Advanced physics courses, made possible through an SU Vision Fund grant, connect students from Syracuse and Brown universities in simultaneous learning experiences
Advanced physics courses, made possible through an SU Vision Fund grant, connect students from Syracuse and Brown universities in simultaneous learning experiencesFebruary 28, 2001Judy Holmesjlholmes@syr.edu
Imagine sitting down in a classroom at Brown University to take an advanced course in string theory and supergravity with Syracuse University students, without even having to take a step off campus. The class, taught by Donald Marolf, assistant professor of physics in The College of Arts and Sciences, is part of a new program at SU that takes advantage of the latest teleconferencing technology to offer graduate students from across the country the opportunity to simultaneously take advanced-level physics courses. This semester, a handful of physics doctoral students from SU and Brown are simultaneously learning about complex physics theories in a class that couldn’t have been offered without the teleconferencing technology. Typically, the high cost attached to minimal enrollment in a class prevents universities from offering highly specialized courses, Marolf says. The new courses are made possible by a grant from SU’s Vision Fund, as well as physics departmental resources and research groups. SU established the Vision Fund initiative three years ago to enable faculty members and academic departments to pursue innovative learning opportunities for students. “I think this class is great,” says Dan Yelle, a doctoral student in the SU physics program who is enrolled in Marolf’s class. “It gives us the opportunity to take classes that we wouldn’t normally be able to take.” Marolf says the benefits of the classes are are two-fold. “First, we can offer more classes, and the students have the opportunity to learn more deeply about one field, or to gain broad knowledge about many other fields,” Marolf says. “Second, the students gain a wider number of perspectives about various fields, and they also develop contacts with professionals from other colleges and universities that they can take advantage of after graduation.” The new teleconferencing course will give Yelle a few advantages when he finishes his doctoral degree at SU: He will have both a specialized knowledge about advanced physics and will have met people whom may help him in the future.
Marolf’s course helps the graduate students understand many ideas about unification forces. The course combines quantum mechanics and gravity, and includes information to further their understanding of ideas such as the Big Bang theory. The first teleconferencing course was offered furing the Fall 2000 semester. Students studied supersymmetry with Philip Argyres, professor of physics at Cornell University, and conformal field theory with Mark Bowick, SU professor of physics. Marolf hopes that by word of mouth, more universities will pool their resources with SU and collaborate on similar courses, which would result in a wider variety of advanced physics course offerings. Growth in this program is expected, Marolf says, as other universities receive funding for the technology, which costs about $20,000. Marolf’s class meets twice a week. The students are linked together via a high-speed broadband telecommunications network. A camera and a television screen enable students sitting in classrooms at SU and Brown to communicate with each other. Marolf begins his lecture by writing on the Smart Board, a large, thin screen shaped roughly like a chalkboard. He uses plastic pens to write on the touch-sensitive screen surface. His lecture notes appear on the screen, which SU students see, while students at Brown can see the notes on their computer screens. The Smart Board is state-of-the-art technology that is not available at most universities, Marolf says. Marolf says more courses are in the works for next fall, and other universities are planning to collaborate with SU in this new program as the technology becomes available. “There are lots of excited universities,” he says.