Posts related to the teaching mission of the Physics Department.

New Physics Faculty: Erin Scanlon

Erin Scanlon joins our Department in fall 2020 as Assistant Professor in Residence at the Avery Point Campus. Erin comes to UConn with an impressive track record of university teaching experience and scholarship in physics education research (PER).

After earning a master’s degree in physics from Georgia Institute of Technology, Erin joined the faculty at Texas Lutheran University from 2012-2017 where she developed and taught introductory physics courses and the associated labs. In parallel to that, Erin pursued PhD in the developmental education doctoral program at the Texas State University, the only program of its kind in the nation, where she earned her PhD in 2017 receiving the 2018 Texas State University Outstanding Dissertation Award. Subsequently Erin accepted a position as a preeminent postdoctoral scholar at University of Central Florida in the group of Dr. Jackie Chini. Erin is a renowned expert in the field of physics education research. Her research, supported by intra- and extra-mural grants, was published in the top PER and STEM education journals. Recently Erin’s research focused on two main streams: investigating how studio physics is implemented across multiple institutions in the nation, and investigating how to support people with disabilities in STEM fields.

Erin is one of the founding steering committee members of the APS Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Alliance (APS-IDEA) launched by APS in summer 2020. This new APS initiative is a world-wide alliance to support departments, national labs and other institutions to identify and enact strategies for improving equity, diversity and inclusion which is much needed in physics. APS-IDEA is a great success with currently more than 90 admitted teams including UConn, see the article on APS-IDEA (to avoid conflict of interest our application was not reviewed by Erin). Erin is also the vice chair of the Physics Education Research Leadership and Organizing Council (PERLOC) which is the leadership body for the physics education research community and founded the Conference Accessibility Working Group.

Erin is committed to outreach and initiated at the Texas Lutheran University highly successful outreach events, called Family Physics Night, which brought together members from the university and local community members. Once settled in, Erin is looking forward to start similar outreach and research activities. Erin moved to Connecticut with her husband Matt who is also a scholar in PER and teaches physics at post-secondary level. We are excited to welcome Erin as a physics faculty in our department, and look forward to working with her.

Spring 2020: The Efforts of Many Made Distance Learning Possible

The transition to online learning that was necessitated due to the COVID-19 outbreak was not without its challenges. Faculty had roughly 10 days to adapt to a modality of instruction most were not used to. TAs had to simultaneously learn how to teach remotely while also adjusting to having the courses they were taking also be changed to a distance-based format. Instructors strived to provide reassurance to the more than 2,000 undergraduate students enrolled in physics courses that they would be able to complete their courses. Additionally, the department faced an important question: How would we be able to finish teaching the lab courses now that the campus was closed?

The remarkable efforts of faculty, graduate TAs, and our teaching staff proved to be instrumental in guaranteeing the successful completion of the spring semester. The faculty e-mail listserv was suddenly bursting with activity with instructors eager to share their experiences and help disseminate helpful information to their colleagues. This spirit of camaraderie was also shared by the graduate students, with several TAs stepping up and taking on additional workload to help peers that were facing additional challenges related to the difficult circumstances.

After Spring Break, classes resumed without additional disruptions – courses were being taught either synchronously with classes largely maintaining their original schedule, or through recorded lectures faculty would release on a regular schedule. Exam assessments were shifted to a distance-based format, with some of the larger introductory courses successfully implementing exams through their online homework platforms. The newly redesigned studio courses continued to be taught following a model that sought to promote student interactions and active learning, with several instructors continuing their use of clickers as a formative assessment tool in their distance-based courses. Collaborative problem-solving tutorial sessions continued to be administered as well, with TAs facilitating these activities through the use of breakout groups during the class sessions.

