Sesame Street Physics and Paper Tigers

Written By: Alan  Rice

Sensing a great opportunity for the whole East End as well as for myself, I signed on to assist the resurrection of Southampton College. The reawakened College was apparently to be the first dedicated to Green Technology (there are now maybe a hundred of these programs elsewhere…you ain’t gonna stop it!).  It was clear that the next wave of industrial development would be “Green Technology” and its marketing.  Fortunes to be made here in the long range if we aren’t hamstrung by the Culture of the Quarterly Return. China had already recognized the opportunity and openly declared their game plan: to dominate the solar, wind, tidal and nuclear energy technology markets. I found unsettling the prospect of China seeing America at last a genuine “Paper Tiger”.  The College would be the key to developing our own center out here which would assist generating the wealth to come with green technology transfer. An Aspen Institute of the East End could rise from this, yielding schemes for those up island where manufacturing would be needed. The campus came with a 21st Century radio studio, a TV station and all the infrastructure to institute a program similar to the Canadian Arts and Science Collaboration. There were UN and other global connections in the neighborhood, diplomats, retired professors of note who might delight in giving one class a year, venture capitalists who could develop methods to finance these new technologies. Companies even came forward offering to pave over the roofs of the College with solar cells…gratis…for the PR, the access to research we would conduct. Inquiries to the local community indicated we would have a market for MBAs, nursing …endless opportunities.

To secure accreditation after a dormancy of four years, the Southampton College academic programs would be overseen by Stony Brook University (formerly the State University of New York Stony Brook).  On the face of it, not at all a bad arrangement for both.  It would connect Stony Brook as well to the people and influence of the East End; these are considerable resources. Southampton College would be the go between.  All was launched with great expectations; major wine tastings on the lawn, art exhibitions, etc., etc….

Amongst things, one of my tasks was to re-institute the physics and chemistry courses. We would of course have to adhere to the Stony Brook curriculum. A trip to Stony Brook was in order to familiarize myself with their programs and introduce myself as their East End agent. I will leave my encounter with the chemistry department for another day but deal here with the Queen of Sciences…Physics. I was informed we couldn’t give the full blown calculus or college physics courses. That was Stony Brook’s turf. Peculiar. We could, however, offer the same course as was offered in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, ENS119. No title to the course was given but it employed for a text “Physics: A World View”. I’d never encountered that text before so ordered it tout suite and then hunted up the syllabus. Both arrived at the same time…luckily. I looked at the syllabus first. The syllabus back then indicated some 25 chapters were to be covered in one semester. In one semester?! 25 chapters in Physics is a three semester course! There must be some misprint but another look at the syllabus…it could only be interpreted as covering the whole book in one semester. Something was wrong here. Really wrong. I grabbed the text for my first glance, spun through the pages, then sat back to heave a great sigh of relief. The authors in the introduction took some measure of pride in the fact that they had eliminated about every equation ever to be found in physics. Sesame Street Physics. It was doable. Actually it was a good text…for Poets, that is. That wasn’t our game, though.  It would take more sophistication than offered here to make the place an institution powering Green Industry. Maybe it was a start. The initial cadre of students comprised some 125 souls with eventual capacity for 2200. As it turned out, many of that first group had come to Southampton because they didn’t make the cut for admittance to Stony Brook and were told if they performed well, then Southampton was their back door to get into Stony Brook. Those students were quite a crew. There were a few instances when I had to call a parole officer to get permission for his charge to take an exam. We did turn out the Valedictorian for the whole Stony Brook system plus others who achieved high academic honors and recognition on graduation.

I employ the “Flipped Classroom” method to teach. I tell the students to go home, read the book, come back with what you don’t understand and we’ll deal with it in class. Plus…any student who can get up to the board to offer an explanation gets mega-points. Difficult at first but then the students start to pile into it and quickly raise themselves above the US world rating in K12 science: 25; in K12 math: 31. Many teachers, however, would prefer just to come to class to press the buttons to get through their power point presentation.

I also use multiple choice questions on exams. Since most the work is numeric, they have to get the right answer. In real life, you can’t explain to the boss that you did understand the methodology, you just flubbed a number…which caused the bridge to fall down. On multiple choice, they know immediately if they’ve done something wrong which gives them a chance to backtrack and recover instead of waiting days to get their exam back to find they’d screwed up.  A great teaching device. Further, the scantron grades it, not you. If some student accuses you of being prejudicial, you can always point to the scantron, blame it and suggest it be taken before the university committee that handles discrimination.  The student is protected as well…you just have to grit your teeth and give the little S.O.B. or whatever the grade they deserve, and not the tenth level of Hell you’d like to escort them to.  Make sure you collect all their work papers after then exam though.  And then you can upload your class results to see how they compare to nationwide data banks and assign grades from there. An unassailable methodology. And the Southampton students did marvelously well.

The other testing option of course is the classic written exam which the examiner examines to decide yes, that’s a nice person, I’ll give them partial credit. There is a profound opportunity for too much subjectivity to creep in and one’s personal view of partial credit might be argued to the point of major conflicts.

Going into our third…and unbeknownst to us, our last year at Southampton College…there was growing concern up at Stony Brook about how the ENS119 physics course was being conducted at Southampton. And they were apparently disconcerted when it was discovered I had shown the students how to take a derivative…which the students thought magical. That’s, that’scalculus! Yeah? So? So you’re not supposed to be teaching calculus! I just showed them what a derivative was, that’s all. And…they liked it.

And then great concern over my exams. They demanded to see the final I planned to give. Well…I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. So…they sent me down the final they gave the last semester. Since in these modern times, I can just hit a button to generate randomly selected questions, I generated an exam, but not the exam, and sent that up. Same material, just different questions.  I don’t want to generate any temptation to sell these things as well. A couple of students did come up to me after the real exam to note this wasn’t the exam they expected. Well, what exam did they expect? They just walked off.

My exam: 45 questions to be done in 3 hours and covering the entire 25 chapters as the syllabus directs and which I am legally obliged to do.  The results to be compared against a national data bank.

The Stony Brook final: a 3 hour written exam: 6 questions, the first 3 on the first 2 chapters of the text and none of the other 3 going beyond chapter 6. Your call!

They didn’t dare touch us.

That night I had a nightmare. Which would occur again and again. A Chinese paper sky lantern…the kind lifted by a candle within them to rise high into the air and eventually disappear in flames…was lifting from the ground into the night sky. Southampton College was written on the side. It was shaped like, like…a paper tiger.