News Teaching

Teaching During a Pandemic: A Look at SMU Physics

The latest edition of the Dedman College newsletter is out, and my article on teaching during the pandemic is now available! In this short article, I review how the physics department pivoted from spring to summer, and then to fall, to meet the demands of teaching and the pandemic.

News Teaching

Implementing an Honors Physics Add-On Course: The SMU Experience

Prof. Jodi Cooley, Dr. Eric Godat, and I were very pleased to see the publication of our article on how we implemented an add-on honors course experience at the introductory physics level here at SMU.

In this article, we outline how we implemented an honors-level add-on course to complement standard university-level introductory physics courses. We explain why it was necessary to do this. We then explain the strategies we have adopted for attracting students, engaging them, and assessing their performance. Our goal in creating this course was to provide a flexible format that would not discriminate based on experience and preparation, because such factors can be tied to sex, gender, social-economic status, and race. We also sought to empower students that are traditionally marginalized or underrepresented in large course settings by giving them a venue where they could work in a small, dynamic, and creative environment.

The Physics Teacher 58, 509 (2020);
News Outreach Research Teaching

A Tour of the SMU Physics Department

I was asked in the spring to put together a video for new, first-year undergraduate students, touring them through the SMU Physics Department. Please enjoy this virtual tour, from my perspective as a faculty member in the department. I am excited to welcome students, new and returning, to SMU this fall … regardless of how the pandemic forces us to interact.

News Teaching

My Personal Digital Teaching Rig

Good digital teaching needs a number of skills:

  • Coordination: you need to be able to move between technologies to make your point and keep the flow of the session going smoothly. Good tools enable easier coordination.
  • Polish: more than you might in the classroom, where students feel they “get more for their buck” because you are physically present, you need to polish your output. Tools that enable this in real time with less effort are best.
  • Engagement: it’s comparatively easy in person to stop, read the room, and decide how to proceed (Q&A, discussion, continue the presentation, etc.). It’s much harder in the digital space, where we lose a lot of eye contact and microexpressions. More than ever, you have to “chunk” your process to allow time for inquiry, discussion, reflection, and utilization of ideas.

My teaching rig has been evolving over time. With funding for teaching technology upgrades scarce, and since I am not a parent, I’ve invested my own income in experimenting with new equipment. I use open-source tools, so software costs me nothing. I already owned an Apple Pencil-capable iPad going into the COVID-10 crisis, so the cost of that is built in to my assumptions (a new standard-sized iPad costs $329 with just WiFi, which is probably all you need for this process unless your home internet and home wifi are themselves unreliable).

Here is a parts list, with some overall explanations of the pieces.

A large view of my teaching rig. The main computer in on the floor and not visible. Here you can see the iPad, keyboard, mouse, ultra-wide monitor, ring light, lecture webcam (on top of the monitor), document web camera (on the right, over the graph paper pad) and its booklight illumination of the surface, Yeti microphone on a boom arm, and projector screen (second monitor).

The Backbone

High-Speed Internet

A college professor who can get to their office and use the internet from campus should be fine. I do a lot of teaching from home, because campus is not going to be safe once students are allowed to congregate again at full population and no social distancing in their housing situations. I anyway run network services out of my home (a website, etc.), so I need a fast and reliable internet connection at home.

I pay about $100/month for business-class cable internet. We don’t buy cable TV or any of that nonsense, so we’re focused on all media delivered by internet. This plan gives up about 25Mbps download and 15Mbps upload, which is more than enough to run two Zoom meetings simultaneously (e.g. if my spouse and I are both in meetings or teaching at the same time).

A Good Desktop Computer

I like building my own, but that’s not for everyone, of course. In the modern era of high-speed internet video and high-quality audio, you need a machine with the following attributes:

  • A high-quality video card
  • Lots of disk space for local recording of video and audio
  • A large screen or multiple screens to manage many tasks across various tools (e.g. camera, whiteboard, view of meeting participants, etc.)
  • USB 3.0 or USB-C (or both).

Those are the basics. My desktop machine is a custom built. Here are the key features:

  • Graphics Card: Sapphire Radeon 11265-05-20G Pulse RX 580 8GB GDDR5 Dual HDMI/ DVI-D/ Dual DP OC with Backplate (UEFI) PCI-E Graphics Card Graphic Cards ($250)
  • Disks:
    • Primary system disk is a fast SSD drive with 128GB of space.
    • Secondary system disk is for video storage and editing, and is comprised of much slower 500GB space.
    • I bought these years ago, and as a rule of thumb for SSD you pay about $1/GB and for magnetic disks you pay about $0.20/GB.
  • Screen: my newest addition is an ultra-widescreen monitor to allow twice the window space as a traditional monitor. I selected a LG 34WK95C-W 34 Inch Curved UltraWide QHD Nano IPS Monitor with VESA DisplayHDR 400, Silver ($800)
  • USB, at high speed, is essential if you have to move video from an HD camera to the computer for editing. While most webcams and microphones are going to be just fine with USB2.0, I recommend getting the USB speed up as high as possible to future-proof your rig.

