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Minutes of Theorynet Meeting, May 11, 2013

Physics TheoryNet Meeting, May 11, 2013

Room 218 Dana Building, Northeastern University



Mike Wadness, Medford HS
Rick Dower, Roxbury Latin School
Chris Siren, Groton-Dunstable Regional HS
Richard Levergood, Londonderry HS
Scott Goelzer, Coe-Brown Northwood Academy
Brent Nelson, Northeastern University
John Samperisi, Monadnock HS
Nick Nicastro, Wachusett Regional HS
Brandon Murakami, Rhode Island College

Matthew Headrick, Brandeis University
Ken Olum, Tufts University
Nancy Najmi, Reading Memorial HS
Noreen Scarpitto, Reading Memorial HS
Elaine Picard, Concord-Carlisle H.S.
Don Fries, Community School, Tamworth, NH
Michael Hirsh, Needham H.S.
Per Berglund, University of New Hampshire
Tomasz Taylor, Northeastern Unuversity
Lara Anderson, Harvard University
Ann Kaiser, La Salle Academy
Nivedi Das, Sharon H.S.
Albion Lawrence, Brandeis University
Tasneem Zahra Husain
Jesse Thaler, MIT
Jose Juan Blanco-Pillado, Tufts University
Xi Yin, Harvard

A. Spring School Visits

A1) Nivedi Das/Ken Olum

A2) Rick Dower/Tasmeen Zahra Husain
Tasmeen was able to visit Roxbury Latin in February. She talked about the possibility of extra spacetime dimensions, using examples from Carl Sagan's Cosmos and Edwin Abbott's Flatland. She brought a glass cube that was etched with an artist's rendition of a Calabi-Yau manifold. The rendering of the image depended on the face that one was looking at -- which served to illustrate the difficulty scientists expect to have in reconstructing new dimensions from the limited information one has from projections to our own spacetime. Everyone agreed that this was an interesting (if expensive) prop! They can be found for sale at a number of locations on line, including here: http://www.bathsheba.com/crystal/calabiyau/

A3) Scott Goelzer/Per Berglund
A4) Richard Levergood/Per Berglund

Hoping to schedule a visit for June.

A5) Nancy Najmi & Noreen Scarpitto/Lara Anderson

A6) Chris Siren/Matthew Headrick
Matt returned for a visit, this time without Alejandra Castro. The discussion covered a number of current topics, including the Standard Model, the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, and the on-going search for dark matter.

A7) Mike Wadness/Jesse Thaler

Hoping to schedule a visit for June.

A8) Ann Kaiser/Brandon Murakami
No visits this year as Ann is away on a Fulbright fellowship.

A9) John Samperisi/Brent Nelson
Could not get a time and date to work for the spring, so we will try again in the fall.

A10) Nick Nicastro/Tom Taylor
Tom was able to visit Wachusett Regional at the end of April, where he visited one senior physics class and one honors level Modern Physics class. The topics ranged from LHC measurements (including the recent Higgs discovery) to a discussion of the expanding universe. Nick brought a summary of student responses to the visit. As one student reported, "...very rarely does one have the opportunity to converse with such a righteous physics dude." Enough said.

B. Equipment
Mike Wadness used the Milikan experiment in his class and made some adjustments to the oil drop atomizer. One student used the device for a science fair exhibit and obtained decent results, but when the experiment was brought out for use by Mike's entire physics AP class, it was clear that the oil droplet output was too low to get reasonable results. After some tinkering with the shielding on the source for the ionizing particles, the droplets came out almost too quickly. A future user might want to consider further adjustments to find the best balance.

No equipment changed hands at the spring meeting. We ask everyone with equipment in their possession to pelase let Tom or I know before the fall meeting so that we can coordinate transfers between interested parties.

C. General Discussion

C1) MIT Bates Linear Accelerator
Mike Wadness informed the attendees that the Bates Linear Accelerator facility is now beginning the process of decommissioning. While they hope to take things as slowly as possible, it is nevertheless the case that the facility will begin to becomes less interesting for middle and high-school tours. Those interested in scheduling such a tour can contact the facility directly; details can be found here:

C2) Grant Update
Brent reported on the status of the grant proposal to the National Science Foundation for the Theorynet program. In December Tom Taylor and Brent Nelson submitted a stand-alone proposal to the NSF to fund the Theorynet project through the summer of 2016. This is a departure from past practice, where Theorynet was the "outreach" component of the larger high energy theory group grant at Northeastern. Submitting a separate proposal was strongly encouraged by the physics division program director. The motivation was to seek a larger alotment from the NSF, potentially allowing for expansion in terms of size and scope.

