About Me

When not at work with students, I spend my time in my room either reading, calculating something using pen and paper, or using a computer. I read almost anything: from the pornographic to the profound, although my main interests are mathematics and physics. "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." -Erasmus

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Computational Physics, dirt-cheap

When I was an undergrad (ages ago), we had to take a course called computational physics. The thrust of the course was learning how to program, understanding algorithms, and then implementing the algorithm using self-made code written in Fortran.

I took the course four (or five?) times, because I kept on failing the course. Let me describe what it was like-- it was so long ago that if you had a laptop, you were considered to be divine; even having your own desktop was A Big Thing. Since I am not Kintaro Oe (if you don't know who he is, watch Goldenboy!), I was unable to pass the course because I had no computer and had limited access. I only passed the course when I got admitted to the theory group; we had a single computer that we took turns (ab)using.

The text that we used was DeVries' Computational Physics. It was a good text; I learned a lot about making readable code as well as understanding the algorithms that we use for solving differential equations. In fact, upon comparing the current offerings of the same subject to what we had then, I realized that what we had was quite demanding. Although I complained a lot about the workload, I did eventually develop an appreciation for the course, thanks to De Vries. The way it taught was by giving a series of problems-- you had to create a working program and then produce the needed output. There really is no way to learn programming and algorithms except by actually doing it.

At that time I had to rely on photocopies of the book, since I had no money to buy it. So imagine how happy I was when I dropped by C and E bookstore to find my friendly old textbook on sale. The price they were selling it for was ridiculous-- they were selling it for about  0.75 USD, so I bought all four remaining copies. I plan to use these books to teach a newer generation of undergraduates in the theory group the joys of programming in Fortran.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

teaching practicum

Parts of the following were written a month ago (sometime during the middle of May 2011): 

I handled the lecture teaching practicum of three graduate students. I chose to have them attend the relativity related lectures this term (five consecutive days of lecture classes), do the recitations along with my students, and to take the exams as well.

The reason I did so is their need to learn special relativity; it's badly taught (universally, it seems, in Philippine universities) in undergraduate courses that the typical physics major takes. Also, attending a week's worth of lectures means I can later discuss the choices I made with my mentees (is that the correct word?) while handling the lecture classes.

I gave them the usual first day orientation and had them answer the first set of recitation problems, to ensure that they've read Mazur's talk and the syllabus. We also talked about why I give out such questions when most of the course group doesn't do so.

After attending the first lecture, I gave them a diagnostic exam, just to get rid of any self-deception that they actually do understand special relativity, especially since one of my mentees was probably a student of a relativist from another university; I suspect that they were given "wonderful lectures" but had a dearth of problem-solving experience.

I ought to have given the diagnostic exam before they attended my lecture-- I suspect that they would have scored much lower that way. As it was, they were able to answer the questions related to my first lecture. Still, their scores were way lower than the average undergraduate engineering major who studied with me. I think that should have convinced them of the need to study relativity-- nothing beats appealing to self-respect.

The scores were 13, 21 and 23 out of a maximum of 44 items. An average student in my classes usually gets around 29 to 34 items right. Keep in mind that my mentees are physics majors; they should have encountered relativity in at  least 6 courses during their undergraduate days. Their most recent exposure was supposed to have been during a recently concluded graduate electromagnetism course.

After attending the lectures and taking the exam, I helped each of them teach an hour-long segment of my class.I asked them to prepare ten multiple questions each, according to some guidelines laid out in most education-related literature. All of the questions they were required to prepare were relativity-related, and it would be crazy to have them prepare such questions without ensuring they know relativity at the appropriate level. After all, as my adviser is fond of saying: "You cannot teach what you do not know."

Of course, their questions were not used during the exams. It would be too much to expect them to prepare good questions on the first try. One of them was a headache: of the tasks I gave, the only task he did right was to take the exams-- diagnostic and the relativity exam.

One of the tasks I gave was to have them meet me for a dry-run of their lecture. Although our appointment for the lecture dry-run was at 1pm of May 4, he showed up at around 4:00 pm. Based on the dry run, it also turned out that he had not read the assigned reading, nor was he prepared to discuss the topic I gave him, which was on de Broglie waves. I then gave him an additional two hours two prepare, and we started our dry-run at 6:30 pm. I had to walk him through the lecture to ensure that my students's time would not be wasted during his lecture. We ended the dry-run at around 8 pm.

His lecture was supposed to be from 8:30 am to 9:30 am of May 5, but he came late. I was forced to begin what ought to have been his lecture, and was nearly a third of the way through when he came in. With great reluctance, I gave up the floor to him because I did not wish him to give the lectures on a more difficult topic in the third exam. As it was, he did not finish the topics assigned on time.

As for the exam items that he was supposed to construct, although due on May 16 at 1 pm, he neither came to give a hard-copy nor emailed an electronic version.  I emailed him, and upon receipt of my email, instead of submitting the assigned items from the 2nd exam, he gave a partial set for the third exam. That didn't make sense at all; the reason I made them go through the 2nd exam lectures and then take the exam itself was to ensure that they would be able to construct sensible test items.

What annoys me is the fact that he was accepted by my adviser as a graduate advisee. After what he did during the teaching practicum, I ended that term with a very low opinion of that guy, and I plan never to work with him again.

As for the other two, I have no complaints. They did all that was asked of them, and I did not have any qualms about having them give an hour-long lecture to my students. So if it were up to me to give grades two would pass, while I would flunk the third.

I suppose the biggest problem with the practicum is the lack of a syllabus. Having expectations clearly written is a good way of ensuring that the work gets done, and if I do decide to give a failing grade, the decision would not be contested. So although I wanted to give a failing grade to that worm, because other practicum teachers asked for less than I did, I could not, if I wanted to be fair, give him a fail.