I have a second screen, even given all the new screen real estate. A second monitor is useful for sharing or recording a whole desktop that is out-of-the-way of your visual space, where you may be working. I have a very old 1024×768 projector in the back of my office and a movie screen on the opposite wall, and this is connected into my video card as a second screen. The projector was a second-hand throwaway that was donated to me; I’ve paid for 1 new bulb in 15 years, which cost $100.

Audio Recording

  • Yeti Microphone ($180): this is overkill, but I already had one thanks to an SMU Presidents Partners Grant from 2009 when I first arrived at SMU. Just get a good quality condenser microphone, which typically runs around $99 or so.
  • Microphone boom arm: if you are like me, you pound the keyboard and bang your hand on the table when you talk. Get your microphone off the table! I use an InnoGear Microphone Arm Stand, Heavy Duty Mic Arm Microphone Stand Suspension Scissor Boom ($70). You want sturdy but flexible.

I don’t do anything in my office to help with echo or other sound quality issues. I cringe when I listen to recordings from my office (that echo!), but that’s because I am picky.

Video Recording

I use two webcams, one for lecture and one for documents.

  • Lecture Camera: this is an “old” Logitech 1.3 megapixel webcam; you can’t even get it anymore. I like it because it has a close-able plastic shutter, for when you don’t trust an application to not record video. You should expect to spend about $50-$100 on a decent camera.
    • Mount the camera up high, so that it’s aimed down at a slight angle your face. Never shoot “up the nose” – it’s a terrible view. Be able to look you camera in the “eye” to connect better with a viewing audience. You might need a stand to achieve this; my monitor is tall enough (and my chair low enough) to achieve this.
  • Document Camera: I just bought a webcam for this (I did not buy a dedicated document camera, though you certainly can). Make sure it has two features: a standard camera stand mounting screw and manual focus, so you can lock the focal plane on the writing surface. Auto-focus tends to try to lock onto your hand, etc. which is much closer to the lens and then this blurs the writing. I got a stock webcam (Webcam 1080P FUVISION Manual Focus Full HD Live Stream Web Camera, $50)
    • Camera Stand: I got a simple, low-profile and adjustable webcam stand. (WongPing Adjustable Webcam Tripod with Cellphone Holder, Overhead Phone Mount, currently unavailable on Amazon, but I paid about $30)
    • Book light: I took one of my book lights and used it to clip to the table and illuminate the work area. Mine is an INTELLUCE Book Light ($15).
  • For really high-quality video shooting, I use the Canon EOS Rebel T7i I got for Christmas last year. That’s my “movie camera” for when I really need to impress. It’s also really expensive (this will run you at least $500 for the camera and some basic lenses, a stand, etc.)
  • Green Screen: to avoid the backdrop always being my cluttered home office, I got a portable and collapsing green screen. Mine is an Emart Green Screen ($200). I love it.
My homebrew document camera rig: a stock webcam with manual focus and a camera mounting screw base; a webcam stand; a booklight; a pad of paper (Ampad Graph Paper); and a pen (Uniball JetStream 1.0mm tip pen)


The document camera rig is one kind of whiteboard for teaching. My iPad is the other. For this, you need an Apple Pencil – it’s really the best digital writing system I’ve ever used. That’s going to run you $99-$130.

How do you broadcast your whiteboard? For the document camera, it’s just another video source. iPad and all Apple products support AirPlay, which in principle allows you to broadcast your video device over WiFi to another computer.

However, Apple famously only plays in its own sandbox, while paying lip service to Windows and Linux. Windows and AirPlay work together; if you have a Mac or Windows desktop computer, you are all good. Share away!

Open Source software rides to the rescue for Linux/UNIX. Here is how I AirPlay from my iPad to my Linux Desktop Computer:

  • UxPlay: an open-source AirPlay client for Linux/UNIX
AirPlay mirroring of my iPad and Notability to my Linux desktop using UxPlay. So happy.


Hardware is the brick but software is the mortar. Hardware is a collection of states; software is the federation of those distinct states into a functioning republic. Here is the software I use for various purposes.

