Jatila van der Veen, a lecturer in the College of Creative Studies as well as a research associate in UCSB’s Physics Dept., created a new method in teaching introductory physics called “Noether Before Newton.”
The method is named after Emmy Noether, a German mathematician known for her groundbreaking contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics.
Motivated by society’s persistent fear of physics, van der Veen combined her background in the arts and science to form a new technique that presents the subject matter in a more appealing fashion.
Popular negative beliefs regarding physics have been ingrained in Western culture for generations. Children grow up with the idea that science is scary, with boy’s interests being favored. Over the past 30 years, women’s attrition rates in physics have steadily increased, possibly associated with a lack of self-identification in physics itself.
In a preliminary study done by van der Veen, second graders showed an interest in the physics demonstrations that were put on by local university students. However, when asked what they want to be when they grew up, the boys responded with occupations dealing with high risk, such as fire-fighting, and women responded with lower-risk occupations such as medicine or teaching.
Boys’ interest in explosions and machines is congruent with Newtonian mechanics, often the main teaching approach in introductory physics. The girls’ interest in more benign subjects, however, contrasts with the current Newtonian method.
Van der Veen said both men and women have responded well to her method of teaching.
“The misconception is that because more men than women enroll in physics, that ‘all’ guys can do physics,” van der Veen said. “This is not the case. There are plenty of guys who don’t appreciate the way math is taught, and I have found that guys also appreciate the approach I have taken.”
In a recently published paper, van der Veen explains her course, Symmetry and Aesthetics in Contemporary Physics, as a way to introduce students to the ways of thinking about and interpreting nature that are important for the practice of physics in the 21st century.
Symmetry is the bridge connecting the scientific/mathematical and artistic/humanistic approaches to learning; it is the underlying reasoning behind the conservation laws.
Van der Veen said the esoteric aspect of physics creates a language barrier that has become increasingly difficult to overcome.
“Physics ‘language’ is by nature very precise,” van der Veen said. “I like to say that math is a nonverbal, symbolic language of description, prediction and analogy.”
This barrier is experienced by both arts-oriented students and minority students. By incorporating art-based learning strategies, van der Veen designed a course that made physics easier to grasp. Although initially designed to make physics more accessible to female students, Aesthetic Education has bloomed into a curriculum that effectively promotes the understanding of the abstract world of physics.
In order to demonstrate the symmetries of translation, rotation and reflection, van der Veen uses her dance background as inspiration. She suggests that the “Noether Before Newton” method replace the usual emphasis on Newtonian mechanics.
“Visual art seems to be the most accessible art form for teaching contemporary physics,” van der Veen said. “If we as a society truly want to increase the diversity in the physics and engineering communities, we need to attract a more diverse population at the beginning.”