Think back to those fundamental physics classes you took in college. For most, those memories involve a large lecture hall, a chalk board decorated with numbers and letters and a voice explaining how they all connected. For a handful of other students, however, their memories are very different.
In 2008, physicist Gerd Kortemeyer and historian of physics Catherine Westfall, associate professors at Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University, took a trip overseas with a group of undergraduate MSU students. Over the course of five weeks, the groups visited Germany, Switzerland and Denmark where they not only learned, but experienced first-hand the sights and sounds out of which modern physics grew. Kortemeyer and Westfall offered the course again in 2011.
“I reflect on my experiences in Europe all the time,” said Joel Adelsberg, an astrophysics major at the time of the trip who took the course in 2008. He is now in his second year of medical school. “I made some great friends on the trip that I still keep in contact with and I always think of my time there and the experiences I had.”
|Einstein was granted US citizenship in 1940 |
after immigrating from Germany -
one of the many original documents
at the Einstein Museum in Berne.
“In many respects I think the undergrad physics classes that we’re giving we’re doing physics a little bit of a disservice,” said Kortemeyer earlier this month at the APS April Meeting in Savannah, Georgia. “We are conveying a lot of subject matter, we are talking about mechanisms formulas and laws, but we have not conveyed what physics is really about. There’s a human element to this and much of that can be conveyed, we think, through the history of physics.”
The group in 2008 visited the cities of Munich, Bern, Zurich, Berlin and Copenhagen. In 2011, the group toured the same cities, but their last stop was Gottingen instead of Copenhagen. The history and physics concepts the students learned throughout the course was in some way connected with each city they visited.
Copenhagen, for example, is the birthplace of Niels Bohr and also home to the Niels Bohr Institute. Through his work on atomic structure, Bohr made significant contributions to quantum theory. So, it was only appropriate for Kortemeyer to recognize the Nobel laureate's efforts by lecturing the students on quantum mechanics using the same blackboard that Bohr had used so many years ago.
For Matt Dandois, one of the students who took the course in 2008, the museums were one of the most memorable learning experiences. Dandois graduated in 2010 and is now in his third year at MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.
“I definitely think that this study abroad trip helped me understand the concepts of physics, probably more than anything else could. Being immersed in the environment and culture where these brilliant scientists did their work put an amazing perspective on these concepts,” Dandois said. “Going to museums like the Deutsches Museum in Munich especially was amazing. They had an extensive science exhibit which had a lot to do with what we were learning.”
Because the students were always on the move from one historic sight and city to the next, most of their work was completed as written assignments when they returned to MSU. However, they kept journals of their experiences during the trip so that they could draw upon that material for their work. Some of the topics for their written assignments included "The Bohr-Einstein debates", "How come so many people overlooked fission?" and "Gravity and quantum mechanics: What's the problem here?".
Only a few of the students in each group were physics majors. Most were studying other scientific fields or were premedical. And it is non-majors who Kortemeyer said this kind of class could significantly benefit.
In 2009, Kortemeyer and Westfall combined surveys from students who took the physics course abroad and students who took a class they taught in a traditional classroom setting on MSU campus. The results suggested that the students who toured Europe felt like they had a more expert-like view of physics than students who completed the course on campus.
Kortemeyer said that he and Westfall hope to offer more courses abroad in the future.
For more details on the tours and how Kortemeyer and Westfall conducted the course check out "History of Physics: Outing the hidden curriculum?" and "The Physical Tourist: A European Study Course."