Teaching physics with social media

It shouldn’t be surprising to see social media seeping its way into classrooms these days, given its growing diversity and ubiquity.  I had the chance to try social media for a class I team-taught last spring, Physics 106 (Concepts of Physics for Humanities and Social Science Students, also known as “Physics for Poets”).  Previous incarnations of the course have essentially been watered-down versions of the introductory physics courses for pre-med and engineering students.  Along with three other graduate students, this year we completely redesigned the course to focus less on blocks sliding on mysteriously frictionless surfaces, and more on modern, relevant topics like cosmology, energy sustainability, and superconductivity.

We experimented with making social media a major part of the course.  Although this runs the risk of being a mere gimmick, we were committed to social media applications that were really in the best interests of the class.  Since the course is intended for students not pursuing scientific careers, one of our main goals was to stoke the students’ interest and develop their familiarity with popular science media, which is how the students will likely access science for the rest of their lives.  Popular science, like so much media these days, has a major presence on social media, especially Twitter and blogs.  To that end, we incorporated Twitter and blogging into the course.  We created a Twitter feed for the class (@RUPhys106), and several times a week we tweeted links to articles, videos, and websites with cool science content, most of which was directly related to the current course material.  For example, we were able to share this interactive NY Times feature on the hunt for the Higgs boson when we discussed particle physics.  When we talked about protein folding, we tweeted this beautiful blog with art inspired by protein structures.  Out of the approximately 100 students in the class, we accumulated a few dozen followers; we also embedded the feed into our Sakai homepage, which meant students who didn’t use Twitter or didn’t follow us still would see our tweets.

We also had the students write two blogs.  The topics were related to material we covered in class, but that required them to pursue further reading and develop their own take.  The students first posted drafts of these blogs to Sakai through the built-in blogging tool, and then each student had to review two of their peers’ blogs and leave comments.  Using this feedback and additional feedback from the instructors, the students revised their blogs into final drafts.  We were very impressed with the quality of many final blogs; several had the potential to be posted publicly.

Obviously, our use of both Twitter and blogging had direct benefits within the course — the articles and videos linked in our tweets provided content enrichment beyond the lectures, and the blogs required the students to learn to express scientific ideas in their own words.  But beyond these immediate benefits, our hope is that many students have come away with more familiarity and excitement about the outstanding popular science media out there: all the great Twitter feeds, blogs, websites, YouTube channels, etc.  Regardless of whether any of our students remember what wave-particle duality is 10 years from now, if they keep clicking on links about quantum mechanics as much as they do for links on the Kardashians or the world’s 12 cutest animals, our course will have been a success.

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