Even with all these strategies rapidly coalescing, we still the faced the unprecedented situation of having to teach lab courses in a distance-based format. Through the diligent efforts of several of our faculty, teaching staff, and graduate TAs, the department was able to resume lab courses without interruptions after Spring Break. This was done by providing students with the structure they needed to complete their coursework. Several creative (and in some cases innovative) solutions were implemented for lab instruction. Howard Winston, an Assistant Professor in Residence from our Waterbury campus, transformed his living room at home into a physics lab room, where he would perform the experiments live on camera for his students while getting their input on how to run the experiment. In a span of 10 days, James Jaconetta, Hannah Morrill, and Zac Transport, our lab technicians from the Storrs campus, remarkably recorded videos performing each of the experiments and demonstrations still remaining in our course schedules. They also supplemented this video library with a list of videos also curated from other reputable internet sources to help support several instructors teaching introductory courses in Storrs and some of the regional campuses.
The collective efforts of dozens of members of our department ultimately guaranteed the successful completion of the Spring 2020 semester even in unfavorable circumstances. While there were many challenges faced throughout the period, there was no shortage of positive feedback provided by students through formal (SETs) and informal means (conversations) demonstrating an appreciation for the organization and structure provided in their courses. During the summer months, instructors and teaching staff utilized their experiences and the feedback received in the spring to improve their strategies for distance-based learning. As an example, several lab courses in the fall are now running activities through a combination of simulations and “at home” experiments students are performing with household items, smartphones, and lab kits assembled by our teaching staff and sent to students.

Ultimately, necessity is the mother of invention, and there is optimism that some of the lessons learned now are helping drive teaching innovations that will still add value to our courses even when we resume in person instruction.

Physics Department Joins APS-IDEA Network

The Physics Department’s Diversity & Multiculturalism Committee (DMC) was accepted into the APS Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Alliance (APS-IDEA).

Despite years of efforts on local and national levels, the diversity in many physics departments is not reflective of the diversity nationwide. Our department is no exception in this regard. The new APS initiative was created to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in physics by establishing a community of transformation. The international network is formed of teams from over 90 physics departments, laboratories, and other organizations from USA, Canada, Brazil, Germany, and Finland that share the same EDI goals.

The inaugural virtual workshop took place this Summer with over 180 attendees, including APS, AIP, advisory board, and the APS-IDEA steering committee. The next workshop is scheduled for September and more workshops will be organized throughout the year. Acceptance of the departmental DMC positions the UConn Physics Department on the map of global institutions to collectively exchange ideas, learn, and enact strategies for improving EDI in physics. What can we expect? The vision of this initiative is to make physics community more inclusive. The participating teams will exchange ideas/experiences, deepen their knowledge of EDI research and effective practices, and receive guidance to prepare realistic sustainable plans for improving EDI.

Our APS-IDEA team consist of members at the Physics Department from all departmental levels (faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students). Current team members are: Elena Dormidontova (Chair of Diversity & Multiculturalism Committee), Gayanath Fernando, Gloria Fonseca Alvarez, Menka Jain, Aditi Mahabir, Belter Ordaz Mendoza (team contact), Dave Perry, Peter Schweitzer, Megan Sturm, Jonathan Trump, Diego Valente, and Susanne Yelin. The application was supported by the Department Head Barry Wells. All members of the Physics Department are invited and encouraged to join our APS-IDEA team. Together we can enhance inclusion and belonging in physics.


Insight from APS: Careers in Physics

What is a Bachelors of Science degree in Physics good for? What kinds of jobs are available to graduates who complete a 4-year degree in physics, but decide not to pursue an advanced degree? How does a physics degree stack up against other STEM fields in terms of employment options in today's highly competitive job market? Each year the American Physical Society gathers data to help answer questions like these, which they post on their physics careers web site and summarize in their Insight Slideshow. Scroll inside the window below to browse the latest edition of Insight.

Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell – 2019 Katzenstein Lecturer

The UConn Physics Department is delighted to announce that our 2019 Distinguished Katzenstein Lecturer will be

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Friday, November 8th, 2019
04:00 PM – 05:00 PM
Storrs Campus, Student Union Theater

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell (pictured at left) is world-famous for her discovery of pulsars in 1967. Pulsars are a special type of neutron star, the rotating dense remnant of a massive star. Pulsars have highly magnetic surfaces and emit a beam of electromagnetic radiation along their poles. This beam of light moves into and out of our line-of-sight at quick, constant intervals, appearing as a regular “pulse” of light.

At the time of this discovery, Bell Burnell was a graduate student at the University of Cambridge and worked with her supervisor, Anthony Hewish, to construct the Interplanetary Scintillation Array to study another class of objects called quasars. In the course of her daily detailed analysis, she noticed a strange “pulsing” signal in her data. Jokingly dubbed “Little Green Man 1” (LGM-1), further data-taking and analysis revealed this signal to be rapidly spinning neutron star, eventually dubbed a “pulsar.”

