IoP Energy: Notes Towards A Diagrammatic Teaching Approach?

After a fascinating discussion led by the excellent Alex Weatherall (click here to participate in his Google doc Physics-fest — and follow @A_Weatherall on Twitter for more), I was thinking on possible teaching approaches for energy.

Although I think the IoP‘s (the UK’s Institute of Physics) approach is conceptually sound (see previous post here) and addresses many of the shortcomings in the traditional and time-hallowed “forms of energy” approach, many Physics teachers (myself included) are struggling to find direct and simple ways of communicating the highly nuanced content to students.

For example, to describe a filament bulb:

A (filament) light bulb is a device that takes energy in (input) through an electrical pathway (the current) to the thermal energy store of the filament (the metal is getting hotter) which transfers the energy through the radiation pathways of light (visible and IR). There is an increase in the thermal store of the room due to transfer via the heating pathway. The less energy transferred by heating compared to visible light the more efficient the light bulb.

I think this is in accordance with the letter and spirit of the “IoP Energy Newspeak” approach; but sadly, I can picture many students struggling to understand this, even though it was written by many hands (including mine) with the best of intentions.

But then I began to think of adopting a diagrammatic “enoji” approach. (See here for suggested energy icons, or energy + emoji = enoji)

Diagrams for Stores and Pathways

An energy store is represented by a “watertight” container. For example, the gravity store of a ball at the top of a slope could be represented thus:

Because it is an energy store, the amount of energy (represented by the level of orange liquid) in the store remains constant. Energy will not spontaneously leave the store. Energy stores don’t have holes. The unit we use with energy stores is the joule.

However, energy pathways do have holes. In contrast to an energy store, the energy level in a pathway will spontaneously decrease as the energy is shifted to another store.

To keep the energy level constant in a pathway, it needs to be constantly “topped up” by the energy from an energy store.

Since a pathway represents a “flow” of energy, the unit we use with an energy pathway is the watt (one joule per second). The “orange liquid level” in the pathway icon could therefore represent the amount of energy flowing through in one second (although I concede that this idea, though promising, needs more thought).

“Enoji Energy Shift” Diagrams

Adopting this convention, the “enoji energy shift” diagram for a ball rolling down a slope might look like this:

An energy store does not have any holes — unless it is linked to a pathway, like the gravity store above. Energy will move in the direction indicated by the energy pathway icon.

Simplified in a student exercise book, it could be represented like this:

The small upward and downward arrows are an attempt to indicate what happens to the energy level over time.

The Filament Lightbulb “Enoji Energy Shift” Diagram

This could be represented in a student exercise book like this:

Since there are no small up and down arrows on the pathway or thermal store enojis, this indicates that the energy levels are relatively stable (provided we have a constant input of energy from the power station). However, the energy level of the thermal store of the surroundings just keeps on going up…

And finally…

Please note this is a work in progress.

I fully expect many teachers will think that the suggested set of conventions may well prove more confusing for students.

However, what I am attempting to do is to give students a set of simple, coherent yet serviceable analogies. In other words, this might provide a conceptual “tool kit” of physical representations of very abstract processes involving energy.

I hope readers will agree that it offers some scope for further development. Comments, criticisms and suggestions would be most welcome.

Brownian Motion, Staff Rooms and Bromeliads

Individuals aren’t naturally paid-up members of the human race, except biologically. They need to be bounced around by the Brownian motion of society, which is a mechanism by which human beings constantly remind one another that they are…well…human beings.

— Terry Pratchett, Men At Arms

Happiness is . . . not having an office.

I had a job once where I had an office. It was a quite a nice office. And I had it all to myself. It was a quiet, pleasant little space with a small kitchen nearby. It even had natural daylight through a large window Perfect, you might think.

But I grew to hate that office. You see, I think that teachers — more than anyone, perhaps — need, occasionally, to be “bounced around by the Brownian motion of society”.

What is Brownian motion? Well, it was first observed by botanist Robert Brown in 1827, who noted that, under a microscope, pollen grains in water seemed to “jiggle” randomly. Brown at first assumed that this motion was due to the “life force” of the pollen grains; however, he dispensed with this idea when he saw particles of stone dust (reportedly taken from the Great Pyramid to make sure they were completely and utterly devoid of life) perform the same drunken, wiggly waltz that came to be known as Brownian motion.

