Dr. Lars English, Physics

Introduction to Relativistic and Quantum Physics

I used the Valley & Ridge workshop to help me redesign parts of Physics 212, “Introduction to Relativistic and Quantum Physics” – a course that (in its second half) introduces students to simple quantum principles and models. One widely taught model is the quantum harmonic oscillator and its application to molecular vibrations. Discrete vibrational energy states are why certain molecules form heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere and thus contribute to the greenhouse effect – the basic mechanism driving global climate change. While I had covered this topic in this course in previous years, it was not sufficiently emphasized and, for the most part, students’ comprehension remained somewhat shallow.

With these curricular revisions my goal is to have students gain both the integrative conceptual tools as well as the scientific vocabulary to make sense of the basic physics of global climate change. This aim necessitates a more detailed treatment of light-matter interactions, both on a macroscopic level (transmission, absorption, re-radiation) as well as on a microscopic level (photon absorption, scattering from a molecule), and to appreciate the causal mechanisms linking the two. As one concrete learning goal, students should be able to explain clearly why CO2 is a greenhouse gas while N2 and O2 are not. 

Physics education research has shown the importance of targeting specific “misconceptions” in students’ thinking, and to help students reach a level of “knowledge security” that is not easily derailed by pseudo-scientific misdirection. Both sustainability and physics educators agree that the most effective pedagogical strategies typically combine elements of small-group discussion, collaborative problem-solving, and inquiry-based projects, and it is my goal to meaningfully incorporate these elements into this part of the course. To also inject a “sense of place” the course could culminate in students interviewing professors or administrators with relevant sustainability expertise around campus.