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Carl E. Mungan, Professor
Carl E. Mungan, Professor

Miscellaneous Columns

Letter on Double-Blind Review (APS October 2015)

In the article “Is Double-Blind Review Better?” (APS News, July 2015) Shannon Palus states that the only physics journal she knows of that allows authors to remove all self-identifying materials from their manuscripts is Nature Physics. However, one of the two flagship journals of the American Association of Physics Teachers, namely The Physics Teacher, requires it of all authors. I believe their reason for doing so is to ensure that all articles stand on the strength of their potential value in contributing to physics education, even if the authors are first-time contributors with no academic affiliation and live in some obscure international location.

I think we physicists have all heard of (or even been involved in) cases where games have been played with names and affiliations of authors on a manuscript for the sole purpose of impressing potential referees. (If Joe Superstar from Big-Name University is on a paper, referees may be more likely to be favorably disposed toward it before even reading it.)

If a journal is going to try double-blind, it should not be an option. Otherwise as a referee I can’t help wondering if the authors have something to hide by choosing that option. It should be required of all submissions, at least on a trial basis for a select number of issues, to see if it changes the acceptance statistics. It is true that some authors will still be recognized (as I can report happens when I review for The Physics Teacher). That is no more an argument against blinding their authorship than the fact some referees will be recognized is an argument against blinding their identities. A system may be imperfect but still better than the alternatives.

50th Anniversary Booklet of The Physics Teacher (AAPT Summer 2013)

TPT in my Early Career as an Undergraduate Professor

I don’t remember having heard of AAPT when I was an undergraduate. I was schooled in Canada, so that may be part of the reason for my ignorance. After doing my graduate work at Cornell and a postdoc at Los Alamos, what I most enjoyed was the basics of all areas of physics. So it became clear that a primarily undergraduate university or liberal arts college would be the best fit for me and I interviewed at such places. The University of West Florida, a school in the Florida state system, made me a tenure-track offer, so we packed up for Pensacola in Fall 1996. The physics department had four tenured professors. I was replacing Dick Smith, who had started the listserver PHYS-L (still a great forum for asking about and discussing physics at the college level). There was also Jim Marsh, a quantum theorist.

Jim had the interesting habit of periodically writing up a short handout on whatever topic he happened to be thinking about at the time, such as the quantum measurement problem or converting magnetostatic integrals into their electrostatic analogs. In a matter of months, I was doing the same thing—and have continued writing what I call white papers ever since. (The long list can be accessed at http://usna.edu/Users/physics/mungan/Teaching-Activities/Scholarship.php.) Sources of inspiration include issues that arise in class or when I’m preparing to teach a topic (or grading homework), something I read in a journal such as TPT, or an item from PHYS-L (motivated by my desire to preserve the ideas in a more settled form than the archived postings offer). Eventually one of these white papers was sufficiently rich that I dared to consider publishing it in 2001, by which time I had moved to the U.S. Naval Academy, which afforded me better research collaborations.

Let me back up to 1996 again. That autumn, I got into the first New Physics Faculty Workshop, held at College Park and sponsored by AAPT. This event was my first exposure to AAPT (not to mention Peer Instruction, as well as an organized physics demo show like those run by the University of Maryland, and many other innovations). I was delighted when they sent me to the subsequent Summer National Meeting in Denver. (My wife and six-month-old son were there, each with their own nametags. We stayed in the dorm and gave our son baths in the kitchen sink.) I joined AAPT and subscribed to TPT. Every issue had ideas for a starting physics faculty member like myself, struggling to teach 7 courses a year with new preps every semester.

We aren’t exposed to TPT in typical physics degree programs. At least I was not. We stumble across them one day in our time of need. What a difference compared to reading a research journal: you could open any issue of TPT to any page and understand right away what you read there. You didn’t need to be a specialist in some sub-sub-sub-field of study!

Around that time, I was analyzing the demonstration of a spool pulled by a ribbon at different angles relative to a table. The spool can either roll forward or backward, much to the delight of introductory physics students, especially if they are first asked to predict which way it will roll. (“All of you are right….”) I developed an expression for the maximum acceleration of a symmetric spool that rolls without slipping. I already knew there is a special angle when the ribbon’s line of action intersects the contact points of the outer rim of the spool with the table. At that angle, the spool’s translational acceleration is zero; if pulled hard enough, the spool slips in place when static friction is overcome. What was new was another special angle, with the ribbon unwinding off the top half of the spool rather than the bottom half, at which rolling without slipping happens even in the absence of friction. The maximum acceleration has a cusp in it at that angle, with the limit being reached when the spool is pulled so hard that it lifts off the table.

