Thursday, May 17, 2018

Dedication of Learning Assistant Program in Honor of Dr. Don Chodrow

On Tuesday afternoon, May 15, 2018 the faculty of the Department of Physics and Astronomy gathered along with several of our retired colleagues and the family of Dr. Don Chodrow to unveil a plaque in PCB 2212 to honor him and the contributions made in his name to support our Learning Assistants program. Dr. Chodrow was a beloved colleague and teacher and mentor to not only our students but to his younger colleagues during his 32 year career here at JMU. He came to JMU in 1980 and taught at all levels of our curriculum until his death in June, 2012. At the time of his passing, friends, family, colleagues, and former students joined to endow the Don Chodrow Memorial Scholarship Endowment which now funds scholarships for motivated undergraduate physics majors in our department every year.
In recent years, the department has begun to use Learning Assistants in our introductory physics courses as part of our PhysTEC program to produce more high school physics teachers. These undergraduate students work with professors in the classroom to guide students in PHYS240 and PHYS250 through active learning exercises. The LAs also take a course on science pedagogy to better understand common misconceptions their fellow students have and how to lead them to understanding the material better.
Given Don's dedication to teaching, it seems fitting that a new fund has been created in his honor to support the stipends for the LAs. To make the LAs and their students aware of his impact, we have placed a plaque in the classroom where these courses meet. The unveiling ceremony was planned especially for May 15 since that is Don's birthday and also a day on which his wife, Dr. Ruth Chodrow
Dr. Ruth Chodrow with Don's plaque.
, and her mother and sister could attend. Dr. Bill Ingham, professor emeritus of physics, gave remarks and told stories of the many years he worked with Don. Other faculty also shared their remembrances of his impact on their careers. Finally, Ruth gave us her thought and pointed out how wonderful it was that Don was back in a classroom again.
Thanks to everyone who made this a touching and memorable day.
If you are interested in contributing to the Chodrow Memorial Fund for Physics Learning Assistants, please contact the JMU Foundation or email the us directly at

Thursday, April 12, 2018

JMU Physics Majors Expand Horizons for Middle School Girls

On Saturday, March 17, the Expanding Your Horizons (EYH) event hosted by the JMU Department of Math and Statistics took place. 
The event is aimed at middle school girls and mission statement on the event’s page on the JMU website (linked above) is: “Expanding Your Horizons at James Madison University engages young women in high-quality hands-on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) activities and small-group interactions with female scientist role models to foster and support the young women’s interest in STEM fields, to increase their awareness of opportunities in STEM-related careers, and to empower them to see themselves as future participants in these fields and careers.”
The Department of Physics and Astronomy showed demonstrations to the girls who participated EYH as part of their day. 
Natali Bushamani (‘18) presented a demonstration of lights of different colors created by heating gas of different elements. Spectra glasses were handed out to the audience so that they could look through them to see the differences in spectra of each of the elements. As the lights were turned off in the auditorium and each light was shown, after a quick explanation to the girls from Natali of what the element was. The elements included Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, and some others.
Alle Goodis (’19) called on volunteers from the audience to have the girls come up to the stage and get their hands on the Van de Graaff and learn about electrostatics. The first volunteer came up to the stage and placed her hands on the Van de Graaff. Her hair stood on end, which pulled some laughs from the audience.  Then a group of five girls came up to the stage and all held hands before letting go and all getting slightly shocked. Seeing the interest in the girls’ want to volunteer was especially fun when Alle told them they’d probably get shocked, and they only became more enthusiastic.
Yvonne Kinsella (’18) presented some liquid nitrogen demos to the audience, including pouring it on the stage as the audience watched it evaporate, quickly sticking in her hand and pulling out while explaining that it evaporates quickly enough that it doesn’t hurt as long as the exposure is quick. Two Erlenmeyer flasks were filled with liquid nitrogen and then balloons were put on top of them, which then proceeded to burst, which caused a lot of commotion in the audience because of the loud, sudden noise. Finally, a few tangerines and one rubber ball were frozen in the nitrogen and smashed on the floor of the stage for the audience to see.
The last demonstration was by Mary Ogborn (’21). She did a “ring toss” demonstration, using an electromagnetic ring launcher.  This was a quick demonstration which required some explanation of E&M principles to the audience.
The Department of Physics and Astronomy’s demos at EYH 2018 were highly educational and interesting, keeping the audience of girls engaged and actively participating. Overall it was a successful piece of the day-long event. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Demystifying the Expert: Dr. Anthony Tongen

Once again,  we bring you a summary (including spoiler alert) of the latest  Demystifying the Expert event.  To remind everybody, this program brings together a guest speaker, who is an expert in their field of science, and comedians from JMU’s very own New & Improv’d, who attempt to...  “demystify the expert.”  Questions, games, trivia and improvised skits all contribute to the fun as the audience learns about the expert’s work.   This program is produced and hosted by our own Dr. Anca Constantin and Dr. Klebert Feitosa.  Podcasts for this and previous Demystifying the Expert events can be found here on SoundCloud!

           On November 16, 2017, the Demystifying the Expert event took place at Taylor Down Under, in Madison Union, on JMU campus.  Dr. Anthony Tongen from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, and Associate Dean for the College of Science and Math at JMU, was the guest expert for the night, a departure from the usual line-up of experts in science fields.  Here is a direct link to this show. 

