We have recently started investigating quantum optics for our advanced laboratory and quantum mechanics classes. For a small department, the expenses of much of the apparatus is daunting. As such, we look for places where we can reduce the costs while still providing benefits for our students. One of the places where there can be some cost savings are in the coincidence counter. The coincidence counter is a critical piece of the investigation, and while not the most expensive component, cost savings are still available. We have developed a low-cost coincidence counter (less than $50) based on a Cypress Programmable System on a Chip (PSoC). The PSoC is quite flexible. It has a microcontroller as well as FPGA like capabilities which enable us to build the coincidence detection and the counter. The design process and several investigations will be presented.
So often in classes that teach the non-science major students are “dog and pony” shows. The students watch demonstrations, they take notes, they supposedly “absorb” the information only to forget it after the next examination. These types of classes serve only as attempts to transfer information. But what if we give the students a toolbox that provides them with the ability to make their own observations about how light works. Then, the students are empowered to plan their experiments, manipulate the simple apparatus, make their own observations, and draw their own conclusions; more closely paralleling how scientists function. To succeed at this endeavor, we carefully designed a low cost toolbox for the students. Investigations include: Additive color mixing, digital colors and filters, shadows with colors, LED spectrum and spectra, light’s path, Polarization, Luminescence and Brightness, and simple optical instrumentation such as spectrometers. We created activities that give the students direction, but allow them freedom to explore and discover. Online forums/class discussion are also used to enhance their comprehension of their projects. Using this philosophy, we have had great success in both online and face to face classes.
Optics is a core component of an undergraduate physics degree. Not only is optics a fascinating topic on its own, but a good understanding of optics helps students gain valuable insight into more complex topics. A working knowledge of optics is vital for the experimental investigation of astronomy, quantum mechanics, and a host of other research endeavors involving optical measurements. Research is also a critical part of a student’s education. Participation in research brings tremendous benefits to a student. So what do the students gain by participation in research? They learn independence. They learn how to plan a project. They learn the process of discovery. They learn that all answers are not always found on the internet, from professors, in books and publications (in that order). Research makes the “book” learning real. But what skills do the students need to be able to do research? Most of our experimental research opportunities involve optics. We have students working on investigations that range from atomic spectroscopy of rubidium to Rayleigh scattering to optical tweezers to quantum optics. When a student starts research, we want them to be ready to go. We don’t want them to have to relearn material (or for us to reteach material) that they should already have mastered in earlier classes.
College students are facing a constantly evolving educational system. Some still see mostly the traditional face to face lecture type classes where as others may never set foot on campus thanks to distance learning programs. In between they may enroll in a mix of face-to-face, two-way broadcasted interactive courses, streaming lecture courses, hybrid face-to-face/ on-line courses and the ominous MOOC! A large number of these non-traditional courses are general education courses and play an important role in developing non-science majors’ understanding of science in general, and of physics in particular. We have been keeping pace with theses modern modes of instruction by offering several on-line courses such as Physics for Computer Graphics and Animation and Light and Color. These courses cover basic concepts in light, color and optics.
It is important to improve the technological skills and scientific understanding of students who are not pursuing scientific and technological degrees because they are indirectly asked to support science. To be supportive, they need to be able to evaluate scientific information as portrayed by the media. The difficulty is to find a topic which will stimulate and hold their interest in science. One such topic is LASERs. LASERs hold a fascination for students. LASERs are used in a wide array of technological devices and procedures. To understand LASERs requires an understanding of light and optics; of how light interacts with matter and with the structure of matter. Therefore, a course about LASERs can entice students who typically avoid science classes, and in particular physics classes, into taking a physics class, thereby giving us the opportunity to improve their understanding of science, their critical thinking skills and developing their appreciation of basic physics. Such a course can establish a sense of confidence in these students’ ability to understand.
We have been modifying our intermediate optics class and laboratory with a focus on improving student learning through the use of active engagement. To facilitate this process we developed a two pronged solution. For the classroom we created a series of tutorials to help the students use the mathematics and techniques of derivations, apply these solutions to other problems, and develop a stronger conceptual foundation in intermediate optics class. In the optics laboratories we developed an approach that relies upon direct confrontation of misconceptions, predictions, collection of data to support or refute the predictions, reconciliation, discussion, and leading questions rather than a series of detailed, cookbook-like instructions as might be found in a traditional laboratory. Through the class and laboratory we build conceptual understanding in subjects like image formation by lenses and mirrors, ray optics, and ultimately elliptical polarization while fostering laboratory independence and helping students erect a new paradigm for learning.