I’ve written about my fake data labs before. The gist is that each student in Modern Physics chooses from a list of famous labs and figures out how you could redo them using modern techniques. They’re graded on how they understand the project (a major formal report), how they understand modern computer data acquisition and control (mostly a bunch of LabVIEW or Arduino software), and how well they analyze the fake data I provide for them (in Mathematica, of course).
I like this project, and have done it for over 10 years. I like how it helps me normalize the letters of recommendations that I write. But now I’d like them to do something more. I’d like them to help me bring more focus to the whole course. As I’ve started to brainstorm that standards I’m going to use (see this work-in-progress google doc that’s open to public comment), I’m starting to run into the same problems I always have when crafting standards. Standards really help me keep the big picture in mind, and in doing so, they identify topics that are more tangential than core.
Here are some examples:
- The Michelson-Morley experiment is a really cool exercise in flexing relativity muscles. Understanding how the fringes shift is a lot harder than I originally thought.
- Rutherford scattering is a towering achievement of classical mechanics. It’s a trip to the deep end of trajectories, scattering cross-sections, and curve fitting.
- Blackbody mode counting is a triumph of statistics.
- The distance to galaxies based on red-shift is a great example of how to do relativistic calculations
I could go on, but those are enough to (try to) make my point. I already have students working on these things individually, could I leverage that work to keep me from spending organized class time on these sorts of topics? Could the students tackle just one of these things that have two issues: 1) big ideas/names involved in modern physics, and 2) tangential math or other types of physics muscle flexing. Each student would only do one, but I could do some sort of poster session or something where they have to teach their classmates about it. No one but the original student would really sweat out the details, but they’d all be doing one of them (presumably) well.