Hands-on activities for string theory and dark matter

by Stephanie Chasteen on November 8, 2010

There is a dreadful lack of good material for high school physics courses on modern physics — you know, the stuff after Newton?  String theory and dark matter and particle physics?  Yet, this is the stuff that inspires people to go into science — the unsolved mysteries, the new applications of old theories, or even the brand new theories that we’re still trying to test.

This was the topic of one of the coolest projects I’ve had the honor to be involved with:  the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (funded by Annenberg Media) developed an online course for teachers and other interested adults in The Physics of the 21st Century. The course includes written chapters, by experts in the fields, on all those topics I listed above, plus biophysics, emergence, and much more.   Each unit comes with two videos featuring scientists working in those areas — really great for classroom use.

And what I contributed, along with my colleague Noah Finkelstein, are the teacher activities for this site.  So, yes, I had to come up with engaging classroom activities on dark matter, string theory, and the standard model.  To be more precise, what we made was a facilitator’s guide, to provide direction for a teacher of a professional development course for teachers.  But the end result is similar — you can peruse that guide to find clicker questions, discussions, and hands-on activities on all these cutting-edge topics.  The activities and all the text were vetted with experts (and a high school science teacher) for teachability and accuracy. For example, in the section on granular materials, you can explore the principles of crystalization with Cheerios, or in the section on slow light, you can guide your students to an understanding of complex concepts with scaffolded clicker questions.

Visit Physics for the 21st Century

Look at the Facilitator’s Guide

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