There Is Always Hope

My last post, on the state of physics pracs, was pretty bleak, so I thought I would share a delightful thing that happened in the very prac in which the ruler-shortage incident occurred.

The pracs are run with two demonstrators, each in charge of half the students. I was standing in for a demonstrator who could not be there, and one of the students in the other half of the class asked a question that stumped her demonstrator. He called me over to see if I could help. I can’t remember the original question, but it related to fitting trendlines to data and we mucked around a bit with the trendline function on Excel for a bit. In the course of this the student said, “Isn’t there a theorem that with a sufficiently high number of polynomials you can fit a trend to any data?”

Now I’d be impressed before, but at this stage I was blown away. Not only was this first year, but the prac was for the Fundamentals course. This is for students who did not take physics at high school. Most of those taking it are interested in the biological sciences or a career as a vet but have a fair degree of maths phobia. The course is designed to teach them the physics they will need for some of these fields, without using too much maths.

I have a vague recollection of encountering the concept of overfitting with higher order polynomials during my degree, but I don’t think you learn it in depth until honours. I only knew about it because of this discussion of Roy Spencer’s descent into insanity. After checking that she was not some extraordinarily young looking mature-age student I asked how on Earth she knew this. The student explained that she loved maths, was aspiring to a career in applied maths or statistics and had had a teacher who encouraged that interest.

I squeezed in a few jokes about fitting elephants (see link above) and asked what she was doing in Fundamentals. “I didn’t take physics at school because I thought it was a waste of time,” she explained. “Good to see you have seen the light,” I responded. “Oh I never thought physics was a waste of time,” she explained. “But high school physics seems to be pretty much just plugging numbers into formulae.” I said I took it that she had aced her high school maths subjects, which she agreed with somewhat modestly, and expressed surprise that this was not enough to allow her into the normal physics stream. I know this used to be the case, but she said she had tried and been rejected. I don’t know if this is now firm policy, or if she just spoke to the wrong people. Clearly she was somewhat frustrated by how easy the maths was in the Fundamentals course, but making the best of it.

While the bureaucratic nature of the decision to force her into the wrong course is regretable I was left with several things to be delighted about: It’s always exciting to come across a student that smart, and so much in love with maths/science. The fact that she was so articulate about it was a particular bonus. That she had encountered high school teachers who gave her such encouragement was more a relief than anything, and the fact that she was taking the opportunity to ask extension questions, rather than throwing a hissy fit about being asked to do work she could do in her sleep was the icing on the cake.

Being a stand-in prac for me I’m unlikely to see this student again, but it cheered me up no end encountering her even once.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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