Life Long Learning in Theory and Practice

Many people have an idyllic image of a teacher’s summer.  Long lazy days relaxing at the pool, cruising the countryside, or sipping Mai Tai’s on the beach.  Days on the golf course, the tennis court, or the track.  Nights on the town.

Many teachers do enjoy a few of those kinds of activities, but many of us also spend the summers working to improve ourselves in ways a bit different from a golf handicap or a bowling league average.  One of the things that I most look forward to in summers is exploring academics and hobbies that all too often go neglected during the school year.

For the first few years that I taught I turned my summers toward academics by necessity, as I was taking classes to earn my full teaching license and to work toward my master’s in education.  However, I wedged in a few things that were just for me.  A Physics Teacher Resource Agent workshop on light and optics in 2008.  A wonderful class called “How People Learn Science and Mathematics” taught by Paul Adams at Fort Hays State (online) in 2008.  A one-day workshop on technical writing in 2008.  A week-long Modeling Physics workshop at Emporia State in 2009.  The list goes on.

Sure, they’re all nominally “job related”, but they weren’t required, and I wasn’t taking them because I had to.  They were just for me.

And I sometimes do even crazier things.  The “How People Learn…” class at FHSU in 2008 required some small papers and then a substantial research paper at the end.  I decided to teach myself LaTeX, a computer type-setting language favoured by math and science writers, but infamous for its arcane commands and language.  I started using Zotero, a research note-taking and citation aide, and a utility called BibTeX to organize my citations into automatically generated bibliographies.  The combination worked out very well.

My research students are working on about a half dozen highly technical projects in my current summer job as a QuarkNet research teacher at the University of Kansas,   I’m making my way around each group, trying to learn the basics of each of their projects, even as I primarily work with the cosmic ray detector group.

My first acclimation to working with a group of high energy physicists was to dive into Linux with gusto.  I began dipping my toes into the Linux waters in the mid-1990s, but never made the full jump.  It is the operating system of choice in particle physics and in many other areas of science, math, and computer science.  I haven’t really used Microsoft Windows for a few weeks now.  My dual-boot laptop and desktop have been humming away in Ubuntu Linux and I feel like I’m ten times the Linux user now as I was in May.  I’ve even SSH‘ed into servers at KU through my Nexus 7 tablet (thanks to JuiceSSH).  That’s just…awesome.  To a seasoned Linux user that will seem lame…but from a relative novice’s point of view, it’s still cool.

I’ve also taken the opportunity to attend a number of lectures at KU on particle physics topics and scientific programming.  Most of these lectures are given live (and interactively) over web video conferencing, some have been from CERN, some from affiliated universities.  It’s been close to ten years since I was in my graduate physics classes, and I can tell my advanced math and physics needs some upkeep.  Thankfully I have an ample home library, including a great book by David Griffiths called Introduction to Elementary Particles.  It’s helping me keep up a little better.

Another one of our research groups at KU is working on custom antenna designs for use in detecting meteor showers with incidental radio reflections.  The research students are using a computational modeling program called 4NEC2 to design and evaluate their antenna designs.  While I’m not working directly with their research group on a daily basis, I want to learn along with them, so I taught myself how to use WINE to install and run 4NEC2 in Linux.  I’m continuing to learn how to use the program, both to help my research students and also to use in my own amateur radio operations.

As I write this I’m working through a classic Linux task, compiling a program from source code.  The program is ROOT, a data analysis program used by particle physics researchers, developed (as was the World Wide Web) at CERN.  I’ve hit a snag or two.  I’m going through reams of help files, MAN(ual) files, and google searches.  I’m about 90% of the way there…and when I get done, I will have two things.  A copy of ROOT working on my machine, and a new but well-developed beginner’s knowledge of compiling software in Linux,  and troubleshooting all of the surprises that come up along the way.

So what is it about learning that keeps me from spending my summers getting up late and playing video games all day?  There’s something of a triumph in each new skill learned, each topic mastered.  At the end of the day I can do more than I could the day before, or I know something I didn’t know, or understand something I didn’t before.  I’m ready to share more with people to help them grow and triumph.

While my contributions back to the KU QuarkNet program are modest so far, I did introduce many people in the department to the wonders of VPython, a great platform for making computational physics models.  So great, in fact, that it is something my Ottawa High school physics students genuinely enjoy working with.  Let me repeat that in another way:  my regular high school students, few of whom have ANY experience programming, actually ENJOY working in VPython, creating their own Python programs that simulate the physics they are learning about in class.  That’s so cool.

That’s so very cool, and I hope it’s something that helps them realize how rewarding it is to learn, and to keep learning.  Even when they don’t have to.


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