Report on Big 12 Fellowship

Dean Zollman

Professor of Physics
Distinguished University Teaching Scholar

 I was granted a Big 12 Fellowship to visit the Physics 2000 development group in the Department of Physics at the University of Colorado-Boulder. The Physics 2000 project is a web-based educational project under the direction of Professor Martin Goldman. Its primary goal is to create instructional materials for high school aged students. However, the materials are not to be used primarily for formal instruction, but they are aimed at attracting attention from high school students who are also web surfers. Thus, a major part of the development is to make the materials very attractive visually so that web surfers will spend more than a few minutes with them.

 A secondary goal is to communicate information about recent research advances that have taken place at the University or in one of the federally funded research laboratories in Boulder. At present, the quantum state of matter called Bose-Einstein condensate is the primary focus of this effort. Carl Weimann, one of the pioneers in this area of atomic physics research, is developing the Web-based materials.

 The Physics 2000 development group includes, in addition to Professors Goldman and Weimann, a full time programmer, a physics graduate student, a half-time artist and a half-time administrative assistant who also serves as the web master for the group. Funding has come primarily from the state of Colorado through grants for educational innovation.

 I visited the group from September through December, 1997. The Big 12 Fellowship provided expenses for approximately one month of that visit. I was the first Big 12 fellow to visit the Physics Department at UC-Boulder and perhaps the first to visit the Boulder campus.

 During my stay in Boulder I attended all group meetings of the Physics 2000 group and aided in the design of some of the instructional materials. In particular, I worked with a group to explore overlap between the Visual Quantum Mechanics project now underway at KSU and the Physics 2000 efforts in atomic physics. The Physics 2000 group was unable to directly adapt any of the Visual Quantum Mechanics materials because of a difference in programming language. Our instructional materials that run directly on the web are programmed with Macromedia Director. This programming language requires an additional program to the web browser in order to incorporate interactive materials. The Physics 2000 group has decided to do all of its programming in Java and thus avoid the plug-in issue. Thus, we were unable to directly insert our materials into the Physics 2000 web pages.

 However, we were able to exchange ideas and influence each other's pedagogical design. One of the most interesting features of the Physics 2000 web pages is a conversational approach to presenting text. The web site introduces a series of characters that range from theoretical physicists who will give you the mathematical background to high school students who ask questions and sometimes explain the physics to each other. Using these characters provides an easy way for students to read material about physics. At the same time, a large amount of text is presented in this format. A substantial body of research indicates that students normally skip over text and do not read it carefully. The conversational approach is an attempt to entice students to read the text. Further research will be needed to determine if text presented in this conversational format will be more palatable for high school students.

 The attempt to describe the recent research in atomic physics on the web pages was just getting underway during the fall semester of last year. Some significant progress was made during that time and further progress has been made since then. At present, I am working to adapt some of the ideas used in that development for project at KSU. I am planning to work with faculty members within the physics department and freshmen physics majors to see if we can create web pages which help new undergraduate physics majors understand better research in our department. This effort will become a project in Physics122, the first physics course taken by KSU physics majors.

 While the main goal of the fellowship was to work with the Physics 2000 group, I was also able to interact extensively with two distinguished physics educators. Albert Bartlett, professor emeritus, has received the Robert A. Millikan medal from the American Association of Physics Teachers, and is still quite active in informal teaching even though he retired about five years ago. John Taylor, professor, is a well-known textbook author who has written undergraduate textbooks on several different topics. By coincidence, Dr. Taylor's office was adjacent to mine, and he was teaching quantum mechanics to the undergraduate students. Thus, my interactions with him were quite fruitful for helping to set future directions for our Visual Quantum Mechanics project.

 Finally, Boulder, Colorado, has made a significant investment in creating a bicycle-friendly city. While using and studying the bike route system of Boulder was not officially part of my Big 12 Fellowship, it was a very useful activity because we received funding during that semester for an international exchange of students involving the science of the bicycle.

 Overall, the visit to UC-Boulder was very productive. I anticipate that the collaborations with Drs. Goldman, Weimann, and Taylor will continue in the coming academic years.