            The members of JMU’s New and Imrpov’d who made us laugh out loud on this date were: Ethan Schulze, sophomore SMAD major, Shelby Imes, a senior journalism and English major, and Drew Holt, a junior marketing major.

            The first game that the comedians played in order to determine what the expert studied was "twenty questions." Each comedian took turns asking Dr. Tongen yes or no type questions to help them deduce what area of mathematical research he studies.  After many a question, Dr. Tongen finally revealed that his studies fall in the realm of what would be called mathematical biology.

            With some more open-ended questions, we found out that Dr. Tongen's work with modelling and data fitting with various populations like those of lemur populations in Madagascar or guanaco populations in Chile.  He uses many equations and variables to model the population dynamics through many years, with the help of computers and codes.

            With the second game, which was the fill-in-the-blank game, the comedians guess words that complete titles of popular science articles that relate to Dr. Tongen’s research.

            All three articles were interesting, with 
the most intriguing and seemingly random blank to the comedians being ‘Robin Hood.’  In the context of the title, ‘Robin Hood effects’ on motivation in math,’ Dr. Tongen explained how different groups of students reacted to programs implemented by schools to increase the study of mathematics.  The name ‘Robin Hood,’ as he clarified, referred to how increased attitudes towards learning math resulting from the program were seen in schools where students’ parents did not view math as important as those who did.  The term ‘Robin Hood’ here denoting the redistributive nature of more increases being seen by those who did not see math as important when compared to those who had already regarded math as important.

            The jargon game that followed, during which the comedians guess what certain acronyms mean, or discuss the meaning of terms that are used in daily life but have a different meaning in the expert’s field. Here, the comedians did well in guessing the more technical meanings of the Dr. Tongen’s jargon, such as "normal," "elementary," and "well-defined."

            Finally, the audience got to learn more about the Dr. Tongen outside of his life as a mathematician with the Two Truths and a Lie game. During this game, the comedians and audience found that, while Dr. Tongen might not have been kidnapped at one point by the Mexican cartels, he did have to skirt around them during his time there researching monarch butterflies.  In addition, they learned that he was and remains active in advocating for minorities in mathematics, with some interesting research producing interesting titles such as ‘Does gravity gossip weigh heavily on your local area network?’

            The final (and most improv'd) event of the night was the skit in which the comedians played out an imagined day in the life of the research lab of Dr. Tongen with some mandatory quotes from movies relating to mathematics such as A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game, and Good Will Hunting. The skit involved a lot of references to trips in Mexico, some emotional heartache in a struggle for Dr. Tongen’s affections, and a heartwarming resolution for all parties.  It was a terrifically humorous final recap of all that the audience, and the comedians, had learned in a whimsical, impromptu scene.

            We look forward to seeing you at the next, and final Demystifying the Expert event for the spring semester at 7:00 PM on Thursday, March 29, 2018, in a brand-new location at Pale Fire Tap Room in Downtown Harrisonburg!

Friday, March 16, 2018

Demystifying the Expert: Dr. Gabriel Niculescu

Demystifying the Expert happened and delighted us again, and the expert, together with the hosts (Constantin and Feitosa) as well as the panel of comedians, delivered what they promised: a great night of laughter and learning.  To remind everybody,  this program brings together a guest speaker, who is an expert in a certain field of science, and comedians from JMU’s New & Improv’d, who attempt to “demystify the expert.” Questions, games, trivia and improvised skits all contribute to the fun as the audience learns about the expert’s work.   Examples of previous Demystifying the Expert events have been discussed herehereherehereherehere, and here.

            On February 8, 2018, the Demystifying the Expert event hosted Dr. Gabriel Niculescu, a nuclear physicist.  The members of JMU’s New and Imrpov’d who (we can say hilariously and successfully) demystified were:  Diego Salinas, a senior theater and modern foreign language double major, Michael Mathis, a junior SMAD major, and Mairin Duffy, a sophomore SMAD major.

            The first game aimed at determining what the expert studied via no more than twenty questions aimed at yes or no answers from the expert. Each comedian took quite a few turns asking the Dr. Niculescu before they discovered that he is a nuclear physicist.  As you can see from the pictures, Dr. Niculescu had a blast.

            The second game was the fill-in-the-blank game, during which the comedians guess words that complete titles of articles that relate to Dr. Niculescu’s research.

            The first title was “Big Bang machine could destroy ____,”  and the comedians were quickly able to guess that the missing word for this title was “Earth.”  The next article title was in relation to the Higgs Boson, which Diego Salinas was very excited to know the answer to, almost as soon as the question was asked.

            With the next game, the JAG (jargon and acronym) game, the comedians guessed  and discussed what: baking, swimming, PID, RICH, and SLAM mean in the context of nuclear physics.  Check out the podcast for these illuminating discussions. 

            Finally, with one of the funniest and most full of surprises section of the show, the audience got to learn more about the expert outside of his life as a scientist with the Two Truths and a Lie game. During this game, the comedians and the audience learned that Dr. Niculescu is a certified breeder of guppies and has won the guppy World Champion twice and received the runner-up award four times. They also learned about his brother who is a famous actor and musician in Romania, and about the math and physics high school that the expert attended while growing up.

            The night ended with the most awaited part, the skit in which the comedians played out a scenario in the life of Dr. Niculescu, which involved a lot of references to karaoke and a bar, and earned the comedians plenty of laughs from the audience.  Fun and fulfilling times we all had again!