Friday, October 10, 2008


Hey, it looks like the school website filters now allow me to access this from work. Badabing, I've got blog tools.

Friday, May 26, 2006


In case you can't tell, this blog has become very inactive.

I started it because I was hoping to learn some better teaching skills and practices, but I don't think blogging is a very good method for that. I am still looking for teachers (physics teachers in particular) who share good classroom methods, but I don't think I'll be writing here much over the summer. Just a guess.

In the meantime, I'm still writing on more general topics at AtlasBlogged.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

High Schoolers to Declare a Major?

(this article is cross-posted at AtlasBlogged. Join the discussion there!)

Would it make sense to ask high school students to have more freedom and control over their own studies? I recognize that for most students, one of the worst parts about being in high school is the lack of control over their own curriculum. It really doesn't matter how much you hate math, poetry, or phys ed. You are going to take it. Is this paternalism? Or is it a realistic requirement when providing children with an education? To what degree could 13-year old could be expected to map out an education plan for themselves? Can we expect that children that age know what is best for themselves?

Legislation that unanimously cleared the Florida Senate Education Committee last week would require incoming high school freshmen to declare a major and a minor course of study. I think there are some obvious problems with this plan, and I would like to see how they will be addressed.

1) What majors will be offered? They will have to be pretty broad, because some schools won't have the resources to offer more than a basic "math and science", "social sciences", "arts and humanities" option.
The Bradenton Herald reports that vocational coursework would count - "fields like carpentry or auto repair."

The district in which I teach (in Virginia, not in Florida) is big enough to offer a math/science center, a foreign language center, an IB program, and a lot of vocational opportunities - but that's a big district with a relatively flexible budget. Let's not kid ourselves into thinking that all of these kids will be able to pick bioinformatics. What will be the bare minimum a district would have to offer under this law, and how is that bare minimum different from the current required courses? There is a possibility this will just be an extra stack of files in the guidance department for many rural schools.

2) What if a kid wants to change majors? At the college level, this is easy enough. Worst case scenario is that it takes you longer to get your degree. So if a high school junior says that she feels she was misinformed about what "social sciences" entails, and she wants to switch to a hard science major, do you tell her "no"? Do you tell her she will graduate high school a year late? Obviously, the answer to these two questions will have to be "no". So what exactly is the point of calling it a "major" if it is really just an opportunity for students to pick and choose their classes?

3) What minimum competency would be required in the core classes? I suppose districts could default to the federal standards of minimum competency in math and English language. If you think the bare minimum is enough, then ok. But some people choose to learn more and we encourage that, ok? You do want to express yourself, don't you?

It is my understanding that many other countries have a system like this for their public schools. In particular, I have had several scientists and engineers from Germany tell me that they were separated from students with other interests by age 14. Provided that this is voluntary on the part of the student, this seems like an idea with potential. I would love to hear from any readers who are more familiar with a comparable working system.

And for you libertarian readers who would say "this, too, would be best addressed by privatization of all schools", please answer the question of what subjects must be studied under the Florida plan, or under total privatization. Are you so libertarian as to support a parent's freedom to send their child to madrasses? I am not just playing devil's advocate - I feel that question to be at the heart of the issue of unmotivated students in public schools, which is exactly the problem this Florida bill hopes to address.

Monday, April 03, 2006

A Line of Thunderstorms

Having just finished Bernoulli in my classes, my students were inappropriately excited about the possibility of tornadoes in our area tonight. (I'm going to crack the windows even if my parents think I'm nuts, because we just learned about it!) Of course, they are young and immortal, so they view storms with a different perspective than I, a homeowner and father of two. I will be spending this evening preparing a lesson on lightning (on my laptop) and hoping that the storms don't bring any damage to our area.

Weekend Wedding

I packed the family into the minivan and headed north to Philadelphia for the weekend, leaving 80+ tests on my desk ungraded. Mrs. Wulf's sister got married. The ceremony and reception were at the Plastic Club, which may sound very novo-techno, but is actually a classy and historic visual art club. The bride was beautiful, as was the bridesmaid (Mrs. Wulf), and my children were the hit of the party, dancing for hours past their bedtimes.

My students confronted me with disappointment today, as it is the end of the marking period and they NEED to know how they did on the test. I would have much more sympathy for them if they always turned things in to me on time.

Right now, I am just longing for this weekend - Spring Break. I need a little time to catch up on chores around the house. (Test link)

Sunday, March 26, 2006


This is for Graycie and Old Math.

Old Math says he is giving up the blog for a while, basically because it's a bit depressing and old. I can relate to that. I try not to blog too negatively, and the result is that I don't write often. This blog was never meant to be a teacher's lounge bitching session, and I guess that wasn't the intention for other teacher blogs - even those who have degenerated into exactly that.

