Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Robotics Workshop

Between July 20 and 25 Kevin Giovanetti and Gabriel Niculescu joined forces with Nick Swayne in education to present a robotics workshop. This workshop for in-service high school and middle school teachers is part of the Virginia Initiative for Robotics in STEM Education (VIRSE). Teachers from the valley and as far away as Richmond and Martinsville attended.

The grant supporting this workshop also purchases large and small robots for potential use in the FIRST Robotics Competition and the FIRST Lego League. Kevin and Gabe taught the participants how to program the robots and how to incorporate them into the the sort of classroom activities that contribute to the Virginia SOLs.
Shown at the right is one of the smaller robots equipped with a pen it can move up and down. By suitable programming, it can draw figures on a sheet of paper. If the paper is graph paper, students can then compute slopes and connect to some math. By timing the motion of the robot we can determine the velocity and connect to a bit of physics.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Laurence Lewis Tells All...

In 2008, Laurence Lewis graduated from JMU with his Physics degree in hand. He's taken a few minutes to send a note about his experiences while here and in the wider world...

The greatest benefit of studying science, and I would argue physics or astronomy in particular, is that it prepares you for almost anything afterwards. If my life after JMU (and that of many of my friends) is any indication, then this is indeed true.

Physics majors are among the highest scorers on the GRE, MCAT, LSAT, and GMAT (which are the standardized tests to enter graduate school, medical school, law school, and business school, respectively). This is not because the smartest freshmen decide to take up physics (definitely not me), but rather that a scientifically and mathematically rigorous education provides people with unmatched skills in reasoning and analysis. It is fairly straightforward (though tedious) to write a paper for Political Science or History. However, it requires skill and ingenuity to craft from scratch an original solution to an abstract unsolved problem. (And that feeling of working weeks upon weeks on a research project and finally getting an answer, discovering something nobody else knows, is simply incredible.) It is these skills that you develop through research experience and problem set after problem set (after problem set after problem set…) that prepares you for almost any path afterwards, like it did for me. Despite my words above, it is my real experience as a JMU Physics & Astronomy major and the implications that it had for my life afterwards that reveal how versatile and indispensible a physics education truly is.

I decided to do physics on a whim. I was undecided as an incoming freshmen and hated being as much. So, I closed my eyes and randomly pressed my finger to the page (literally). At first, I struggled to break into the middle of the pack. I debated leaving the major for something easier…maybe Business or ISAT. However, the smallness of the major and the general approachability and likeability of the professors convinced me to stick around (I had Dr. Hughes, Dr. Utter, and Dr. Whisnant my first semester—I was spoiled from the start). The professors are what make JMU Physics & Astronomy so great. They avidly try to get to know you, make sure you succeed, and get you in the lab (I have actually witnessed fights over which professor gets which student for research). The relationship between the faculty and students is something I have seen nowhere else at JMU. My professors definitely had a genuine interest in me, and it paid off. After earning my first ‘A’ in Phys 240, I was hooked. The trend continued for the next four years while I studied the intricacies of everything from quantum mechanics to the life cycles of stars. But something I consider more valuable than what I learned at JMU is what I learned in the labs during the summers.

I started researching early, the second semester of my freshman year, and it was probably one of the best decisions I made at JMU. I researched in nuclear physics, materials science, condensed-matter physics, and cosmology. Researching paid really well and allowed me to work at JMU, NIST in Colorado, NASA, and Northwestern University. I worked on everything from a hydrogen distillery operating at -425 degrees Fahrenheit to a 2000 Watt laser with a beam you couldn’t even see (a very scary thought). The diversity of my experiences, beyond any doubt, gave me a unique and unparalleled undergraduate experience. It also gave me an appreciation for science that I decided to share with others after I graduated.

After earning my diploma, I decided to take the altruistic route as a high school teacher in New Orleans. My familiarity with the application of math allowed me to enthrall my students and enrich their learning experience. Afterwards, I moved into the business world, working as an IT consultant. Although unfamiliar with business in general, my experience with practical problem-solving, research, and computer programming allowed me to maintain pace with my peers conventionally educated in business.

