Richard Feynman’s Great Physics Lectures are Finally Available Online

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Sometimes it takes decades for works that have had an immense impact to become easily and cheaply available, and this is especially true in the sciences. The difficulty of making a science or math text, with all of its special symbols and diagrams, browser-friendly poses a serious technical challenge. Since 1964, the “Feynman Lectures on Physics” have been a physics education classic, but now, the first volume is finally available online.

Richard Feynman is known not only as one of the great physicists of the twentieth century, but also as one of its great communicators who could explain the most complicated topic with rare clarity. His physics lectures, however, have traditionally been an expensive financial investment and used mainly at the undergraduate level. Now, ambitious high school students can try them out for free. We’ll be looking forward to the rest of the volumes becoming available in the near future.

2013 Ig Nobel Prizes

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Science is serious business, but it is also a giant playground for comedy and drama. The annual Ig Nobel Prizes epitomize this playful nature of science, rewarding scientists for research that makes people laugh and then makes them think. Past winners have won the Ig Nobel Peace Prize for figuring out how to convert old Russian ammunition into new diamonds, and the Ig Nobel Biology Prize for explaining the bizarre mating behavior of certain Australian beetles.

The awards ceremony will be broadcast live today at 5:30 pm EDT. For those who are in Cambridge, MA on Saturday, the Ig Nobel laureates will present informal lectures explaining their research. More details are available here.

Build Your Own Camera and Explore the Science and Engineering of Photography

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As the number of gadgets and gizmos available for purchase grows, there is a decreasing number of opportunities for kids to build their own toys. It’s not only a matter of convenience; it’s become increasingly difficult for do-it-yourself projects to compete with cheap mass-produced products that incorporate fancy electronics. We’ve featured DIY resources and social networks in the past, but most of the instructions on these sites won’t help you build anything too fancy. Now, with the Bigshot that changes.

The project helps you build your own digital camera using a kit they provide, while exposing you to the science and engineering of photography. The accompanying site is extremely well-designed and is filled with educational materials covering everything from the camera construction process to the science of optics. Of course, the allure of building and owning your own digital camera is undeniable, and for $89 is worth exploring if you run a science club or simply want to excite the child engineers in your life.

How Transistors Work

Suppose you learned that transistors are a fundamental building block of modern electronics, and you decided to learn about how they function. If you looked at the first result in a google search you would see this Wikipedia article filled with technical details, but not that much beginner-friendly clarity. As with many such important concepts, explaining it at just the right level of detail to be both technical and accessible is a serious challenge.

To the rescue comes Derek Muller, creator of the Veritasium Youtube channel, who demystifies the idea behind transistors. His video features just the right type of animations and visual props to make a point without getting lost in technical details that would only be relevant to graduate students or scientists. If you’re interested in electronics, this six minute video is as good a starting point as any textbook or lecture.

Hackathons Coming to a University Campus Near You This Fall

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The stereotype of a computer programmers is that of an antisocial person sitting in a cubicle or basement, staring at a computer screen late into the night. Although there may be some truth to this, writing code that matters often requires quite a bit of social interaction. None of the software that we use today would be around if it were not for the collaboration of thousands of software engineers who exchanged ideas, fixed each others bugs, and perhaps even provided moral support.

For young programmers, getting together with their peers as well as with seasoned veterans is an educational experience that elevates programming from homework assignments and tests to serious product development that can affect lives. This October MIT is hosting its annual hackathon, a three day get-together for college students and high school students who are eighteen years old or older, that serves as an engineering fest and competition. Students can build anything they want while sharing ideas with fellow participants and learning from invited experts. A few weeks later, Yale is hosting its inaugural hackathon with a similar format. If you’re an undergraduate interested in the software industry, either event is the place to be. If you teach computer science and your college or high school does not host hackathons, you should consider organizing them as a way to get students to work together on exciting projects.

The Five Second Rule: A Simple Everyday Question Leading To Quantum Mechanics and Biology

Sometimes the simplest question can lead down a deep rabbit hole to new worlds. How fast germs contaminate food that falls on the floor is a good example of such a question. When you start to think about it, you realize that you don’t quite now what it means for two objects to touch, and when you start analyzing the microscopic and then the quantum mechanical details, you cross multiple scientific disciplines.