  • Video Meetings
    • I use what I have to. Different people and institutions want different things. For SMU, I use Zoom; for ATLAS, I use Vidyo; for personal interactions, I use Skype, or Google Meet, or Zoom, or whatever. All play nice with Linux (and Windows, and Mac), for the most part, so for me video meeting software has become a background noise of arbitrary competing choices. Pick your poison.
  • Lecture Recording
    • I like to use dedicated software to record lectures that are asynchronously broadcast. Right now, I am a big fan of the Open Broadcaster Software suite (OBS). This allows you to quickly layout a bunch of sources in a session, and switch between sessions in real time while recording the presentation. It has a real “professional webcast” feel as a result. Once you get your sessions setup, which took me about 1 hour of time to think and plan, you just forget and go. OBS lets me coordinate the switching and layout of sources without too much thinking. It can even broadcast itself to your computer as a “virtual camera” that can be used in Zoom, etc. so you can manage your live performance using OBS.
  • Video Editing
    • There are many choices for Mac and Windows, at various price points. I am an open-source person. I use KdenLive to do hard core video editing (mixing clips, audio, transitions, effects, etc.). Kdenlive, like nearly all video editors or video conferencing tools, allows for “chroma keying” – the use of a green screen to overlay the green with content of your choice.
  • Audio Editing
    • For dedicated and free hard core audio editing, you cannot beat Audacity. This is fully cross-platform; I’ve used it on Windows, Linux, and Mac.
  • Screen Recording
    • For dedicated screen recording, there are many options on all platforms. On Linux, I like SimpleScreenRecorder; it’s served me for years, including capturing lecture slides and audio during in-person classes, as well as offline recording of lectures for later inclusion in more complex lecture videos (e.g. my Modern Physics lectures).
  • iPad Note Taking/Whiteboarding: I love Notability. It’s not free, but it’s worth it ($9). You can AirPlay it in “presentation mode” (where just your “paper” is visible) or “screen sharing mode”, where the whole frame of the application is visible.

Other Materials

  • Graph Paper Pad for the Document Camera: I like Ampad graph paper pads (about $8 for 1 thick pad)
  • Uniball (Uni) JetStream 1.0mm tip pens: good ink flow, thick lines, smooth motion on paper. My absolute favorite affordable pen. ($27 for a 12-count box)
  • Ring Light: If you have any bright lighting (windows) in your background, you need to front-light your face to help the camera, or it will throw off its brightness and contrast balance. I grabbed a Ring light back in the spring to aid in this. ($40) You just need good, intense, diffuse white light.
News Teaching Undergraduate Excellence

Spring 2020 Honors Physics Grand Challenge Final Projects

I am so pleased with how the students in my Honors Introductory Physics (PHYS 1010) course met the new challenges posed by COVID-19 and the need for social distancing, producing excellent final projects for the class. Please enjoy them!

News Teaching

Teaching in the Age of COVID-19

My Honors Physics class is a very hands-on class. Managing that in the age of COVID-19 has been an interesting challenge. Tonight, I invited my students (if it was safe to do so) to buy some inexpensive kitchen items – food dye, corn starch, and chocolate – and participate in “Physics in the Kitchen” tonight. Broadcasting from our home kitchen, I guided the students on three experiments.

The first was to make liquid fireworks using diffusion, water, oil, and food dye. Set aside a tall drinking glass filled with room temperature water, leaving about 1cm of space at the top. Then put cooking oil (2 tbsp) in a second small dish. Put two drops of food dye in the oil. Quickly whisk the dye into several smaller drops (do not thoroughly mix!) in the oil. Gently pour the oil into glass of water. The dye droplets will sink to the bottom of the oil, then into the water. They are not oil-soluble, but they are water-soluble, so they leave trails of color in the water (like rocket plumes) and pancake and fan out in the water due to pressure and diffusion. They look like upside-down fireworks!

The second was to estimate the speed of light using a microwave oven and chocolate. Get bars of milk chocolate (e.g. 5in Hershey chocolate). Open your microwave and remove the rotating plate and the mechanism it sits on. Take a ceramic dinner plate and set it upside down over the recess in the floor of the microwave. Set another plate right-side up on the first dinner plate. Layout the chocolate bar on the plate. If you have a few chocolate bars, lay them out next to each other on the plate. Heat the chocolate for about 1 minute. Measure the distance between the closest melty spots on the chocolate (e.g. center to center or edge to corresponding edge). Call this distance D, and convert it to meters. The frequency of the waves in a standard microwave is F=2.45GHz (billion cycles per second), the frequency needed to make water molecules flip back and forth. Multiply out 2DF=z. The number, z, is an estimate of the speed of light! My students took several measurements and we got to within 20% of the accepted value of the speed of light.

The last experiment was to mix 2 parts corn starch to 1 part water to make a non-Newtonian fluid affectionately named “Oobleck”. When pressed, the fluid turns solid. When left on its own, it turns liquid. It’s non-Newtonian because its viscosity is strongly and non-linearly dependent on the applied stress (compressive force). Try balling up the fluid into a solid mass in your hand, roll it into a ball, and then flatten out the palm of your hand. The ball in your hand suddenly turns to liquid. Press it again to make it solid!

News Teaching

COVID-19 Changes Everything for Spring 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, is changing everything about our society right now. Social distancing is essential to slowing the spread of the virus, which is particularly dangerous to anyone with underlying cardiovascular or respiratory conditions, especially combined with advancing age.

SMU is keeping us up-to-date as they change their policies to adapt to realities in the city, county, state, and country. You can find more on the SMU COVID-19 blog.

Here is how I have been communicating with my students as courses move entirely into digital space for the rest of the Spring 2020 term. I use the “Announcements” feature in Canvas to create bulletins and newsletters for my students.

PHYS 3305: Modern Physics

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PHYS 1010: Honors Introductory Physics

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