August 31, 2010

The Compass Project

View of Sather Tower and the Moon
from Campbell Hall, Home of the
Berkeley Astronomy Department
I’m just starting my second week at the University of California, Berkeley as an intended Astrophysics and Physics major. But I wanted to talk about the two weeks before starting my first semester, when I got the opportunity to take part in the Compass Project.

The Compass Project is a two week summer program at UC Berkeley for incoming freshmen intending to major in the physical sciences. It is a pretty new program; this was only its fourth year. It is run and taught by graduate students in physics. Meeting and talking with graduate students about physics and what they do was a lot of fun. Through Compass, I also met a few other students who are also intending to major in the physical sciences. Like me, all 17 students are all very passionate about physics.

The best aspect of Compass, in my opinion, was the collaborative setting. At first, the classes were very overwhelming and strange. At all of my classes before, both in school and at a summer program I had attended the summer before, the teachers had essentially lectured the students. There was occasional collaboration, but not at an amount that I experienced at Compass. At Compass, the teachers merely posed questions, forcing us, the students, to work together in groups. We developed our own models and solutions to explain the physics behind wind turbines, argued amongst ourselves about the models, and made experiments to test our model’s predictions. Essentially, we were learning physics as physics is done, questioning our assumptions and working together to make our own discoveries and not by blindly accepting facts that professors or teachers may show us. This style of learning was mind-blowing to me. For example, I don’t think I can forget discovering why we can make certain assumptions in order to use the Continuity Law (A1V1 = A2V2).

The topic also lent itself to this type of work. Wind turbines were something that we were all familiar with, yet did not know much about. Most of us also understood some physics behind topics like pressure, fluids, and fluid density. However, the way these topics are taught in most high school physics classes glosses over the details and the development of the formulas and concepts. Topics like the kinetic energy density or, again, the assumptions used to develop the continuity model are often not explained thoroughly. We had to use our collective knowledge to completely understand these relationships.

As part of Compass, we even took numerous field trips both to help us learn more about wind turbines, and also visit local labs in the region. These places included, for example, the Altamont Pass Wind Farm (which is one of the oldest wind farms in United States), UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Lab, and the Advanced Light Source. We also got the opportunity to tour some labs at UC Berkeley as well, like one studying nanotubes and another studying dark matter. I have put in some photographs from the field trips at the bottom of the post.

Because of Compass, I’m very excited for my next four years in studying physics at Berkeley. Compass has been one of the few times in my life that I have had the opportunity to learn physics in a way that it is actually done. Compass has also helped me realize more about the enormous number of frontiers that are being explored both in astrophysics and in physics. I know that by studying at Berkeley, I have a vast amount of opportunities to take part in that exploration.

Pictures from the Space Sciences Lab: (The first two pictures are of the home of Stardust@Home!)

Pictures from Altamont Pass Wind Farm:

Pictures from the Advanced Light Source:

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