Sunday, August 12, 2012

Superheroes teach Physics - Times of India


Teaching physics with the help of superheroes is a good way to get students involved in the subject, says Michael Dennin, professor of physics, Physics & Astronomy School of Physical Sciences, University of California, Irvine. Poonam Jain reports.

Superheroes rekindle an interest in science, or rather, Michael Dennin, professor of physics, Physics Astronomy School of Physical Sciences, University of California, Irvine, uses them as a starting point to teach scientific theories. But, isnt that converting fun into rigour? No, says Dennin, I have always found physics to be fun and part of the fun is the rigour. Students in my class get to discover the fun of carefully crafted, logical arguments, based on experimental facts and basic scientific principles.

With titles like The Science of Superheroes what exactly are students being taught? Generally, the full title of the courses I teach is a bit more explicit, like Science literacy: from superheroes to climate change, so it is clear to students that superheroes is just one part. But, the superhero part is to assure them that part of the course will be fun and attractive to them. Amusingly, a lot of adults are afraid of science, especially physics. I hope to convert them.

What does the course focus on? The course focuses on three issues: How does science work? How does science use math? And, what are the big principles of science? The first issue discusses individual scientists and the scientific method to some degree, but it really emphasises on the scientific community and the processes involved in that, like peer review.

The goal of these three issues is to develop in students the skill to evaluate science in the media. Superheroes are used as a way to practice evaluating the scientific content of media.

Courses like this attract students with a no-science background at the university, tells Dennin. How does this course benefit students? The essential issue is how to best develop students who can intelligently evaluate scientific claims and especially students who plan to take one or two science courses in their career. I strongly believe that this skill involves something different than doing science. I find that for the non-scientist, learning to evaluate when scientific principles are being violated or not is best learnt in a short time by evaluating movies.

One reason for this, according to Dennin, is that in typical superhero movies there are scenes that are consistent with physics or science and scenes that are not.

Having this balance of situations force students to critically evaluate what they are seeing in terms of the concepts they have learnt. As my students quickly discover, this is a challenging course because writing a careful analysis and argument of something is challenging even if the subject matter is fun, Dennin adds.

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