Graycie wrote last week that she was going to try to avoid the downward spiral by focusing on the positive things. This reminds me of how BizzyBlog inserts articles titled "Positivity" betwixt his writings on the economy and Ohio elections. It's refreshing, because most blogs who provide meaty content don't manage a lot of non-partisan, clean, wholesome positivity. I guess it just doesn't seem important.

Well, take some time to stop and smell the roses. And when the roses aren't in bloom, listen to this story on NPR about a "positive psychology" class at Harvard. On one hand, that sounds like a load of crap. But I am not just a physicist. I am also an amateur philosopher and economist, and we have to recognize that there is a demand for a course that tells college students that we aren't made to be in the rat race. Therefore, somebody must supply that course.

It is not mandatory, so nobody is having their time wasted against their will. And Tal Ben-Shahar sounds naive. But I have long recognized that my secret to personal happiness is to be childlike, without being childish. I know that the reason my students enjoy my class is largely because I enjoy my class. And a student who enjoys their physics class will learn a lot more than one who does not. How could this not be true in other subjects? I leave that for you to ponder. But keep in mind that not all of your students even know how to enjoy the subject you teach. Most of them have no idea why you would go study it in college or make it a career. And that means that they aren't getting as much out of the subject as you can give. Renew your excitement in your subject(s), and don't let the negativity stop you from being that (insert subject here) nerd.

I am proudly a physics nerd. I relish it. I revel in it. I have my Einstein necktie and my caffeine molecule coffee mug, and the last question on my every test is:
Physics is fun
a) true

(get it? There is no choice b!)

I know most of these kids won't go on to study physics, or even remember a lot of the principles and concepts. But they will remember the demonstrations, the bad jokes, and the positivity. And when they have negative attitudes, I will keep in mind that I am sending them out into a world where "positive psychology" is offered at Harvard University, so maybe they'll be okay if they don't understand Bernoulli's Principle all that well.

In the meantime, I am going to go smell something better than roses - my two preschoolers, who got out of the tub about three hours ago and fell asleep shortly after. And I will try to post more frequently, with more science articles and science labs, and with entries whose titles start with "Positivity". Good night.

Sunday, March 19, 2006


When people find out that I am a scientist, they often think I know The Answers. Sometimes, they realize that my degree in physics does not afford me any expertise in other sciences... but sometimes they don't. And even within physics, there are many niches and specializations, and most physicists know very little about specializations distant from their own. The average astronomy professor may know more than you do about quantum dots, but don't bet on it. Even the microscopy experimentalist professor may be uninformed about them. Scientists don't know everything - we don't even know everything about our tiny corner of science.

But we do try.

An excellent example of how disorganized a field of study can be, and what scientists are trying to do to change that, can be found in taxonomy. From the February 9th edition of The Economist:
[N]early 250 years after Carl von Linné, a Swedish naturalist, invented the modern system of naming living creatures, taxonomists still have no official list of all the animals discovered so far.

Doesn't that seem like something that should have been done a long time ago? Frankly, I just assumed that such a catalogue existed somewhere - kept by some group of universities, or the Royal Society, or the Smithsonian. If I had grown up knowing that such a catalogue did not exist, I would probably be a taxonomist and software engineer today - I mean, it's obvious that a need for such would exist. We can't even keep track of a few dozen elements without creating a comprehensive table that catalogues them all into rows and columns by similar behaviors. How could biologists expect to have any sense of order regarding thousands of thousands of species, without some sort of comprehensive catalogue?

Although Linnaeus's big idea was that each species would have one scientific name, so that scientists could know immediately what they were discussing, the lack of a single official “telephone directory” has frustrated the entire enterprise. Around 1.5m species are thought to have been described so far, but more than 6m names have been used.

Because of this, a group called the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) at London's Natural History Museum has begun planning a definitive, open-access, web-based catalogue of species - the comprehensive, peer-reviewed Wikipedia of all living things scientists have discovered. The project is called ZooBank.

Zoobank would start with the partial catalogues that do currently exist. For example, both the Zoobank website and the Economist article I linked mention the Zoological Record...
...which is maintained in the British city of York by a firm called Thomson Zoological that makes its money by scouring the zoological literature, collating the results, and selling them.

That's a 150 year old project, and it catalogues over 17,000 species per year, but it misses an awful lot of potential listings. Still, it's a place for ZooBank to start.

They are still putting together a blueprint (and are open to suggestions), but they hope to get off the ground in the next year or two. I can't provide them with any financial support or taxonomical expertise, but I can give them a little tiny bit of publicity here, and I hope it helps.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Double Helix Nebula

To quote a friend who emailed me this article,
A double-helix-shaped nebula. Pretty cool.

Yeah, pretty cool. I have never seen anything like it. Better yet, astronomers haven't, either. The image is published in the current edition of Nature. The lead author of the article is UCLA's Mark Morris, who suggests that the strands were twisted by magnetic fields.

That's pretty amazing. Had to share.