Candle 4/23/22

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

The beauty of quantum mechanics is that it sparks Imagination.  There seems to be so many things possible at the sub-atomic level that would be a clear violation of physics at the Newtonian level (where we live).  I am a quantum chemist, which means that I know all of the principles of quantum theory, but my interests lie in how electrons lie and how they behave.  I had taught it for years, until we hired a new physicist who wanted to teach it.  Before her first course, I had reminded her that our program covered both chemistry and physics and asked that she be wary to teach it as such. 

The first week of class, she had set up a problem regarding what was then called “ether”, an invisible, weightless material filling all of space between matter.  You can read about it in Edgar Allen Poe’s works, specifically a story that postulates taking a hot air balloon to the moon.  If ether sounds suspiciously like dark matter to you, yes, it does to me, too.  She had set up Schrödinger’s equation and put it on a blackboard for the students to work out.  In the end, it was supposed to come up with the “null” solution, meaning the existence of ether (or dark matter) is impossible. 

She then walked out of the class, leaving the students to solve the problem themselves.  This is an example of “problem-based learning”, but the students could never get the solution, and for the rest of the semester she refused to teach any more until they did.  In the end, they never learned anything about the behavior of electrons, and nearly nothing about quantum physics except, perhaps, believing that they couldn’t do it. 

My question, then, is what was the point?  A group of students paid money to learn that there is an equation that, hypothetically, will show things for those smart enough to solve it.  I’m shocked they didn’t ask for refunds, as would have been their right.  I’m surprised they didn’t take back her pay for this “course”.  But she’s not alone.

I taught an earth science course with a geologist who was a very good friend and that I respect very highly.  He was intelligent, and he was my boss.  His idea was that I could teach the physical science aspects of the course (chemistry, physics, and related) and he could teach the earth science parts (rock science, weather, ocean patterns and so forth).  Along with lecture three days a week, we had lab once a week that would last, as I recall, two hours.  One week he wanted to do an earth science course.  He gave each group a candle, which they were supposed to observe as it burns.  He asked one question; how is this candle a model of the earth?  The problem is that the students didn’t get it.  Since they didn’t get the answer, he insisted on repeating it the next week.  And the next.  And the next. 

For a month the students would watch that candle, and, honestly, to this day I have no idea what it was he was driving at.  He never gave any additional hints or directions.  The students would walk in and see the candles and just groan, and I don’t blame them.  I tried to talk with him about it, but he was my dean, and insisted there was a point.  They never found the answer he was hoping for.

As a professor, I was always self-evaluating.  If the students did poorly on an exam as a class, I took at as a reflection of my own teaching and tried to find a solution.  Science builds on itself, so if you don’t understand this chapter, you won’t understand the next, but this can also be crippling to a professor. I found creative ways to reinforce the material without sacrificing the schedule.  I knew another physics professor who, one year, tried a new teaching theory.  He refused to move on to the next topic until the entire class, every single student, scored an A on the exam for the topic.  He was more concerned that every single student understands that chapter than moving to the next.  Understandable, as science does build on itself, and by the end the students truly had a grasp on the first couple of chapters but lost a vast majority of the rest of the course.

An adjunct professor teaching biology where I was dean was the exact opposite.  Technically we had a two-semester course, but the second semester of this course was rarely taught as it was an elective and students usually didn’t have an interest in it.  The first semester was a pre-requisite for other courses.  The regular faculty had chosen specific chapters in a textbook and convinced the printers to put together a special edition of them just for our university to save students some money.  The adjunct teaching at a satellite facility chose to force the students to purchase the full book and insisted on teaching it in its entirety.  In half the time, he taught the entire course and insisted he was doing so at the depth of the other faculty.  What an amazing teacher.  I fought with the director of that satellite location who backed him, even as our accreditation was in question because faculty at different facilities were not using consistent textbooks (they didn’t say which, but I’m sure this was the example they used). 

Academic Freedom is a great idea, and one that is in jeopardy with many of the restrictive laws being passed and considered, but it’s not all-encompassing either.  Faculty have an obligation to keep inline with other professors teaching the same course, and to be sure that the pace of the course covers both the depth and the breadth of the material in the course.  Unfortunately, some faculty do overstep their boundaries and use the concept to cover their tracks.  Believe it or not, there is a standard book that very clearly defines what the freedoms are, and what the restrictions to academic freedom are as well (published by the American Association of University Professors, the AAUP Policy Documents and Reports).  And, yes, I have a copy which I just grabbed (11th edition) to get the title.

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