Since 2001, I have published 15 articles and 5 letters in TPT. Some of the ones that have attracted special attention are the trio dealing with the perennial controversies of work, heat, and energy: “Irreversible adiabatic compression of an ideal gas” in 2003, “A primer on work-energy relationships for introductory physics” in 2005, and “Thermodynamics of a block sliding across a frictional surface” in 2007. Readers who found “Inverse lawn sprinkler” in an online Summer 2005 issue appreciated its demonstration of how the motion of a reverse sprinkler depends on the bends in the arms. “Rolling the Black Pearl over: Analyzing the physics of a movie clip” in 2011 was adapted from a popular presentation at the 2010 Summer National Meeting. In addition, I have avidly solved Boris Korsunsky’s Physics Challenges ever since he started that column in October 2001. (See page 476 of the October 2005 issue of TPT for an award I received in connection with these Challenges.) Currently I’m on my second three-year stint as a member of the TPT Editorial Advisory Board—it’s a privilege to give back to the journal in some way.

Spurred by the joy of writing pedagogical articles, I have written such articles at other levels of presentation in many journals. Crafting them clarifies my thinking. All of my publications are online at http://usna.edu/Users/physics/mungan/Publications/Publications.php. Whether one considers a topic from a first-year undergraduate course for nonmajors or an advanced issue in a senior-level theoretical or laboratory class for physics majors, I think it’s safe to say that if you can present it at the level of TPT, then you really understand the topic. Try it yourself and see!

An Interview with Boris Korsunsky (FEd Summer 2010)

Tell me about your educational and career trajectory.

I grew up in Moscow, Russia. My last two years of high school were spent at one of the most selective Moscow math and science schools. I was a good student (although always a bit of a clown) and I especially enjoyed physics. My physics teacher was a part-timer; her main job was being a physics editor at Kvant, a magazine very similar to and the predecessor of the now defunct Quantum. By the time I graduated from high school, I knew I wanted to be a high-school physics teacher. At the insistence of my parents, I got an engineering degree but went straight into teaching afterward. I taught for a few years at the same school where I had been a student while getting another degree in Physics Education. I emigrated to the United States in 1992. I remember that I told all my friends and colleagues that I was going to remain a teacher in the US and everybody thought that I would switch to computer programming. That's what most immigrants with math/physics background did, but I wanted to keep doing what I really loved. After some part-time gigs, I finally got a full-time job at a boarding school in Western Massachusetts and then moved near Boston where I still live. In 2003, I completed my doctoral dissertation at Harvard School of Education and, unlike most of my fellow students, chose to remain a high-school teacher (although having a Harvard degree does help in finding consulting jobs). I have been at Weston High School for ten years now and I couldn't be happier with the community, the colleagues and the administration--truly, an enlightened and exciting place to work.

In addition to classroom teaching, I have always tried to be professionally active in as many ways as possible: I have written many articles for Quantum and The Physics Teacher, led workshops for teachers both in the US and abroad, served as a coach for the US Physics team, have been involved with the AP Physics program in different capacities and have done a lot of freelance writing for various publishing companies.

What are some differences between Russian and American high schools?

First of all, let me stress that the educational system in any country is part and parcel of the national culture, its political and economic system. In other words, one has to be careful about making "value comparisons." Second, the high-school system in Russia nowadays is in many ways different from the Soviet system of my time. (I graduated from high school in 1982.) However, I can still comment on some differences.

In Russia, like in many European countries, most academic subjects (including math and science) are studied over several years. For instance, I had five years of physics and four years of chemistry (starting in middle school). Also, in my days, there was a single national curriculum for all schools. These days, Russian schools are freer to choose their curriculum but every high-school graduate must pass a series of national exams in various subjects, including math, physics, chemistry, language, and history. The results of these exams, along with the student's GPA, are used for college admissions. No letters of recommendations, and no accomplishments in arts, athletics, or community service play a role in college admissions (at least not officially, although it still helps to have the right parents, know the right people, or be an international-level athlete).

Mathematics and science teachers in Russia get much more thorough "content training" than their American counterparts (perhaps, at the expense of pedagogy and psychology classes). A typical physics teacher graduates with training similar to that of a physics major. (Considering that a Russian college degree usually takes five years to obtain and the course load is very high, that would be the equivalent of getting both a B.S. and M.S.) In the classroom, teachers expect a no-nonsense atmosphere, with little patience for what here in the US would be considered "learning disabilities," "athletic commitments," and so on. If the students enjoy their classes, great, but that is not a teacher's primary concern. Overall, schoolwork in Russia is considered "the civic duty of the young generation" from a very early age. In the US, the pressure to perform academically often does not begin in earnest until high school. (The relatively recent proliferation of state-level competency testing is changing things, however.) In Russia, from the very first day of school, students are given homework and grades, and are scolded by both their parents and their teachers for poor performance. Every kid knows that, if their grades are bad, they'll be in trouble. The fear of punishment is definitely a factor in the overall academic achievement. In most families there is huge parental pressure to do well at school. From what I know, such pressure on students is also prevalent in many other countries. I believe that it is the culture of high expectations and of making education the highest priority--as opposed to some mysterious "innate ability"--that makes Asian and Eastern European immigrant children so academically successful here in the US.

