Veteran teacher shows how achievement gaps in STEM classes can be eliminated

This press release from UC Santa Cruz definitely gave me food for thought about new things to try in my own classes. A few short snippets:

[Professor Tracy Larrabee] uses a three-pronged approach to support underrepresented students in her class.

“The first is that we have had a very diverse teaching staff,” she said. “We have one professor, four TAs and four MSI tutors, and during this time it just happened that of those people, half were female, we always had at least one African American, one Latinx, and one non-gender conforming tutor so that everyone could feel a connection to someone on the teaching staff.”

“Another technique I use is to emphasize failure as the appropriate path to learning,” she said. “Engineering is hard; it’s good to fail the first time you attempt a problem. People who fail at a problem the first time tend to retain things better than those who luck into the right answer.”

Her final tactic is to explicitly discuss stereotype threat. This is the risk that someone (i.e., from an underrepresented minority) might take routine negative experiences as confirmation that they are fundamentally unsuited for something like higher education.

“One of my African American MSI tutors—who are extremely high achieving students selected to provide supplemental tutoring to others—told me it was like having a light bulb go off for him,” Larrabee said. ”Until I discussed the issue in class, he felt like he didn’t belong in this major, but after we talked about stereotypes, he realized it wasn’t that he was unsuited for the material. It was hard for everyone!”

Why Should Physicists Study History?

I’ve always enjoyed reading about the history of both mathematics and physics, and so I really appreciated this perspective from Physics Today magazine about the importance of this field. One of many insightful paragraphs:

And a more human physics is a good thing. For starters, it makes physics more accessible, particularly for students. Many promising students drop out of the sciences because the material seems disembodied and disconnected from their lives. Science education researchers have found that those lost students “hungered—all of them—for information about how the various methods they were learning had come to be, why physicists and chemists understand nature the way they do, and what were the connections between what they were learning and the larger world.” Students can potentially lose the wonder and curiosity that drew them to science in the first place. Historical narratives naturally raise conceptual, philosophical, political, ethical, or social questions that show the importance of physics for the students’ own lives. A field in which people are acknowledged as people is much more appealing than one in which they are just calculating machines.

The whole article can be found here: https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/full/10.1063/PT.3.3235

Richard Feynman’s Integral Trick

“I had learned to do integrals by various methods shown in a book that my high school physics teacher Mr. Bader had given me. [It] showed how to differentiate parameters under the integral sign — it’s a certain operation. It turns out that’s not taught very much in the universities; they don’t emphasize it. But I caught on how to use that method, and I used that one damn tool again and again. [If] guys at MIT or Princeton had trouble doing a certain integral, [then] I come along and try differentiating under the integral sign, and often it worked. So I got a great reputation for doing integrals, only because my box of tools was different from everybody else’s, and they had tried all their tools on it before giving the problem to me.” (Surely you’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!)

I read Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! dozens of times when I was a teenager, and I was always curious about exactly what this integration technique actually was. So I enjoyed reading this article about the Leibniz Integration Rule: https://medium.com/dialogue-and-discourse/richard-feynmans-integral-trick-e7afae85e25c

A Classical Math Problem Gets Pulled Into the Modern World

I enjoyed this article about how the solution of a pure mathematics problem from a century ago is finding an unlikely application now: https://www.quantamagazine.org/a-classical-math-problem-gets-pulled-into-the-modern-world-20180523\

From the introductory paragraphs:

Long before robots could run or cars could drive themselves, mathematicians contemplated a simple mathematical question. They figured it out, then laid it to rest — with no way of knowing that the object of their mathematical curiosity would feature in machines of the far-off future.

The future is now here. As a result of new work by Amir Ali Ahmadi and Anirudha Majumdar of Princeton University, a classical problem from pure mathematics is poised to provide iron-clad proof that drone aircraft and autonomous cars won’t crash into trees or veer into oncoming traffic.

“You get a complete 100-percent-provable guarantee that your system” will be collision-avoidant, said Georgina Hall, a final-year graduate student at Princeton who has collaborated with Ahmadi on the work.

The guarantee comes from an unlikely place — a mathematical problem known as “sum of squares.” The problem was posed in 1900 by the great mathematician David Hilbert. He asked whether certain types of equations could always be expressed as a sum of two separate terms, each raised to the power of 2.

Mathematicians settled Hilbert’s question within a few decades. Then, almost 90 years later, computer scientists and engineers discovered that this mathematical property — whether an equation can be expressed as a sum of squares — helps answer many real-world problems they’d like to solve.

“What I do uses a lot of classical math from the 19th century combined with very new computational math,” said Ahmadi.