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Physics Instructor Rob Mason Attends PICUP Faculty Development Workshop

Conference PhotoOlney Central College Professor Rob Mason attended a weeklong professional development workshop last month hosted by the Partnership for Integration of Computation Into Undergraduate Physics (PICUP).

Held at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls, the PICUP Faculty Development Workshop assisted educators in developing a plan for integrating computation into undergraduate physics courses through the use of material software, Microsoft Excel, and the program language, Python.

“We spent the first couple of days becoming better acquainted with the programs and spent the rest of the week developing an exercise we would use in class,” Mason said.

Excel and Python are ideal for classroom work because both are easy for students to pick up, Mason said. In addition, Python is extremely powerful and can be downloaded for free.

PICUP, an informal organization created by retired physicists Norman Chonacky and David Winch, is dedicated to creating a vibrant community of educators, a forum for open discussion, a collection of educational resources and a set of strategies and tactics that support the development and improvement of undergraduate physics education through integration of computation across the curriculum.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the conference drew physics and astronomy educators from both two- and four-year institutions. The event enabled professors from the United States, Canada and even Norway to collaborate on projects.

Computational physics, which incorporates the use of computer software in research and problem solving, is gaining importance in the field as it enables students to tackle more complex problems while gaining a better understanding of difficult concepts.

Over the next decade, Mason said the ability to program areas of physics and engineering will be as important to students as their expertise in the subject. He noted both the American Association of Physics Teachers and the American Physical Society are encouraging educators to prepare students for this shift by including more computational activities along with analytic theory and experiment.

“Graduates in all fields are getting hired not based on their degrees, but on their skills in computation,” Mason added.

Mason is looking forward to incorporating Microsoft Excel and Python into the classroom.

“The technology we are using will give students a preview of things they will be doing at a university,” he added. “It is hard to go into any of the science fields without doing some programming. This will allow us to expose our students to cutting-edge trends in science without placing a burdensome cost on the college since we can use existing resources.”

This is the second PICUP conference Mason has attended. Last year he participated in the Greater Chicagoland PICUP Computational Physics Workshop at Lewis University in Romeoville.

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