Teach as an experimental physicist

May 25, 2015 teaching phys-332 undergraduate research

PHYS-332, Experimental Modern Physics was one of the first classes I taught as a teacher. The purpose of the class is to acquaint upper grade undergraduate students with concepts, equipment, and techniques appropriate to current experimental physics. I was at the same time expected to establish my laboratory and apply for external funds. To fulfill all the requirement in a limited time, I had an idea to introduce some of my research activities to the class as teaching materials. This fitted well with the purpose of the class, but brought up two questions immediately:

  • are the undergraduate students capable of doing real life research?
  • are my research activities suitable as teaching materials?

To find the answer for the first question, I decided to split the semester into two. In the first half, I sticked to traditional teaching materials; and in the second half, I might introduce new material from my research depending on the capabilities of my students shown in the first half of the semester. This also gave time for the students to get familiar with my teaching style and get trained step by step so that they were ready for something more challenging. After the first half, I was convinced that they were ready for the challenge.

To make sure that my research activities can be used as teaching materials, I carefully split one of my research projects into small tasks. The students were separated to three groups. Each group was asked to pick up one task based on their own preference. The tasks chosen were:

  • make coaxial cables with BNC connectors, and measure speed of electricity with a function generator and an oscilloscope. They will be used to connect electronic devices in my laboratory.
  • construct a large glove box which can be flushed with pure nitrogen gas so that the relative humidity in the box can be as low as 3%. This will be used to handle naked NaI and CsI scintillators in my laboratory.
  • assemble a cryogenic vacuum chamber, which will be used to house inorganic scintillating crystals or high-purity germanium detectors operated at liquid nitrogen temperature in my laboratory.

All the tasks were successfully finished. The students liked the second half of the semester more than the first half. They felt that they learned something real. I was as happy since my lab started to take shape :)

About

Blogs on physics research and educational activities of Jing LIU, an assistant professor in physics at the University of South Dakota. He is an experimental physicist developing novel particle detectors for astroparticle physics and civil use.