Bell Burnell’s discovery is considered one of the most important achievements of the 20th century and was recognized by a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974, awarded to her supervisor Anthony Hewish as well as to astronomer Martin Ryle. While many condemned the omission of Bell Burnell for the award, she rose above, graciously stating, “I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them. Finally, I am not myself upset about it – after all, I am in good company, am I not!”

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell has a highly distinguished career. Some notable highlights include serving as head of the Royal Astronomical Society and as the first female president of both the Institute of Physics and The Royal Society of Edinburgh. She was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to astronomy in 2007. Her story has been featured in a number of works, including the BBC Four’s Beautiful Minds and BBC Two’s Horizon. Bell Burnell is currently the chancellor of the University of Dundee in Scotland and a visiting professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford.

In 2018 Bell Burnell was awarded a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. Only four such prizes have been awarded, one to Stephen Hawking, one to the CERN scientists who discovered the Higgs Boson, and one to the LIGO team for their detection of gravitational waves. This award recognizes her discovery of pulsars and “a lifetime of inspiring scientific leadership.” In addition to her research accolades, her teaching, leadership, and work to lift up women and minorities in science is without parallel.

Goodwin School 3rd grade visits the Physics Learning Labs

About one mile from the Gant plaza, Goodwin Elementary School teaches some really bright kids. On January 15, 2019, science teacher Nancy Titchen and Goodwin teachers brought the entire 3rd grade class on a field trip to the Physics Learning Labs mock-up studio for some science fun. Students enjoyed a liquid nitrogen show, witnessed quantum effects in superconducting magnetic levitation, experienced mechanics concepts such as angular momentum, and learned about vibrations and the phenomenon mechanical of resonance. The expert hands of a star team of PhD students (Erin Curry and Donal Sheets) and new laboratory technicians (James Jaconetta and Zac Transport) ensured students had a great time and learned some interesting science. Big thanks to the staff and the Goodwin School!

Hands-On Approach to Physics

Step into a fall 2018 class section of PHYS 1602: Fundamentals of Physics II, and you’ll find a scene that’s far from the large introductory science lectures common on most college campuses.

Anna Regan ’21 (CLAS) utilizes a whiteboard to try out
solutions during her group’s problem-solving tutorial.
(Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

To start, the class of 30 students sits at several triangular workspaces, which today are covered with wires, coils, magnets, and power supplies that the students are using to demonstrate electromagnetic induction. At the start of class, the instructors provided a short lecture before the students set off on their own problem-solving tutorials.

Now, the instructors move from group to group, stopping to answer questions, as students shuttle back and forth to the whiteboards that line the classroom walls.

It’s a scene that’s about to become common in UConn physics courses, thanks to renovations to the Edward V. Gant Science Complex, according to Barrett Wells, professor and head of the Department of Physics.

“We’re rebuilding our classes from the ground up,” he says. “It’s the basis for what we’re going to spread across most of our introductory courses.”

The curricular redesign, says Wells, will replace the typical large-lecture format with smaller classes, utilizing five new studio-style physics learning laboratories to be added to the Gant Science Complex in 2019. These changes will promote active learning, collaborative problem solving, and faculty-student interaction, he says.

“This is a trend we’re seeing in our discipline,” Wells says. “Restricting class size to promote students actively participating during class has been documented to help them achieve and learn more across the board.”

Lecture Meets Lab

Traditional science courses, including those in physics, typically consist of three weekly lectures that hold 100 to 200 students, with once-per-week lab sections where students practice the concepts they learn in lecture.

But this setup poses challenges for professors and teaching assistants to cover the material at the same rate, often causing lecture and lab sections to fall out of synchrony, says Diego Valente, assistant professor in residence of physics and instructor of Fundamentals of Physics II.

In addition, many physics concepts are difficult to teach within the logistical setup of a lecture, and the instructors may have a difficult time knowing whether students comprehend the material, says Valente.

To combat these issues, the Department of Physics piloted redesigned versions of Fundamentals of Physics I and II, the introductory sequence for physics majors, in the spring and fall of 2018, respectively.

Course instructor and Ph.D. student Lukasz Kuna ’14
(CLAS), ’17 MS assists a group that includes Ian Segal-
Gould ’21 (CLAS), far right. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

The new courses, which will use the physics learning laboratories, merge the lecture and lab sections into three 2-hour class periods per week that hold up to 54 students. Classes are led by the same professor and graduate students.