Despite leaving academia, my love for research has not waned. I have just been offered one of my dream jobs as a nuclear forensic scientist (tracing illicit nuclear material) in the SF Bay Area. This job will culminate with my entrance to graduate school, where I will earn my Ph.D. in nuclear engineering and (hopefully) begin a fruitful scientific career at the International Atomic Energy Agency in nuclear security.

Many students were scared off from physics during high school because they had terrible teachers. The opposite is the case here. The professors at JMU (again, the department’s best asset) are clamored for because they can make the subject clear (but not simple—we’re not at Hogwarts). It is an intimidating major, but without question one of the most rewarding JMU offers. I would not have the same appreciation for my education if my finger had landed elsewhere on the page. Choosing to study physics, without a doubt, was the best decision I made at JMU, and it opened more doors than I ever could have imagined.


In about 3 weeks, Laurence is off to LLNL to be a nuclear forensic scientist!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Catching Up With Alums - Simon Hale '04

Simon Hale (shown in the center of the picture at right taken while he was in the REU program in 2002) graduated from James Madison University, VA in May 2004 with a B.S. in Physics. During his time at JMU, Simon completed course work in theoretical, experimental, and computational physics as well as worked in a number of different labs. His lab work included the collaborative projects of the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search (MINOS) detector and the MUon Lifetime ANalysis (MULAN). Simon’s longest research project started as a National Science Foundation (NSF) Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in material science with the former Professor Rama Balasubramanian. This research continued during the school year and culminated in a poster presentation at the 10th Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology.
Simon is currently completing the Industrial Leadership in Physics, Ph.D. program at Georgetown University. He completed course work in condense matter physics and supplemental courses in business and finance. As part of the program at Georgetown he spent a year at IBM's Almaden Research Center, in San Jose, California. He worked under Dr. Barbara Jones on problems related to increasing the storage density of magnetic materials used in magnetic tapes for archival storage. Simon’s current work is in the field of theoretical condensed matter physics under his advisor Professor Jim Freericks. This work deals with utilizing dynamical mean field theory to solve problems related to thermal and electrical transport in multilayered nanodevices.

If you are a JMU Physics & Astro alum, let us know what you are doing so we can show the world how many different things you can do with a degree in physics.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Want to get a good paying job?

Major in Physics!

Of course, the best place to do this is right here at JMU! A July 20 article in the New York Times shows the results of a survey that puts physics very high on the list.

Assuming that you're interested in coming to JMU, then of the majors listed in the graphic, you have three choices for a high paying job: economics, physics and computer science. Why be a computer scientist when you could study physics or economics and get a better paying job and have a lot more fun? Economics edges out physics in the long run, but physics starts out a bit better. And seriously, wouldn't you really rather study physics?! We have all the lab toys, cool software, and use them for exploring the universe. Now we learn that we actually can get paid pretty well for this.

And keep in mind that an undergraduate degree in physics is an excellent entree to graduate school in engineering.

Kinda like learning that besides tasting good, chocolate is good for you!

You'll also see that this article lists the median starting and mid-career salaries for all students at some really prestigious schools. Take note that the starting and mid-career salaries for all graduates from Yale is about the same as physics. Only eight of these 20 top-rated institutions have better averages for all their students than physics majors.

Just something to tell Mom and Dad when they ask for the 475th time what physics is and why you want to study it.

John C. Wells Planetarium

William Alexander made the news this week by showcasing our fine state-of-the-art planetarium. Check out the story and the photos at the News Leader.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

What's up this summer - Part 1

Most academic physicists feel a responsibility to "spread the word" about science and try to help people see why they find science, mathematics, engineering, and technology so fascinating. One of the ways we do this at JMU is through our outreach programs whether helping out at the Harrisonburg Children's Museum, hosting school groups at the John C. Wells Planetarium, or working with in service teachers. This week the lab classrooms on the second floor of the PHCH building have been taken over by robots. JMU physics profs Kevin Giovanetti and Gabriel Niculescu have been helping Nick Swayne, external relations director for the JMU College of Education, host teachers from across Virginia for a workshop on robotics as a tool for teaching math and science. The program has gotten attention not only on campus but also in the local media. Thanks to Kevin, Gabe, Nick and all the others involved in making this a great experience for everyone involved.
UPDATE: This got coverage on the local TV news, too.