And there the matter rested, for a while. And then in 1905, a young patents clerk, working in his spare time at a kitchen table in a very modest apartment in Geneva, suddenly discovered the explanation — and more, much more.

The patents clerk’s name was, of course, Albert Einstein. His explanation rested on the insight that the visible pollen or dust particles were being buffeted by invisible water particles. His mathematical analysis was not only the first verifiable evidence of the actual physical existence of atoms, but also established their size. Understanding the movement and nature of the unobservable by minute and careful scrutiny of the observable…

Looking back at the job with its own office, I think I missed the simple daily dose of teacherly Brownian motion that you get by simply stepping into a staff room. Are you a little too-full-of-yourself-by-half? Some friendly ego-puncturing banter is usually on tap. At your wit’s end with a difficult student or class? A sympathetic shared eye-roll can work wonders. Plus there might even a few good ideas thrown in for good measure.

A good school staff room is not always synonymous with a “good” school, but a good staff room can make even a “bad” school bearable — enjoyable, even! — and the lack of one can make even an “outstanding” school feel like a souless and joyless treadmill.

If you are being interviewed by more than one school, choose the one that has the beat-up, well-used furniture in the staff room, replete with dirty coffee mugs and tottering piles of unmarked marking whose lower layers are being spontaneously formed into sedimentary rock by the crushing pressure from above.

Sadly, I feel that that this type of staff room is a vanishing phenomenon. I suppose that I am like a dinosaur complaining that bromeliads these days don’t taste as nice as the bromeliads they had in the old days.

Teachers today just aren’t rubbing elbows as much as they used too. H’mmm. Maybe that’s why we don’t have to wear elbow patches any more…

But that does not detract from this universal truth that should, I feel, be more universally acknowledged: if a staff room is suspiciously neat and clean and looks like an airport lounge…RUN AWAY!

A Classicist Writes

My lovely wife Laurie has started her own blog called A Classicist Writes.

She writes on Ancient Greece and Rome (she has an M.A. in Classical Studies), cats, Ralph Waldo Emerson, more cats, more Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other topics.

Hope you enjoy!

Look at the pretty pictures…

Uniformity of practice seldom continues long without good reason.

So opined the estimable Dr Johnson in 1775. In other words, if a thing is done in a certain way, and continues to be done in that same way for a number of years by many different people, then it is a pretty safe bet that there is a good reason for doing the thing that way. And this is true even when that reason is not immediately apparent.

For the choice of this situation there must have been some general reason, which the change of manners has left in obscurity.

— Samuel Johnson, A Journey To The Western Islands of Scotland (1775).

Consider the following examples of “uniformity of practice”:

They are fairly bog-standard GCSE examination questions from the last two years from three different exam boards. But compare and contrast with an O-level Physics paper from 1966:

The “uniformity of practice” that leaps out at me is that the more modern papers, as a rule, have many more illustrations than the older paper. Partly, of course, this is to do with technology. It would have been (presumably) vastly more expensive to include illustrations in the 1966 paper.

Even if we assume that the difficulty level of the questions in the modern and older papers are equivalent (and therein lies a really complex argument which I’m not going to get into), there is a vast difference in the norms of presentation. For example, the modern papers seems to eschew large blocks of dense, descriptive text; this extends to presenting the contextual information in the ultrasound question as a labelled diagram.

Now I’m not saying that this is automatically a good or a bad thing, but there does seem to be a notable “uniformity of practice” in the modern papers.

Now what could the “general reason” for this choice?

Rather than leave the “change of manners” responsible for the choice “in obscurity”, I will hazard a guess: the examiners know or suspect that many of their candidates will struggle with reading technical prose at GCSE level, and wish to provide visual cues in order for students to play “guess the context” games.

Now I’m not assigning blame or opprobrium on to the examiners here. If I was asked to design an exam paper for a wide range of abilities I might very well come up with a similar format myself.

But does it matter? Are we testing Physics or reading comprehension here?

My point would be that there can be an elegance and beauty in even the most arid scientific prose. At its best, scientific prose communicates complex ideas simply, accurately and concisely. It may seem sparse and dry at first glance, but that is only because it is designed to be efficient — irrelevancies have been ruthlessly excised. Specialised technical terms are used liberally, of course, but this is only because they serve to simplify rather than complicate the means of expression.

Sometimes, “everyday language” serves to make communication less direct by reason of vagueness, ambivalence or circumlocution. You might care to read (say) one of Ernest Rutherford’s papers to see what I mean by good scientific prose.

