Thursday, December 27, 2018

A Poem for my Brothers and Sisters, with Whom I Share this Land

Failure Forgivable, Though not Indefinitely

Be grateful, for life affords us opportunities to fail
Success is born from failure
When failure is unforgivable, life is rendered a prison

Imagine success so success may become you
Embody success as you scale the mountaintop
Look back upon success with eyes that blink slowly

To expect failure is not to try
To accept failure is to abandon hope
To wallow in failure is the death of the spirit

This land has afforded us opportunities to fail
Failed her, abused her, we have
Let us forgive ourselves, and rekindle our spirit

May our shortcomings of yesterday seed tomorrow's harvest
  May today's onward push be fierce
May we rise out from this failure, and blink slowly again

Thursday, December 20, 2018

My Unforgettable Mechanics Class: Fall 2018

I have just finished grading their final exams, and I am stunned.  I am overjoyed.  Let me tell you the story of an educational experience that 41 students and this teacher shared and will never forget.

I want to first describe the students making up this 2018 Honours Science Cohort at Vanier College as individuals.  They are polite, respectful, and sincere.  Some are loud, like very loud.  Only a few of them were 'good at Mechanics' when I met them, but nearly all of them would climb Mount Everest if they would be granted Mastery of the subject upon arrival (or a grade that is sufficient for admission to Medical School... Or whatever their motivation is - I really cannot tell anymore).

More importantly, let me describe them as a group.  They are louder.  They are crazy.  They are a mob.  They breathe so much energy into a room that the walls begin to oscillate.

My view from the front of the classroom is as follows: Take 41 eighteen-year-olds, and ask them to eat nothing but chocolate covered espresso beans for an entire day, and avoid sleep for an entire week.  They were a combination of awake and asleep, standing while falling... They were completely insane and, at times, brought me to the cusp of my own sanity.

Instead of going entirely nuts myself, I managed to be an adult, and to just be inspired by them.  More than anything, the fact that the median grade on their first college physics exam was 82% (15% higher than many groups taking the same exam) gives me hope that smart kids who try hard will find their footing in life.  There were lessons along the way, though.  Lots of them.

Lesson (1): Sleep.  Each night, 6 hours is a minimum amount to function for any reasonable amount of days.  This would have helped the small subset of students who actually forgot to answer some questions on the final exam (this happened way more often with this group than normal... I attribute this to a lack of sleep).  I know that they did not run out of time, because some of them had time to talk to themselves during the exam, while another managed to compose a poem about the semester.

Lesson (2): Study effectively.  Not hours of random internet videos... Review notes, quizzes, labs.  Think about the course material, and ask questions in class or visit the teacher's office whenever it might be useful.

Lesson (3): Making mistakes can be a part of learning.  The reason these students achieved something unprecedented in my nearly one decade of teaching fundamental physics (no class of mine had ever reached a median of 76% before on a first college final exam, and this class blew past that record) is because they asked a lot of questions, performed somewhat poorly on some quizzes, and eventually, righted their own ship.

The most critical lesson is one they will hopefully learn soon: they need not make one thousand mistakes in terms of study habits and time management to achieve these remarkable results again.  They just need to apply themselves, and act with the confidence that they have earned the right to possess.  A less frenetic semester can still be successful, and can leave time for non-academic activities, which is actually very important.

This is a story of a bunch of crazy science students who took ownership of their education both as individuals, and as a collective.  I hope their parents read this, because I do not shower people with compliments when they are not merited.

I will not say I was asleep when I met this group of students just 17 weeks ago, but I was not the same person.  They have had a hand in changing me - hopefully for the better.  I just need to sleep for about a week, then I'll be good.  I will be ready to face them again in January - turns out I will have the opportunity be their teacher again (teaching the same cohort of students a second course will be a first for me).

When I meet this group again in 2019, I will try to employ some of the lessons that I learned while watching them have the most important, and most exhausting semester of their lives.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Loneliness in a Year of Miracles

What follows is a completely fictitious letter from Albert Einstein to his mother translated from German to English.

December 31, 1905

Dear Mother,

It feels like it has been a big year, so why do I feel so lonely?

Hans turned one this year, and I received my PhD also; on these, everyone seems to agree.  However, none of my prominent peers in Physics seem to agree with any of my deepest held convictions, which I have had the opportunity to publish this year.

In June, I published a paper stating that light is not merely a wave, but a particle too, as the nature of its interactions occur at one point, and one at a time.  These one-off interactions may be referred to as quanta.  Anyway, I had a dream that this will spin into something neat called quantum physics and that this paper, which describes the photoelectric effect, is central to the whole thing.

