Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Relativity, Cosmology and Undergraduate Imaginations

I’ve spent a reasonable fraction of today meeting with students from my undergraduate relativity and cosmology class. The class is aimed at students with very little physics background, but with some mathematics, including two semesters of calculus. I inherited the class from my former colleague Don Marolf, who is now a Professor at U.C. Santa Barbara. Don had done a wonderful job with this course, developing a substantial reader with huge amounts of information about special and general relativity, and a small amount of cosmology.

This is my first year teaching the course. I’ve changed it around somewhat, removing some of the relativity in order to get to the black hole solution and its features by this week, so that I can then spend half the semester on cosmology. This doesn’t mean I didn’t love it the way Don had it, just that my personal interests lie in slightly different areas.

An integral part of the course are the student projects. Naturally, these must concern a topic related to the course material. However, beyond that there aren't many guidelines about what the project actually is allowed to be. The students in this class are a lot of fun to teach - smart and full of great questions that fill up the class time before I know it. Today's meetings were to discuss project ideas, and I must say it was a blast. Here are some examples of what they want to do:
  • A popular-style article about time travel
  • A computer code to calculate and describe how particles move around a black hole
  • A magazine article on relativity in more than four space-time dimensions
  • A review article on experimental tests of the inverse square law of gravity
  • A web site to teach high-school students about gravitational waves
  • A computer game in which rocket ships race and one can observe the race from different reference frames
  • An article about the evidence for an accelerating universe
  • A magazine-style article about experimental tests of general relativity
  • ...
The list goes on and on. The computer game is particularly inventive. The students not only have to complete these projects and turn them in; they also have to present them to the whole class. Its a lot of work, but they're clearly up to it.

I'm having a wonderful time watching them come to grips with material that is so fascinating to me personally. I truly think that most people are fascinated by science, but don't have enough easy opportunities to learn more about it. At Syracuse our Saturday Morning Physics Lecture Series is one attempt to give people such an opportunity. I'm planning to discuss this and a number of other outreach activities in a post in a few weeks time, after several upcoming and related events are completed.
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