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From the College of Natural Sciences
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Cool Class: Physics for Smarties

Cool Class: Physics for Smarties
Mylar BalloonWhen Plan II Liberal Arts students reach their junior year, they each pass through what many perceive as a trial by fire: Plan II Physics.

The class, taught by physics professor Austin Gleeson, has a reputation for scrambling students' brains and shaking the very foundation of everything they think they know.

Throughout the semester, Gleeson and his Plan II students investigate the principles of modern physics by studying the most cutting edge research. He makes certain that his students learn by actively engaging in the principles of physics, which is part of what the students say makes the class so hard.

Austin GleesonThey struggle through weekly take-home experiments and homework assignments, often in tightly packed groups of three or four. Often, as Gleeson himself admits, the students can’t understand the questions because their own preconceived notions get in the way.

He jokes that the students “have to learn to speak nerd” before they can do their homework. But he maintains that the challenge makes them abandon old ways of thinking and explore new and exciting ways of seeing the world. Gleeson keeps all of the difficulty balanced by a spirit of fun.

For example, Felicia Tsao, a senior in Plan II and business and recent Plan II Physics “survivor,” says that one day Gleeson gave each student a Mylar balloon and told them to take it on a bus, anchor the string and watch the balloon’s behavior as the bus accelerated or slowed down.

After class that day, 60 shiny, brightly colored “Happy Birthday!” balloons filed out of the classroom, and Tsao says that her balloon followed her everywhere. Students in other classes wished her a happy birthday, but of course, she explained that this was merely a science experiment.

It might be goofy, but it’s effective. Students claim Gleeson’s class is one of their most difficult, but also one of the best classes in physics. It makes them think. It makes them struggle. And every student leaves with a greater appreciation of their own abilities.
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Saturday, 10 December 2022

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