If we could read students’ minds, we might discover that when they begin an experiment, they ask themselves – “Why am I doing this lab? What am I supposed to learn? Is this a historically important experiment? Are there transferable skills that this experiment demands?”

In order to help students understand why they are doing a given advanced-lab investigation in physics, the Reichert Foundation proposes to commission teaching physicists to write up ‘contextualizations’ of given experiments.  These essays will be made freely available to instructors, to give students something to read, in preparing for a given experiment, that is not merely technical, but also motivational.  Ordinary technical coverage can explain ‘how it works’; these contextualization essays need to address the question ‘why should we care?’

By providing the students with a clear and comprehensive conceptualization of their experiments, they are much more likely to make the effort, and do the work necessary to make this course a valuable experience. Think of this as a kind of “Road Under Construction” sign, indicating that the section ahead is bumpy, full of twists and turns, hard climbs and intimidating downhills, but it leads the student to a new horizon.

Here are our ideas about what would make a good piece of writing.  Not every Contextualization will cover every one of the points below, but most will touch many of these:

  • Topic:  We want coverage of physics experiments that undergraduate students are likely to encounter in an advanced-lab course.
  • Background:  When, and why, was this experiment first done?  What controversy did it address, or what surprises did it offer?
  • Audience:  Who cared about this experiment when it was first done?  What dispute did it address, and which questions did it help settle?
  • Methods:  What instruments, techniques, and ‘infrastructure’ did it, and does it, require?
  • Spin-offs:  What technology, application, or industry does this experiment underlie?
  • Skills and techniques:  What novel skills will a student acquire in doing this experiment? What unique technical methods will they use?
  • Implications:  What effects did this experiment, or discovery, have on thought in physics, or in human culture more generally?
  • Length:  We suggest essays of about 750-1000 words, ie. under two pages of type.

Remember that a Contextualization essay is not written by a researcher for other researchers; it’s written by a teacher for prospective students.  It’s meant to recruit, and to energize, students, and to ‘locate’ an experiment, putting it into context within physics in particular, and human leaning and culture in general.  It is not a substitute for, nor even a prelude to, a set of experimental instructions; rather, it’s meant to put an experiment into a larger and richer context, so that students will understand why it’s worth doing.

The Reichert Foundation solicits draft Contextualization essays on these or other suitable advanced-lab topics.  The series editor, David Van Baak, will collaborate with authors to format submissions.  Acceptance of submissions is at the sole discretion of the Foundation, but authors of accepted Contextualization essays will earn an honorarium of $250. Any questions and submissions can be sent to David Van Baak at dvanbaak@teachspin.com. Accepted Contextualization essays will be credited to the author, but made freely available to all readers via the Foundation website.

We can imagine plenty of topics that deserve a good Contextualization essay.  We suggest coverage of topics such as:

  • The Balmer series, and hydrogen-atom spectroscopy
  • Optical pumping and its applications
  • Muons:  who ordered them?
  • Positrons, their creation and annihilation, and positronium
  • The Hall Effect – from discovery to applications and current research
  • Moseley’s law and the periodic table
  • Nuclear time-coincidence experiments
  • Angular correlation of gamma rays
  • Compton scattering
  • The Cavendish experiment, and its successors
  • The photoelectric effect: implications and applications
  • Trapping, and seeing, atoms
  • Pulsed nuclear magnetic resonance
  • Electron spin resonance/electron paramagnetic resonance
  • Interference of single photons
  • Blackbody radiation, blackbody spectra
  • Saturated-absorption spectroscopy
  • Fabry-Perot interferometry and spectroscopy
  • The Mössbauer effect
  • Plasma physics and the Langmuir probe

Click here to view a list of accepted contextualization essays.

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