Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Teaching students to think like a condensed matter physicist

Yesterday I heard Carl Wieman give a talk at UQ, Taking a scientific approach to science education. I hope I will say more about it later. Here I just want to highlight one helpful point he made concerning relating teaching to the psychology and practise of "becoming an expert".
We need to teach students to "think like a physicist". This is quite different to imparting (memorising) information in textbooks.

Later in the day I taught my class PHYS4030 Condensed Matter Physics which is really the basics of solid state physics, a la Ashcroft and Mermin. I led a discussion with the students about
"What is the conceptual strategy that we are following in this course?"
We came up with something like the following.

1. Define the simplest possible model.
2. Calculate some properties of materials that are predicted by the model.
3. Compare the predicted properties with experimental results. What are the successes and failures of the model?
4. Refine the model in the hope of better agreement with experiment.
5. Repeat the process.

This is what we are doing as we go from Drude to Sommerfeld to Bloch models, and then consider the role of electron-electron interactions.

I stressed that this is not just what we do in this course but this is the general research strategy in condensed matter physics.

Note this strategy is quite different to how one teaches most physics courses; e.g., quantum mechanics and electromagnetism.
The latter is largely an exercise in the applied mathematics of Maxwell's equations. One never really considers whether they are right or not, or need to be modified.

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