and more questions from students, say undergrads, who ask if it is still worth for them to busy themself with learning and studying theoretical or fundamental physics. They are confused and discouraged by the mostly very bad and sometimes even outright bullying and trolling style of "science reports" about nice fundamental physics in popular magazines, newspapers, and other mass media these days.

    I think this is sad and worrysome, but maybe it could be adressed in the course of talks in front of a class too, to counteract these negative impacts of the mass media a bit?