Photo credit: Theo Stroomer for NPR
By Anya Kamenetz
“Squat! Squat! Squat! Higher! Faster!”
In the basement of the Duane Physics and Astrophysics building at the University of Colorado Boulder, a science demonstration is going on, but it looks more like a vaudeville act.
One by one, students balance precariously on a rotating platform. Then they are handed what looks like a spinning bicycle wheel, holding it by two handles that stick out from either side of what would be the hub of the wheel. When you flip the wheel over, like a pizza, your body starts rotating in the opposite direction.
The principle at work is called angular momentum, explains Katie Dudley: “You can move or stop yourself by changing what you do to the wheel.”
Dudley is a blonde 20-year-old junior with glasses, an aerospace engineering major. She’s in charge of today’s session, tutoring a roomful of students who are her own age or even a bit older. She’s a learning assistant — an undergraduate trained and paid to help teach fellow students.
Most science and engineering classes around the country are a lot less interactive, a lot more intimidating, and daresay it, a lot less fun than this one. CU Boulder has started a movement to improve the quality of science education around the country, not only on campuses but in K-12 classrooms. And the LAs, as they’re called, are at the center of this work.
The efforts here began with professors like Steven Pollock, who team-teaches the Physics 1110 course where Dudley is an LA. As we sit upstairs in his office, he tells me that about 15 years ago, he switched his research specialty from nuclear physics to the teaching of physics.
“I just sort of saw myself in 2000 looking forward 20 or 30 years to retirement,” he explains. “I could either have learned a little bit more about the strange quark content of the proton, or how people learn physics and how to teach it better. And it seemed like that was way more important to the world.”
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