In September, I published another paper that just has to be right, because it so beautiful.  This paper states that time is not absolute.  It should probably be referred to as special relativity on the grounds that it is not so general as to include accelerating reference frames, but the name works also because it just feels very special to me - but it seems, at times, only to me.  I had a dream that God is laughing at me.  I am just trying to make sense of His universe.

In November, I published yet another paper that I feel is important; it is too soon to say whether any of my contemporaries will agree.  It argues that mass m and energy E are equivalent entities, tied together by the simplest of equations, "'E' equals 'm''c' squared," where c is the speed of light.  I had yet another dream, where this became the most famous equation on planet Earth.

Earth... You know mother, something seems wrong about gravity.  Newton's gravity just does not work on a number of levels.  Just last night, I had a dream that some years from now, I will crack that one, and call it general relativity.

Sorry if I am boring you.  At a time when so few hold my ideas in high regard, I needed to vent a bit.  Also, the food sucks.  Same stuff all the time.  OK, mother, I feel better now.

With love, your tired 26-year-old son, Albert.


As it turns out, Einstein's relative loneliness in the physics world would persist for some time.  The first prominent physicist to support Einstein's Annus Mirabilis (Year of Miracles, as it is often referred to) papers was Max Planck.  Still, information moved slowly at that time, and it took a few years before Einstein and his ground-breaking work was embraced by the physics community at large.

He became a household name in 1919, when news came that his three-year-old general relativity theory had been validated experimentally.  In 1921, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for his contribution to quantum physics via his theoretical depiction of the photoelectric effect.

Looking back at 1905, it is remarkable, though not at all inconceivable, that Einstein's outlandish claims were largely ignored.  Today, some scientists with wild ideas that appear to contradict the status quo are labelled quacks by the scientific community.  Sometimes, the term is merited, and other times, it is not.

The top lesson I retain from Einstein's lonely year of miracles is this: it is fine, even admirable, to remain steadfast in our convictions, even when those around us remain unconvinced.  A secondary, though no less valuable lesson, is that having a mentor in your corner like Max Planck is never a bad thing.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

A Final Exam Blessing

To those not studying, this may seem odd, but it has happened more than once that a student has asked me for a blessing just before the start of a three-hour final exam I am about to invigilate.  The post-secondary teacher/student relationship has changed since I was a student.  I look them in their eyes, and offer a few words of encouragement.

After giving more thought to the appropriate words to give, I want to lay them out here.  I am calling it:

A Final Exam Blessing (the long version)

Here you are and how far you have come.  There is fear in your eyes and worry in your heart, but it is all misplaced.  Let me explain.

If you are worried today, it is probably true that you have been worried all semester.  That worry, so long as it is measured and not disproportionate, has served you well.  It has pushed you to master content to the best of your ability given the constraints of time, life, and your effectiveness as a student.

If this is you, then you need not fear today.  Take your fear and transform it into confidence.  You need not worry either.  Worry is for yesterday.  On the day of the exam, take your worry and transpose it to alertness and focus.  Dark chocolate will help you to do this.

If the above does not describe you, and you do indeed have what to fear because you are indeed under-prepared, much of the same applies.  You are, and probably have been for some time, in what may be referred to as 'damage control mode'.  It is a hard place to function for extended periods of time.  The good news is it will be over soon, as next semester is a new one, and you are free to transform from the start, and alter your functioning such that the patterns that did not serve you this semester are replaced by patterns that do.

I want to tell you about one student I had some years ago.  She may be unaware of this to this day, but she actually smiles from ear to ear while taking exams.  I never told her about it, because I did not want her to be self-conscious about it.  From my point of view, I had to restrain myself from laughing during examinations. There were forty students sitting in front of me; thirty-nine of them looked mildly panicked, and one is simply beaming.  In another context, this could be the setup to an exceptional horror film.

I am not suggesting that you should smile while writing exams.  What I am suggesting is that the confidence you have rightfully earned should allow you to smile on the inside while you maintain your serious exterior.

Be alert.  Remain focused.  Hundreds of hours have been invested on your part - your worry is now over.  It is actually possible to enjoy the moment, and celebrate how far you have come.

A Final Exam Blessing (the short version)

Here you are and how far you have come

There is fear in your eyes and worry in your heart, but it is all misplaced

You need not fear - take your fear and transform it into confidence
You need not worry either - worry is for yesterday
On the day of exam, take your worry and transpose it to alertness and focus

 In this moment, celebrate how far you have come.