Open Classrooms Episode 13: Nicolas Menicucci

Open Classrooms is a podcast series produced by the Academic Development Group in  Science, Engineering and Health.  Each podcast features interviews and stories from our staff who have opened up their classroom doors and shared their practices, innovations and ideas.
In this episode, Natasha Taylor talks to Nicolas Menicucci from the School of Science about the work he has done to transform how quantum physics is taught to first year students.
Few topics excite physics students more than quantum mechanics, and first-year students arrive at RMIT inspired and keen to learn. But the very features that make quantum physics so fascinating also present a steep learning curve. Difficult mathematics and counter-intuitive concepts usually delay real learning about quantum physics until the later years of the degree programme. Nick has developed a curriculum that enables students to get their hands dirty with the real mathematical tools and concepts used in cutting-edge quantum physics research – all in first year. His approaches include:

  • Literally translating the elements of the high-level mathematical notation into sentences and concepts that students can intuitively understand.
  • Making them do problem based learning (PBL) activities to learn how to manipulate the mathematics (assisted by the concepts).
  • Providing detailed instructions for how to complete these problems (after the PBL session) so that they can reproduce the procedure on their assignment and exam.
  • Using calculus/complex-numbers self-quizzes 4 times through the semester to enable students to self-assess their learning and identify areas of achievement/improvement.

Contact Details
Please feel free to reach out to Nick by email, and if you want more information about his research group, please visit the QuRMIT homepage.
Supporting Resources
For those involved in physics education, Nick’s first-year students successfully apply Dirac notation (bras and kets) to quantitative problems dealing with normalisation, writing states in different bases, applying the Born rule, and calculating expectation values of observables—for both pure states and mixed states, and for both spin and position. (Only Dirac notation is discussed in the podcast.) Students also wrestle with philosophical concepts like the meaning of the quantum state, complementarity, and the notion that maximal information is incomplete.
The following article is relevant if you want to use PBL for mathematics problems specifically. This is relevant for first-year physics, where the skills to be developed are both (a) purely mathematical and, separately, (b) physical problem solving: Bettina Dahl (2018) What is the problem in problem-based learning in higher education mathematics, European Journal of Engineering Education, 43:1, 112-125, DOI: 10.1080/03043797.2017.1320354