Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Cosmos: Possible Worlds

My first course in physics was Project Physics, Harvard's post-Sputnik curriculum project that emphasized  the history of physics and human interest throughout the course. I loved Project Physics. And on Sunday, September 28, 1980, Carl Sagan's Cosmos: A Personal Voyage episode 1, "The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean" aired for the first time. Cosmos grabbed me and did not let go.

I eventually became a high school physics teacher (the only career choice I specifically eliminated from my constellation of options while still in high school). And when California's state-mandated physics testing and reporting ended in the 2010s, I decided to weave Cosmos into my physics curriculum. 

By then, I had been implementing Skepticism in the Classroom, stand-alone lessons that could be dropped into the physics curriculum where appropriate. One theme of Cosmos was skepticism, so it aligned with my agenda. I wrote up question sets for each episode, and showed one episode the day after each unit test. I had to up the pace at the end of the year, and I showed episode 13, "Who Speak for Earth?" without a question set. Students were ready by then and remained engaged; it was like lifting hands off the moving bicycle's handlebars.

When Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey debuted in 2014, I added that series to my AP Physics 2 curriculum. AP Physics 1 got no Cosmos. But they did learn about waves and circuits back in those days.

In 1980's Cosmos, an existential threat that Sagan was overtly warning about was the nuclear arms race and the possibility of a life on Earth-ending nuclear war. In 2014's Cosmos, an existential threat that Ann Druyan (through Neil deGrasse Tyson) warned about was anthropogenic climate change.

The first episode of Cosmos: Possible Worlds aired on March 9, 2020. Four days later, I taught the last regular, in-person class of my 35-year high school teaching career. Druyan's third season of Cosmos got lost in the pandemic. And National Geographic made the series difficult to find and watch (especially for those dozen or two of us that don't subscribe to cable or have a dish).

Developing question sets for each episode of Possible Worlds has been on my to-do list since 2020. Forty-two years after the debut of Cosmos, I have begun my work on Possible Worlds

All seasons of Cosmos bring context and humanity to the work done in science. I think it's a valuable resource to fold into course curriculum. It is not tightly-focused content exposition, as one might find in The Mechanical Universe. But that's a feature, not a bug.

One down; 12 to go before I have a full set for Possible Worlds (Cosmos season 3). In the meantime, question sets for seasons 1 and 2 are available at The Lessons of Phyz. 

Will there be a season 4 of Cosmos? Ann Druyan has one envisioned. Time will tell.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Ultimate Space Telescope

Cue the Boston "It's been such a long time". But we have arrived at the moment when the James Webb Space Telescope has enough air underneath it to merit an episode of NOVA that includes images.

Delay after delay and budget overruns aplenty made us wonder if this beast was ever going to launch. And when it finally did launch, the reality of its 300+ single points of potential mission failure made us wonder if we were ever going to see images.

Spoiler alert: JWST had a successful launch and deployment. And those images!

So here we are: Chapter 1 is complete and the story can be told about what is now the ultimate space telescope. You and I may know the back story and drama, but our students do not. This hour-long introduction brings them up to speed with the details of this ambitious research tool. If Hubble is an indicator, JWST may become the most productive research instrument we have ever built.

Those chapters have yet to be written. This chapter is about how we got here.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Biology lives here

As I built my Lessons of Phyz library over the years, I liked working in groovy biology content whenever I could.

As mentioned in the "Chemistry: we've got it" post below, physics teachers are spoiled with an abundance of course-covering video series. Chemistry doesn't seem to have such a thing, nor have I found one for biology.

But here's the biology-related documentaries I have found.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Chemistry: we've got it

When I retired from classroom teaching in 2021, one project I set out upon was increasing the chemistry content on The Lessons of Phyz at Teachers Pay Teachers.

Physics teachers were fortunate enough to have David Goodstein's The Mechanical Universe (College and High School) at their disposal, to be used at their discretion. Better yet, they had Paul Hewitt's Conceptual Physics Alive!. All of these were in-depth, course-long series that covered nearly all the topics in introductory physics.

Surely there must be similarly comprehensive series in chemistry. 

Or not. Somehow the Goodsteins and Hewitts of chemistry either don't exist or have not had such good fortune in getting any comprehensive series green-lit. Talk to me, my colleagues in chemistry: what went wrong? If there's something missing from the list that follows, let me know.

What we do have is a couple of chemistry mini-series and one-offs that are delightful and work well in the chemistry curriculum. Here's what I've found so far.