“[The studio classrooms] allow instructors to interact with students more frequently and discuss concepts with them in depth,” says Valente. “Previously, hands-on group work was limited to lab courses. Now, every single day in class there’s some kind of group activity where students solve problems.”

Lukasz Kuna ’14 (CLAS), ’17 MS, a physics Ph.D. student and teaching assistant for Fundamentals of Physics II, agrees.

“We can present a topic that’s somewhat difficult to understand, and then attack it from all angles,” he says. “It certainly should be the way physics is taught, because it prepares you for more difficult problem solving.”

A Learning Community

The studio learning model also increases the amount of time students spend working collaboratively, says Valente.

Ian Segal-Gould ’21 (CLAS), a physics and mathematics major enrolled in Fundamentals of Physics II, says that the class fosters the collaborative problem-solving that is expected of professional physicists.

“In lecture-based courses, people look at the professor,” he says. “They’re not talking to each other, they’re not solving the problem—they’re looking at somebody else solve the problem. In the real world, physicists work together, so I think the interactive component to this course is on the right track.”

Physics major Megan Sturm ’21 (CLAS) says that working in small groups helps build camaraderie and exposes her to new ideas.

“I know at least half of the class, and it’s way easier to learn that way,” she says. “Someone else will ask a question or say something during the lab that I wouldn’t have even thought about.”

Sturm also says that she enjoys the frequency of interaction with the instructors, noting that Valente circulates through the class, asks students specific questions, and engages in hands-on work with them.

Physics major Megan Sturm ’21 (CLAS) says that working
in small groups helps build camaraderie and exposes her to
new ideas. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

“He’s way more approachable, so when I’m having trouble with things, I don’t have a problem going to office hours,” she says.

Kuna, who has taught for three years in the Department, says that the faculty-student interaction helps him better gauge how students are learning the material.

“Traditionally, if you’re teaching in a large lecture, you somewhat lose the students when they go to lab,” he says. “Here, you get to see where your class stands.”

New Opportunities

With a target completion date for phase one renovations set for fall of 2019, the Department is gearing up to redesign other introductory courses, including Physics for Engineers and Physics with Calculus, a general education sequence taken by many pre-med students.

“This is important because we offer courses to majors across the University, and we’re teaching more students each year,” Wells says.

“Our goal is to develop not just comprehension of physical concepts, but also transferable skills–things like communication through group work and computer programming, which students can use in their professional lives,” adds Valente.

He says that these investments in teaching and infrastructure give UConn an advantage in addressing instructional issues common at institutions across the United States.

“This is a really large-scale venture we are doing, something a lot of comparable institutions aren’t able to do,” Valente says. “It shows that UConn is making a big commitment to physics education.”

By: Bri Diaz, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
This article was originally published in the UConn CLAS Newswletter, November 28 issue

Hands-on teaching of introductory physics gains momentum

Students in PHYS 1601Q, taught by Professor Jason Hancock, work during a lab that observes how an external mass can affect oscillation by producing torque. They use a device called an ioLab to record data, and use the data in a program called Mathematica for analysis. The lab was in the Edward V. Gant science complex on April 20, 2018. (Garrett Spahn/UConn Photo)


A recently renovated physics classroom in the Edward V. Gant Science Complex was built to pilot a new approach to physics education, integrating lecture with lab rather than the classical approach of separating these components.

Students and instructors apply concepts with hands-on activities throughout the lecture, practice new tools, and problem solve as a group. The space is equipped with whiteboards on every wall, and computers and projectors for each station. Though built for entry-level courses such as Physics 1601 and 1602, the end goal is to convert larger classes into this format as well, including entry-level engineering and biology classes, for a more interactive learning experience.

– Garrett Spahn ’18 (CLAS) & Elaina Hancock

21st Annual Katzenstein Distinguished Lecture

Monday, March 26, 2018

The 21st Annual Katzenstein Distinguished Lecture was hosted by the UConn Physics Department, featuring Dr. Takaaki Kajita, 2015 Nobel Prize Winner from the University of Tokyo, speaking on “Oscillating Neutrinos.”  After the lecture,  a banquet with the speaker was held for members and guests of the department. We enjoyed welcoming alumni and visitors to the department for this special occasion, made possible by a generous gift from UConn Physics alumnus Henry Katzenstein and his family.

Video recording of the lecture

Katzenstein lecture 2018