This is the intellectual journey that Michael Stevens goes on in his video that debunks the “five second rule,” a popularly held belief that food that falls on a dirty floor is safe to eat if it is picked up quickly enough. One of the main benefits of this type of video is its ability to connect seemingly unrelated issues and motivate viewers to conduct their own thought experiments. You may think it’s a silly question, but you’re sure to be surprised by at least some aspects of the answer.

A Free Stanford Online Course to Develop Your Mathematical Thinking

Most math classes try to teach computation skills and not much more. This is true not only in school where students memorize mechanical procedures and how to plug numbers into formulas, but also in university courses targeting scientists and engineers. Computational fluency is important but it is only a stepping stone to mathematical maturity.

Higher level mathematics requires the ability to prove mathematical statements, which in turn, requires the ability to think logically and create convincing and rigorous arguments. If this sounds more like something taught in law school, it’s because much of math education has been divorced from actual math. We’ve addressed the topic of mathematical thinking before, but now there is an online course that teaches the most foundational concepts in non-computational math.

That course, Introduction to Mathematical Thinking is offered by Stanford University via Coursera and is taught by Keith Devlin, who is a well known and charismatic math popularizer, educator, and researcher. The main purpose of this course is to serve as a transition between computation-fixated school math classes and undergraduate math major courses. In some ways, this is a traditional course that many university math departments require, but as a MOOC it is now accessible to anyone from high school students to math teachers. As Professor Devlin says in the introductory video (below), the course does not teach students new mathematics; instead it teaches them how to think mathematically and work with the standard mathematical language that involves notions like equivalence relations and logical quantifiers.

The course has been offered before with tens of thousands of students and has received excellent reviews. If you have never been exposed to anything beyond plug and chug math, this course is for you. Once you acquaint yourself with the basics of mathematical thinking, you will gain a deeper appreciation of some important topics that are usually left out of the regular school math curriculum.

A Short Animated Introduction to Reading Music (And a Bit of Bach)

Although numerous studies have shown the importance of music education in schools, few students learn the basics of music theory as part of core curriculum requirements. Apart from the obvious reasons, this is unfortunate because music is so intertwined with math and science and has been a source of inspirations for many great mathematicians and scientists. In fact, Albert Einstein once said that “the theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception.”

If you have never learned how to read music, the following animation by Tim Hansen does a good job of conveying the essentials. After you watch it, listen to some Bach (i.e. mandatory music for mathematicians) and watch an incredible visual representation of music that is rich in mathematical structure. Enjoy!


An Online Problem Solving Course for Young Kids

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We’ve mentioned the work of James Tanton, Maria Droujkova, and Yelena McManaman before, and now they have teamed up to offer a one month long online math problem solving course. mpsMOOC13: Problem Solving for the Young, the Very Young, and the Young at Heart revolves around a small set of accessible nonstandard math problems that kids and parents solve together. The solutions and discussions are recorded and reported on the course website resulting in a community-generated math education research project.

The course has already started, but you can still do all of the problems and follow the discussions. If you’re homeschooling this course will be especially useful, and you should stay tuned for similar future courses from this team.

A Video Game Company Recruits, Trains, and Reaches Out to High School Students

The desire to create their own video games is one of the top reasons why kids give programming a try. As a result, teaching programming through computer game creation has become increasingly popular. One can now easily find books and after school programs that follow this trend, but as tempting as this approach may be, it suffers from false expectations. A student who wants to learn how to make video games doesn’t realize that computer science educators are more interested in teaching him how to program than in helping him create something that resembles the slick professionally-produced games that he plays at home. Of course, the initial excitement of creating your own computer program may compensate for unmet expectations, but it’s not clear that this is a good trend.

What if, on the other hand, students could create real modern video games alongside industry professionals? That is the idea behind Pipeline, an outreach effort by Valve, a major video game company. They have recruited a group of high school students who are working alongside their much older colleagues on video game titles that will be sold to millions of players around the world. These students are not only exposed to the video game industry, but are sharing their experience with their peers through the Pipeline website. This may be the easiest way to learn about what it actually takes to make a professional video game. Learning to code is important no matter what your goals are, but if you’re interested in joining the video game industry, signing up for Pipeline will give you a realistic view of the work and knowledge required to do so.