Friday, December 4, 2009

Course brings light, generates heat

Physics and Society offers
science fundamentals
for non-science majors

Dr. Richard Kouzes designed his first online physics course to explore how physics interacts with society, energy, communications, war, and art. As the first semester of Physics and Society drew to a close this week, the Washington State University course had become a catalyst for another kind of volatile interaction:
      “Students type stuff,” Kouzes said with a smile. “They are typing along and they say stuff they wouldn’t say in a classroom. Some have very strong opinions, including political opinions.”
      The privacy of the Internet – which shields students from a professorial harrumph – is one factor. Online students also tend to be older, with a variety of backgrounds and opinions, said Kouzes, an adjunct professor at WSU since 2001. “You reach a diverse set of students online.”
      When discussions become digressions, Kouzes intervenes just enough to make sure students have the facts straight. “I’d like to argue with them sometimes, but my role isn’t to get into opinions.”
      But it’s not only cantankerous students who stir things up, said Ami Brodak, 35, who took the course through WSU’s Distance Degree Programs. “Kouzes brings up these really controversial topics,” she pointed out. “Evolution, population control, how the U.S. uses energy: all of these have incited strong opinions, at least for me.” More...
      Kouzes may be an instigator, Brodak said, but he’s a respectful one. “He never clobbered us for having a differing viewpoint from what he’s teaching,” she said. “That stimulated a free flow of ideas. I feel like I’ve learned from other viewpoints, and also been able to shed some light on topics.”
      Physics 380 is designed to be free-flowing, with topics ranging from atoms to artwork, from Newton’s laws to nuclear power. “It’s been incredibly enlightening, especially for someone who was very intimidated by the sciences,” said Brodak, a history major who lives in Olympia, Wash.
      The course’s lack of science prerequisites make it well suited for non-science majors who need science credits. That doesn’t mean a hard-core physics aficionado can stump the professor.
      Kouzes earned his master’s and doctorate in physics from Princeton University. He is a laboratory fellow at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, and works in the areas of neutrino science, homeland security, radioactive material interdiction, non-proliferation, and computational applications.
      Kouzes lives in Richland and teaches at the Tri-Cities campus. He stopped by DDP to discuss his online course when he was in Pullman to present a colloquium, Detection of Nuclear Threats at Borders. Kouzes is comfortable teaching both fundamental and advanced physics. “You adapt to whatever audience you have,” he said.
      Kouzes is adapting to the online audience by increasing the credit for discussions next semester. “Each week I pose a set of discussion questions, but I say you can talk about anything else. A number of students did their own research – searching out information on recycling fluorescent lights, for example. They put it all into their discussions, so it deserves more credit.”
      By the end of the course, Brodak was no longer “very intimidated by the sciences” – or by the professor.
      “I often disagreed with his contentions,” she said, “yet I totally loved the class. I learned more than I think I ever have in any other class on such a broad range of topics.”
By Richard H. Miller/Center for Distance and Professional Education

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a fabulous course! I hope I can enroll in Physics & Society next spring.
    Jenifer Lawrence
    Junior,Social Sciences major