Another factor that puts tremendous pressure on Russian male students is the possibility of being drafted. The Russian military, for many young men and their parents, is a nightmare: poor living conditions, rampant hazing, and many training accidents, often resulting in serious injuries and even death. Many colleges offer deferment from the service, and many male students work extra hard to earn a spot at one of those colleges.

Discuss some of the books you have written.

You are kind to call them "books"--they are all "supplements" of sorts. When I began my teaching career here in the US, I was surprised and frustrated by the lack of resources for interesting physics problems. There have always been plenty of such books in Russia, so I decided to write one to use with my AP Physics students. I had always enjoyed elegant physics problems, participated in physics and math competitions myself, and trained my students, some of whom made it to the Russian and the US national physics teams. The book, written two years after my arriving in the US, was published as a supplement of challenging, Olympiad-style problems for one of Raymond Serway's physics textbooks. Almost fifteen years later, that book has not been a huge commercial success. I am pretty sure it's out of print by now. Maybe, there is no market for such books in the US? Most of my own students find these problems too hard so I rarely use them in class, but some of them have been used in the column of Challenges that I have been editing for eight years for The Physics Teacher.

My second book was also a collection of problems. That was a "fun" project: each problem was based on a fact from the Guinness Book of Records or a similar source. My students do enjoy these problems and I use them in my classes on a regular basis.

I have also written (or, rather, reworked) an AP-preparatory book, which has since been updated again. Also, at the end of last year, I published a completely different, "un-serious" book: a collection of funny student quotes, named Trophy Wives Don't Need Advanced Physics. (The title is an actual quote from a student's test.) I had been collecting quotes for a number of years, from my own classroom and from other sources, and I was nudged to finally put together a book by several really funny (or sad?) lab reports collected from my freshman physics class last year. First, I wrote a short article for The Physics Teacher and then I decided to go a little further. The article and the book came out at about the same time. You can find out more about this effort at http://funstudentquotes.com.

I am still planning to write a book on the subject I have always been passionate about: The art of teaching problem-solving skills in the physics classroom. It was the topic of my dissertation, it has been one of the primary goals of my teaching, and the book on that subject remains a very important goal in my professional plans. Some day I'll get to it.

What else can you tell us about your Physics Challenges column in The Physics Teacher?

Well, as I mentioned, I have always been interested in competition-style physics problems--the ones that put to shame the artificial distinction between "conceptual" and "computational" problems. These problems can be called challenges, brainteasers, or puzzles. The point is that they require deep understanding and creative thinking, but no knowledge beyond a rigorous high-school physics course. I proposed the column twice. When Karl Mamola became the editor of The Physics Teacher, he kindly agreed to give the column a pilot run and it's now been eight years, I think. I get quite a few solutions each month, and many more teachers and students solve these problems without submitting, judging from the informal feedback I get and from the number of downloads the column gets each month. Teachers use them as "bonus" problems in class; some discuss these problems as part of the teaching process, to demonstrate the interplay of different concepts and ideas in the same situation. Many colleagues have thanked me for the column over the years and I am honored to provide this service to the community. I am pleased to see that solutions have been coming from all over the world but I am a little sad that the vast majority of student contributions tend to be from abroad. I would encourage my colleagues in the US to recommend these problems to their best students and to help them stretch themselves.

Boris Korsunsky is a physics teacher at Weston High School (korsunskyb@mail.weston.org) in MA.

The Real Meaning of Common Teaching Phrases (FEd Summer 2010)

peer instruction: What is happening when 5 workers are at a construction site and only 1 has a shovel.

structured reflection: Student complaints about your course policies.

inquiry-based activity: What instructors have the students do when they didn't have time to fully prepare their notes.

constructivism: Attempting to construct sense out of student nonsense.

assessment: Retroactively making up explanations for why you did what you did in the course.

curving the grades: Rewarding students who didn't learn the material.

problem-solving sessions: Doing the homework for the students.

conceptual understanding: Attribute of students who cannot solve problems.

student-centered teaching: Any classroom technique that is effective in the instructor's opinion.

extra credit: Benefitting students who didn't make time for homework.

modeling method: Working through all the steps of an example problem.

interactive engagement: What happens when the instructor is present in class, as opposed to "inactive engagement" when the instructor is absent.

mastery learning: Allowing students to repeat a test until they have memorized all possible permutations of it.

course objectives/standards: A list of everything students probably know about the subject before they take the course.

collaborative environment: The result of randomly rearranging desks in your classroom.

(In the spirit of a similar list entitled "Useful Research Phrases" which you can find by googling it. I retracted the term "physics education research" from the above list, because ScienceGeekGirl correctly pointed out that it's a research not a teaching phrase and that my definition was a bit edgy.)