Interlochen hosts physics education conference

You may not think that a fine-arts high school in northern Michigan is the logical site for an event aimed at physics educators—but that’s exactly what happened Oct. 3 in the Dow Rotunda on the Interlochen Center for the Arts campus.

“Meetings like these are usually held by universities and big institutions, but for an arts school to host a scientific event like this is quite rare,” said Interlochen Arts Academy Instructor of Physics, Astronomy, and Forensic Science Taoufik Nadji.

The event—called the Michigan Section of the American Association of Physics Teachers’ Fall Meeting—featured Interlochen alumna and keynote speaker Dr. Holly Gilbert (IAA 86-88), deputy division director of the Heliophysics Science Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Also on the schedule was a full day of presentations, practical demonstrations and even a jazz performance—and it was open to everyone. In fact, students and first-time attendees could attend for free.

Nadji said the group (he’s a member) likes to have students come to “be a part of the process of how their own teachers are getting together to learn and share ideas.” He added that under some circumstances, teachers may attend for professional development credits. Attendees could choose from such seminars as “Low Cost 3D Printers in Physics Class,” “Student Reasoning in Chemistry: A Work in Progress,” and “Hearing the Music in the Spectrum of Hydrogen,” plus workshops like “When the Arts meet Physics” (presented by Nadji), “Teaching a General Education Sound and Light Course for Music and Art Students,” and Dr. Gilbert’s keynote address, “Partly Sunny with a Chance of Space Weather.”

Nadji said the notion of having one of the group’s annual meetings take place on Interlochen’s campus came about pretty naturally.

“At Interlochen we are equally interested in getting our students to be strong in their academics (as well as their art), so I've been inviting high-profile speakers like Holly and Dr. Brian McNamara, who has been talking to our students about black holes and cosmology,” Nadji said. Student sessions with scientists like McNamara and Gilbert, both of whom have been featured on PBS’s NOVA, had been such a success with students and fit so seamlessly within the nature of education at Interlochen that Nadji said he thought hosting the meeting would be a perfect match. Not just for Interlochen, but also for the physics teachers who will be in attendance Oct. 3.

“Most teachers realize the importance of (science) within the arts—for example how instruments play specific sounds, that is physics,” he said. “We try to connect this to what we teach our students at Interlochen, so they are able to see that physics is in almost every aspect of their lives.”

Some examples of things students might do in a physics class at Interlochen include creating instruments to examine sound waves, Nadji said, or examining paintings that feature reflections or stars in the sky. He said students would then try to determine whether the painting follows the laws of physics or whether it is an interpretation of the artist’s creative process.

“Many students may think that physics is like math, confined to certain areas, and they don't see that there are connections,” he added. “Many of the teachers who attend these meetings do so to see what other colleagues are doing to bring real-life situations to the physics class.”

“That's what we're doing here all the time, and it’s why a place like Interlochen is a very natural place for (this meeting).”

Visit miaapt.org for more information about the organization and to see a schedule of the meeting at Interlochen.

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