University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

Facultyresearch

Playing with the building blocks of physics

Kurt Wick and student
Kurt Wick (right) and student in the Methods of Experimental Physics Lab
Alex Schumann
                                                       

When one imagines a room full of physicists in training, the image that comes to mind is perhaps not a group of students sitting around playing with Legos. But that is precisely the metaphor used by Kurt Wick to describe his classes in the Methods of Experimental Physics. The students do not play with actual interlocking colored bricks, but rather bits of computer systems that might fit together in larger experiments.

The Methods class is the place in which students learn the hands-on skills they will need to conduct a physics experiment in the real world. For their final project, they actually have to build and execute a new, original physics experiment. They also write a paper in technical language describing their experiment and communicate their ideas in class by presentations and with posters. They have to do all this working as a group, just as physicists do in the real world.

Wick explains that Methods of Experimental physics is changing all the time. While the way the class is taught which includes students working together on a big final project, has not changed, the actual methods used are constantly being updated.

Wick says that the way that Minnesota teaches digital logic is very current and cutting edge. He said that most lab manuals and text books for the class are outdated. The methods class uses Moodle to keep the course fresh. Wick has been teaching the class for 20 years watching the building blocks change. For example, transistors used to comprise the bulk of the course once upon a time, and now are rarely used.

Most recently the class introduced Field Programmable Gateway Arrays (FPGA). “In the old days a circuit with 15 logic gates was complex, now we have chips with 100000 generic gates on them. These chips make specific logic gates on the fly.” Students are learning to program FPGAs in order to use them in research projects. As with Legos, you can build a small thing or you can extrapolate upward and build a similar large thing using a lot more parts. Wick says that the virtual Legos can be used to program a simple music player. The ideas learned can be extrapolated to build a big particle physics accelerator.

Wick says that often it is the collaboration or communications component of the class that students find most difficult. They are used to learning as an individual and communicating with one person, for example, with the instructor through an essay. By having to stand up in front of a group to explain their experiment, and face questions from the group, they learn to defend their ideas. They also learn to work together as a team, and find comradeship in the long hours often required to complete the projects. Wick says that the class is quite polarizing. “No one has a neutral opinion of it. They either love it and decide they want to become an experimental physicist or they discover that perhaps another kind of physics is better suited to their abilities.”