Friday, January 8, 2010

Hands-On Cosmology Education

Yesterday I spent the morning giving a gosh-wow talk about cosmology to a physics class at Athenian High School taught by my housemate Dave Otten. It was a lot of fun, and the students were all very enthusiastic. It was almost entirely driven by their questions, and they loved being pitched curveballs (time is reference-frame dependent, the universe is expanding, spiral arms are standing waves, etc). The hour-and-a-half lecture was over before we knew it.

Afterward, Dave mentioned that it would be really cool if there were a way to talk about galactic-scale astronomy and cosmology that was in keeping with the philosophy of their school, which emphasizes lab-based, hands-on learning. He mentioned that PhET is a free resource he uses for providing interactive simulations that make hands-on labs out of subjects that otherwise would be too slow, small, big, fast, or dangerous to perform live in a classroom. He also lamented that there aren't any galactic- or cosmological-scale simulators there that could help to understand how systems on this scale behave, and that could perhaps illustrate exactly where the problems of dark matter and dark energy are encountered. Has anyone seen something like this?

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