The O-level paper provides, I think, a “beginner’s guide” to the world of scientific, technical prose. Whereas a modern question on falling objects might tack on the sentence “You may ignore the effects of air resistance” as an afterthought or caveat, the O-level paper uses the more concise phrase “a body falling freely” which includes that very concept.

To sum up, my concern is that in seeking to make things easier, we have actually ended up making things harder, and robbing students of an opportunity to experience clear, concise scientific communication.

The Gamesters of Sparta

Sir. It must be considered, that a man who only does what every one of the society to which he belongs would do, is not a dishonest man. In the republick of Sparta, it was agreed, that stealing was not dishonourable, if not discovered.

— Samuel Johnson

At a recent event, the speaker asked us to consider a hypothetical conundrum: what if one GCSE Triple Science student was strong in (say) Chemistry and Biology, but significantly weaker in GCSE Physics?

What course of action would you recommend? Extra support in Physics, was the consensus reply.

Actually, said the speaker, the smart “Progress 8 Maximisation Strategy” would be to:

1. Tell the student to focus her efforts entirely on Biology and Chemistry and completely ignore Physics. . .
2. . . . but keep her entered for GCSE Physics anyway, and make sure that she goes into the exam hall and writes her name on the Physics papers, even if she does nothing else.

That way, she has ostensibly followed a full and balanced curriculum. She has, after all, been entered for all three Science subjects.  And, since Progress 8 counts only the two highest Science grades (or so I’m told), the student’s contribution to the school’s league table position would be also be secure.

H’mm. Dishonest? No. In the school’s best interests? Definitely. In the student’s best interests? Erm . . . on balance, no.

Sadly, as the character Joseph Sisko (ably played by Brock Peters) once observed on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “There isn’t a test that’s been created that a smart man can’t find his way around!” And that includes Progress 8 . . .

Sir, I do not call a gamester a dishonest man; but I call him an unsocial man, an unprofitable man. Gaming is a mode of transferring property without producing any intermediate good.

— Samuel Johnson

Learning Is For The Birds

​Well versed in the expanses
that stretch from earth to stars,
we get lost in the space
from earth up to our skull.

Wislawa Szymborska, To My Friends

What do we mean by learning? To tell the truth, even as a teacher of twenty-five years experience, I am not sure.

Professor Robert Coe has suggested that learning happens when people have to think hard. In a similar vein, Daniel Willingham contends that knowledge is the residue of thought. Siegfried Engelmann proposes that learning is the capacity to generalise to new examples from previous examples. I have also heard learning defined as a change in the long term memory.

One thing is certain, learning involves some sort of change in the learner’s brain. But what is acknowledged less often is that it doesn’t just happen in human brains.

Contrary to standard social science assumptions, learning is not some pinnacle of evolution attained only recently by humans. All but the simplest animals learn . . . [And some animals execute] complicated sequences of arithmetic, logic, and data storage and retrieval.
— Steven Pinker, How The Mind Works (1997), p.184

An example recounted by Pinker is that of some species of migratory birds that fly thousands of miles at night and use the constellations to find North. Humans do this too when we find the Pole Star.

But with birds it’s surely just instinct, right?

Wrong. This knowledge cannot be genetically “hardwired” into birds as it would soon become obsolete. Currently, a star known as Polaris just happens to be (nearly) directly above the Earth’s North Pole, so that as the Earth rotates on its axis, this star appears to stand still in the sky while the other stars travel on slow circular paths. But it was not always thus.

The Earth’s axis wobbles slowly over a period of twenty six thousand years. This effect is called the precession of the equinoxes. The North Star will change over time, and oftentimes there won’t be star bright enough to see with the naked eye at the North Celestial Pole for there to be “North Star” — just as currently there is no “South Star”.But there will be one in the future, at least temporarily, as the South Celestial Pole describes its slow precessional dance.

Over evolutionary time, a genetically hardwired instinct that pointed birds towards any current North Star or South Star would soon lead them astray in a mere few thousand years or so.

So what do the birds do?

[T]he birds have responded by evolving a special algorithm for learning where the celestial pole is in the night sky. It all happens while they are still in the nest and cannot fly. The nestlings gaze up at the night sky for hours, watching the slow rotation of the constellations. They find the point around which the stars appear to move, and record its position with respect to several nearby constellations. [p.186]

And so there we have it: the ability to learn confers an evolutionary advantage, amongst many others.