Saturday, June 30, 2007

Goodwin Liu... twenty years on

Physics teachers know everything. Or at least it seems that way when you're an interested student in a physics class. I recall feeling that way when I was such a student. I was also in the midst of deciding colleges and careers at the time. The only career path I consciously eliminated from the realm of possibilities was that of physics teacher. Funny how that turned out.

Part of being a physics teacher is revealing the workings of reality to students who have not yet been so enlightened. Mysteries are solved and misconceptions are dispelled. It's easy for a perception omniscience to accumulate around the wizard instructor. Some teachers revel in this perception and everything they can to perpetuate it.

I do not. I have some understanding as to the magnitude of my ignorance and rarely cease to be amazed by the immensity of my density. I've been lucky enough to have some truly brilliant students pass through my classroom on their way to greatness. I often tell friends and colleagues that I'm always delighted to get such students. "I get students that are ten times smarter than I'm ever gonna be," I tell them. That puts people a little off-balance. The teacher is supposed to be the smartest person in the room!

Of course, I'm a couple of pages ahead of them in the physics book, so I still manage to keep my bright students duly entertained and I've got things to teach them. But I can see that they've got capacities beyond my own. And that does not bother me in the least. I'm happy for them!

I was reminded of this when listening to National Public Radio the other day. It was a Nina Totenberg piece on the Supreme Court's ill-decided school desegregation case. Mara solicited analysis from UC Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu. Goodwin Liu was a student in my AP Physics class my very first year of teaching. He went on to Stanford, Oxford, and Yale before returning to California as a professor at Boalt Hall. Oh, and he clerked for Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg along the way. Totenberg sought Liu's analysis because he's something of an expert in the area.

I sent him a note to tell him how proud I was. And he wrote back! Mind you, he's likely got somewhere between 1E+3 to 1E+6 better and more important things to than return an unsolicited note from a blast-from-the-past teacher. A teacher who was, erm, far from perfecting his craft that first year. What can I say? He's a classy guy in addition to being a learned scholar.

I also let him know that he will be giving me a personal tour of the Supreme Court once he's appointed. I'm nothing if not courteous in providing advance notice on such things.

Can you spot him in this archival photo?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Honor Mr. Wizard for fun and prizes

Rebecca Watson of is an energetic character known to all who attend JREF TAMs. And she is throwing down the gauntlet. Well, she's actually extending an invitation. She's more eloquent than I am, so I'll let her do the talking.Now get out there and get. Those. Projects!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

California Capital Airshow '07

There's a certain energy, stress, angst, whatever associated with the end of the school year. Upon finalizing the check-out process, I'm typically overcome with an uncontrollable urge to go out and shoot something. With my camera, that is. Jeez, people!

Last year I spent some time in Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks. This year, I attended the California Capital Airshow. I had never shot an airshow before, so I stood to learn a thing or two.

I shot about 2000 frames with my trusty Canon EOS 10D digital SLR, most with my 100-400mm f/4L IS lens.

I winnowed that down to fewer than 200 keepers that I posted here.

I'm in the process of filtering that down to a smaller set that I'm willing to work on. The finished products are being posted here:

Again, this is my first airshow shoot. So I make no claims about the composition, sharpness, or quality of the post-processing work. This is not where the poetic champions compose. But some of the finished images turned out OK.

I'm finished with the Thunderbirds and B-2 shots and am working backward through other aerial spectacles and static displays.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

I've been AP-proved!

Shortly after my last post (blog-eons ago), I spent a day preparing the course syllabus for my AP Physics B course. Not for purposes of the actual course I've been teaching for over 20 years, but for the College Board's AP Course Audit.

Seems there's been too much ambiguity in what constitutes an Advanced Placement course as AP has grown more popular throughout the land (and around the world). The College Board felt the need to reign things in. So AP teachers were suddenly set upon with the burden of proving the worthiness of the courses they taught.

Yes, the very AP teachers who deliver college-level content to the best and brightest students, teachers who's "success" or "failure" can be seen in their students' pass rates, teachers who are--at some schools--asked to provide lesson plans to school administrators for purposes of documenting the fact that the portion of the school year following the AP exam will be spent doing academically rigorous coursework, those teachers had yet another task to perform.

And it was no trivial task. Rather it required extensive reading of background material and review of sample syllabi before beginning. Then it was off to matching your course to the College Board's expectations. I suppose if you were just starting a course, the process would be simpler. Just adopt one of the sample syllabi given.

For me, it was not so simple. I've crafted an AP course that was designed to work at my school for my students. I wasn't looking to scrap it and start from scratch.

Amusingly, the College Board recommends that AP Physics B should be a second-year course. But each of the example syllabi appeared to be AP Physics B as a first-year course. I suddenly discovered that my scheme of covering California academic content standards in my first-year non-AP course and covering everything else the College Board needs in my second-year AP course wasn't necessarily what this audit process was calling for. Suddenly the first-year AP Physics B course looked much more appealing.

The audit seemed to want every topic on the AP Physics B exam to be taught at the AP level. There appeared to be no benefit in having a first-year course to cover the basics and then a second-year course to build upon those basics. I was concerned, but I wasn't keen to scrap my two-year program. And again, other communications from the College Board openly promoted AP Physics as a second-year course. Having followed that recommendation suddenly put me in a bind for producing the kind of syllabus they wanted.

The sample syllabi were easy-breezy two- or three-page outlines. The monster I submitted was a nine-page tome. With small type.

I met the June 1st deadline for submission. Just. And I settled in for the promised two-month wait. Yesterday, I got the good-news email. The authorization is for Dean Baird's AP Physics B program at Rio Americano. If a new teacher comes along, they'll have to go through the audit. If I move to another school, I'll have to go through the audit again.