Tuesday, September 18, 2018

On Campus

UW-Eau Claire students learn about science firsthand

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    Visiting the apple tree that inspired Isaac Newton’s thinking about gravity was a highlight of a STEM immersion. UW-Eau Claire students visiting the famous tree were, from left, professor Colleen Duffy, Jerry Guo, Tessa Landgreen, Kyle Glaeser, professor Paul Thomas, Zach Meredith and Dan Ott.

    Contributed photo

As early as elementary school, students hear the story of a young scientist, Isaac Newton, developing the theory of gravity after an apple falls on his head as he sits in his garden.

This summer, five UW-Eau Claire STEM students had the opportunity to experience that story in a new way by visiting Newton’s famous apple tree — often called the gravity tree — at Woolsthorpe Manor in England as part of a summer immersion program.

“The highlight of the immersion was seeing Newton’s apple farm and the tree the apple fell from,” said Tessa Landgreen, a junior materials science major from Stillwater, Minn. 

“The farm is in the middle of nowhere, but there is so much history that led science in a new direction right at that apple tree,” she said. “I really enjoyed learning about general relativity, but also learning a lot of history behind the people who have made discoveries, and how the topic was started and progressed.”

That was exactly the reaction that faculty hoped for when creating the four-week course, “Mathematics and Physics: Differential Equations, Differential Geometry and the theories of Special and General Relativity,” which was offered for the first time this summer.

The international immersion course allowed STEM students to study in the United Kingdom, which has played and continues to play a large role in the development of large areas of mathematics and physics, said Paul Thomas, professor of physics and astronomy, who co-taught the immersion course with Colleen Duffy, associate professor of mathematics.

“We feel that STEM students have not had a great deal of choice in UW-Eau Claire’s international programs in the past,” Thomas said. “We wanted to develop a course that would serve upper-division students in mathematics and physics, while providing intercultural immersion components. We have both taught in England in the past, at Harlaxton College, and so had some experience in combining travel in the UK with teaching undergraduate courses to U.S. students.”

Learning experience

During the four-week course, UW-Eau Claire students studied at the University of Winchester in England.

Winchester, the original capital of England, is in a central location that made it easy for the class to travel to various locations for weekly field trips, Duffy said. 

Students also enjoyed learning about the city of Winchester’s impressive history and visiting its science center and planetarium, she said.

Faculty said the field trips and other excursions were an important part of the course because their students connected better to the concepts discussed in the class when they could visit the locations where key scientists discussed in the class lived and worked.

“This was an amazing learning experience for the students as well as us,” Duffy said. “Seeing the places and tools of the discoveries discussed in class was eye-opening; it helped the students realize that they can be great scientists, too.”

At the end of the course, faculty mentors asked the students to complete reflection papers about their experiences, Thomas said.

“Many of them stressed how remarkable it was to visit Newton’s home, an experience that turned a name that appears in every physics textbook into a real person with a life story,” Thomas said. “They also were very impressed with the enormous structure of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, a 250-foot diameter steerable radio telescope, making it the third largest in the world. The Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, which contains a blackboard with Einstein’s board work, and the naval clocks of John Harrison at Greenwich also were rated highly by students.”

The class also visited the Royal Society in London, which showcased the work of many young scientists in the UK, giving the participating UW-Eau Claire students a chance to talk with peers who are involved in a variety of world-class projects, Thomas said.

“Viewed as a whole, these visits gave the students an enormous breadth of exposure to the growth of science in Europe, right to present-day cutting-edge research,” Thomas said of the immersion course.

Fully immersed

The summer course in the UK was an opportunity to explore new cultures while also expanding her understanding of general relativity and other STEM concepts, Landgreen said.

Even more importantly, Landgreen said, the immersion has expanded her thinking about what is possible for her future.

“While visiting Cambridge University, I found there are many research opportunities and a higher acceptance rate of women right now,” said Landgreen, who plans to pursue a career in research and development with materials. “I could definitely see myself doing graduate school there, or even moving to Ireland to work after college.”

The immersion also helped her connect in new ways with fellow STEM majors, giving her a support network that will be valuable as she continues her studies, Landgreen said. 

While valuable for the students in the course, the experience also benefited the faculty who taught it and future students, Duffy said.

“I look forward to bringing the personal stories, the fun of mathematics and physics, and the excitement of discovery into my classes on campus,” she said.

Now back on her home campus, Landgreen said she is encouraging other students to take advantage of the many opportunities the university offers students to immerse themselves in other cultures.

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