That proposal was deemed insufficiently supported to merit a three-year approval. The basic idea behind the Theorynet program was enthusastically endorsed by reviewers, but as some (or possibly all) of the funding would come from the Physics Education section of the NSF, some reviewers felt that more sophistication needed to be in place before funding should be released. In particular, there was a sense that more thought needs to be paid to assessing the outcomes of the Theorynet program, and in the administration of the classroom visits, meetings and other activities of the group.

However, we were offered a so-called "bridge" grant, which would essentially authorize us for one additional year at the current funding level, while a more appropriate grant proposal was prepared. Such a proposal would be due in the late fall of this year. The alternative would be to return things to the status quo ante, with Theorynet once again added to the high energy theory group grant.

As any move towards a stand-alone grant would require significant input from the high school instructors in the program, the discussion was opened up to those present. It was noted that Theorynet was born to be (for the Boston area, at least) a "theoretical sister" to the much larger and more-established QuarkNet program. That highly successful outreach program is much larger in scale, and probably not a model that we will want to replicate. Furthermore, the nature and aims of the two programs are distinctly different. Theorynet is much more centered on the high school student. Students often comment on the excitement with being able to discuss topics in real time from actual science faculty. In contrast, the QuarkNet model is more directed at the high school instructors themselves, with student participation at a greater level of distance from the faculty running the program.

In addition, the culture of high energy theory is very different from that of high energy experiment, with the former being more free-lance in nature, as opposed to a larger, beaurecratic structure. The flexibility associated with smaller groups and informal meeting styles tends to lend itself to the way theorists work in their professional lives. Changing the culture too dramatically, it was feared, might deter future young theorists from joining the program.

Despite these concerns, the general view was that it would be worthwhile to accept the bridge funding and move forward with a proposal in the fall. One of the suggestions from the NSF was to design a proposal that would be "replicable" in other parts of the country. The additional funding associated with a stand-alone grant would allow us to expand the program locally, while designing materials and practices that could then be exported to other groups elsewhere. AS everyone agrees that the program as it now stands is worthwhile for all involved, it stands to reason that expanding the program makes sense. The idea would be to focus on a limited expansion in our "backyard", such as solidifying our presence in southern and central New Hampshire, thereby relieving pressure from Per Berglund to handle the entire state. Doing so over the next 18 months could serve as a pilot to how exporting the program might work in the future. There is a limit to the size of any group that can be administered locally by just two individuals at one institution, so it was suggested that additional senior personnel be solicited from the area.

Among the ideas for sharpening the program in a future proposal were the following:
* Understand the special concerns of the physics education division of the NSF to make sure the proposal meets expectations there
* Look at the next iteration of national STEM educational standards -- look for places where our program furthers the goals contained therein
* Construct, or expand upon, a mission statement for the program
* Preparing pre-written material that can be distributed to students in advance of a faculty visit on certain common topics (e.g. black holes, string theory, the Higgs, dark matter, etc.)
* Document what was being taught just before, and just after, a faculty visit. How did the visit further the educational goals?
* Seek to integrate more fully lecture demonstrations and visual media into faculty presentations
* Consider expanding the roster of faculty members by branching into allied subjects such as theoretical astronomy/astrophysics/cosmology, and recruiting advanced postdocs
* Provide video examples of in-class visits so that potential new participants can get a sense of the program
* Provide better follow-up with high school instructors, especially new ones looking to join the program
* Do a better job of advertising the program at meetings such as the local branch of the AAPT (where we need to provide more than just a token presence), the annual FIRST robotics competition at MIT, meetings of WPI's STEM Education Center, and the Lowell Regional Physics Alliance

On the last topic, it was pointed out that the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) will be having its annual national conference in Boston, April 3-6, 2014.

D. Next Meeting
We scheduled the first meeting of the next academic year for September 21, with September 28 as an alternate date.

Brent Nelson
Associate Professor
Department of Physics
Northeastern University
110 Forsyth Street
111 Dana Research Center
Boston, MA 02115