Making Science Teaching More Than ‘A Backup Plan’

Feb 5, 2016

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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3 comments on “Making Science Teaching More Than ‘A Backup Plan’

  • @OP – 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.

    That should help students understand spin stabilisation and 3 axis gyroscopic satellite stabilisation systems!

    https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/basics/bsf11-2.php

    Another method for achieving three-axis stabilization is to use electrically-powered reaction wheels, also called momentum wheels. Massive wheels are mounted in three orthogonal axes aboard the spacecraft. They provide a means to trade angular momentum back and forth between spacecraft and wheels. To rotate the vehicle in one direction, you spin up the proper wheel in the opposite direction. To rotate the vehicle back, you slow down the wheel. Excess momentum that builds up in the system due to external torques, caused for example by solar photon pressure or gravity gradient, must be occasionally removed from the system by applying torque to the spacecraft, and allowing the wheels to acquire a desired speed under computer control. This is done during maneuvers called momentum desaturation, (desat), or momentum unload maneuvers. Many spacecraft use a system of thrusters to apply the torque for desats. The Hubble Space Telescope, though, has sensitive optics that could be contaminated by thruster exhaust, so it used magnetic torquers that interact with the Earth’s magnetic field during its desat maneuvers.



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    NearlyNakedApe says:

    Science education is so important and sadly, it’s in decline in several parts of the so-called civilized world, even in some expensive private schools where one would usually expect a higher caliber of curriculum. I really like the idea of LA’s and making learning of science fun. It is, in my opinion, the answer to generating a much needed renewed enthusiasm for science in young people.

    And when young minds learn about the scientific method and scientific thinking, this gives them the most powerful and useful tool of all: the power of reasoning and logic. This tool has the power to improve all aspects of their lives both at the professional and personal level. It is without doubt the most precious gift one could give to a fellow human being.



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