What Happens When Things Go Near the Speed of Light?

In the Classroom

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The class arrives and begins to settle into their seats. Mrs. MacDonald greets the group and asks if there are any questions before the work of the day begins. Students reach for their journals, knowing that the time has come to discover the next piece of information that may be hanging them up. The class discussion moves from table to table with each group of three or so students having an opportunity to speak to the large group.

Jennie and her group ask what the password is for the website that contains the data. They were unable start the download. Noah, seated at another table, hollers out the password and tips on how to speed up the data download. Rachel then tells the class that her group was able to draw some plots of the data but there seem to be spurious data points. Rachel wonders out loud if anyone else saw this. Other groups pipe up and agree and finally Monica tells the large group that she saw those points as well but understands what they mean and how to smooth them out. She agrees to meet later with others to talk about what she learned. This process of students asking and answering questions continues until the groups have enough information to begin their work for the day.

Mrs. Mac has been filling out the attendance sheet while this interaction has been going on, she pauses to see if there are more questions. A few more questions are answered, Mrs. Mac tells the class that they are free to move around and continue their work. Three groups of students move immediately to the few classroom computers and dial up a web site. One group of students asks for permission to go to the library. Two other groups move to the lab stations in the room to perform an experiment. The last two groups of students ask for permission to go over to the Math department, it seems that the computers there are better.

The lab station students are working with CRTs to determine the charge to mass ratio of the electron and cannot get the electron to turn in a circular path, or any kind of path for that matter. Mrs. MacDonald comes over and checks the connections to the accelerating potential, these are fine but the circuit breaker on the unit has bee tripped. No electrons are being produced. A quick reset of the unit gets the students to the point where they can begin collecting data.

Mrs. MacDonald's computer chimes to inform her of incoming e-mail. One of the groups in the math lab is having trouble with a data file. Mrs. Mac starts a telnet session to the server on which the troubled data file exists. She sees noting wrong with the file and sends a quick e-mail back to the group seeking more information.

Another group sends an e-mail sends to Mrs. Mac describing trouble with the same data. Their information is more specific and even presents a solution. Mrs. Mac checks to confirm the problem and tries the recommended fix. When she has convinced herself that the fix works, Mrs. Mac forwards this message on to the group that originally encountered the problem and the rest of the class as well.

Mrs. MacDonald is called by one of the students at a classroom computer. It seems the web connection is not working any longer; it just stopped downloading. She works with this group for a bit to reestablish the connection.

One of the groups that had left he classroom returns and asks for help in interpreting a graph. Mrs. Mac sits down with the students and helps them inspect the graph and asks questions about which interpretation would yield the most information. She asks if the students changed the scale at all or thought of graphing the data in different ways. The students ask more questions and return to a computer to try some of the different ideas that had been generated by the discussion.

Implications of this Description

To be able to function at the level described above, Mrs. MacDonald needs:

An understanding of the inquiry process by which students should learn science. Inquiry teaching and learning requires a set of skills that can be developed over time. These skills include questioning, and letting students find and answer their own questions.

A deep understanding of the datasets and the physics that she is trying to get the students to understand from their reduction of those data. This can mean (not an exhaustive list): Momentum Conservation, Energy Conservation, Interaction rules, Particle Decay, Quark Combination Rules, Elementary Forces and the Interactions that they drive, Electromagnetic Steering of Charged Particles, Relativity, Graphing Techniques, Data Analysis.

A level of comfort with using computer technology to facilitate student learning. This includes: the ability to use a web browser effectively, not simply point and click, the ability to operate effectively in a telnet session, the ability to use some file transfer protocol routine to move files around the internet or intranet, the ability to simply understand computer networks sufficiently well to troubleshoot.