Posts related to the teaching mission of the Physics Department.

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.

Students in PHYS 1602: Fundamentals of Physics II in a new Studio Learning Lab located in the Gant Science Complex on November 5, 2018. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)
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.

Graduate teaching assistant Lukasz Kuna instructs PHYS 1602: Fundamentals of Physics II in a new Studio Learning Lab located in the Gant Science Complex on November 5, 2018. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)
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 Strum, far left, in PHYS 1602: Fundamentals of Physics II in a new Studio Learning Lab located in the Gant Science Complex on November 5, 2018. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)
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

UConn offers new minor in Astronomy

The Physics Department has recently expanded its research and teaching specialties to include Astronomy with the addition of three new junior faculty: Cara Battersby, Jonathan Trump, and Kate Whitaker. In addition to the expertise in Observational Astronomy using the latest instruments and techniques, they are also spearheading a suite of new courses in Astronomy and Astrophysics. Following on with the popularity of these course with our students, we have now introduced a new minor in Astronomy to give undergraduate majors across a broad range of majors the opportunity to make Astronomy a prominent part of their studies.

Professor tests innovative approach to teaching Introductory Physics

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)

Following up on results from Physics education research conducted at MIT and elsewhere, professor Jason Hancock  has begun the process of transforming the way Introductory Physics is taught at the University of Connecticut. Starting with the course PHYS 1601Q for physics majors, Prof. Hancock has developed a curriculum that integrates aspects of both lecture and lab components in an active learning environment that introduces students to all of the essential physics covered in the traditional lecture course, but in a format where students work in groups and discover the principles of classical mechanics for themselves using a hands-on approach. Experience gained with PHYS 1601Q will lay the ground work for the eventual conversion of the full suite of calculus-based Introductory Physics courses into an active learning format.

Katzenstein lecture brings Nobel Laureat, UConn alumni to Storrs

Leon Cooper
Leon Cooper, 1972 Nobel Laureat delivered the Distinguished Katzenstein lecture at UConn in October, 2016

The Katzenstein Distinguished Lectures series continued in Fall 2016 for its 19th year, with an October 28, 2016 lecture by Professor Leon N. Cooper of Brown University, entitled “On the Interpretation of the Quantum Theory: Can Free Will And Locality Exist Together In The Quantum Theory?” Professor Cooper shared the 1972 Nobel Prize in Physics with Professors J. Bardeen and J. R. Schrieffer. The Nobel Prize was awarded for the first microscopic theory of superconductivity, now known as the BCS Theory. Superconductivity as evidenced by the disappearance of electrical resistivity was first observed in Mercury by Kamerlingh Onnes in 1911. Immediately, many theorists including Albert Einstein, set out to explain this newly observed phenomena. However it was not until 1933 that the essential property of magnetic flux exclusion was observed by Meissner and Ochsenfeld. No successful microscopic theory was developed until the 1957 Physical Review Paper that developed the BCS theory. A crucial element for the theory was published in a short letter to the Physical Review in 1956 by Leon Cooper, entitled ‘Bound Electron Pairs, in a degenerate Fermi Gas’. These pairs are now commonly referred to as ‘Cooper Pairs’.

The 2016 lecture took place in Physics Building Lecture Room P-36, and an excellent attendance included physics undergraduates, graduate students, faculty from Physics and other departments, and a number of UConn Physics alumni. Prior to the lecture, Professor Cooper met informally with Physics students in the Physics Library, and then met people at a reception that preceded the lecture. Following the lecture, Professor Cooper joined with Henry Katzenstein’s son David, a Professor at Stanford Medical School, along with faculty, staff, alumni and guests for a gala dinner at the University of Connecticut’s Foundation Building. The Katzenstein Lectures are made possible by an endowment established by the late Dr. Henry S. Katzenstein and his wife Dr. Constance A. Katzenstein. Cornell Professor David Lee (1996 Nobel Laureate in Physics and 1956 M. S. alumnus of UConn) gave the first lecture of the current series of annual lectures by Nobel Laureates, in 1997. Henry Katzenstein received the very first Ph.D. in physics from our Department in 1954 after only three years as a graduate student here.


Katzenstein lecture 2016
UConn Physics lecture hall PB-36 filled for 2016 Katzenstein Distinguished Lecture



This story was published in the University of Connecticut 2017 Annual Newsletter.

UConn Physics welcomes new teaching faculty

Assistant professors in residence (APiRs) are primarily responsible for teaching and managing large introductory service classes in cooperation with faculty.

The Physics Department has recently promoted Diego Valente to APiR from his former position of Visiting Assistant Professor. Congratulations Diego on a well-deserved promotion.

The department extends a warm welcome to three other APiRs, Belter Ordaz-Mendoza, Hani Duli, and Xian Wu, who are recently recruited to help advance our growth initiatives.