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STEM students visit UK sites where historic scientific discoveries were made

| Judy Berthiaume

As early as elementary school, students hear the story of a young scientist, Isaac Newton, developing the theory of gravity after an apple falls on his head as he sits in his garden.

This summer, five UW-Eau Claire STEM students had the opportunity to experience that story in a new way by visiting Newton’s famous apple tree — often called the gravity tree — at Woolsthorpe Manor in England as part of a summer immersion program.

“The highlight of the immersion was seeing Newton’s apple farm and the tree the apple fell from,” says Tessa Landgreen, a junior materials science major from Stillwater, Minnesota. “The farm is in the middle of nowhere, but there is so much history that led science in a new direction right at that apple tree. I really enjoyed learning about general relativity, but also learning a lot of history behind the people who have made discoveries, and how the topic was started and progressed.”

That was exactly the reaction that faculty hoped for when creating the four-week course, “Mathematics and Physics: Differential Equations, Differential Geometry and the theories of Special and General Relativity,” which was offered for the first time this summer.

The international immersion course allowed STEM students to study in the United Kingdom, which has played and continues to play a large role in the development of large areas of mathematics and physics, says Dr. Paul Thomas, professor of physics and astronomy, who co-taught the immersion course with Dr. Colleen Duffy, associate professor of mathematics.

“We feel that STEM students have not had a great deal of choice in UW-Eau Claire’s international programs in the past,” Thomas says. “We wanted to develop a course that would serve upper-division students in mathematics and physics, while providing intercultural immersion components. We have both taught in England in the past, at Harlaxton College, and so had some experience in combining travel in the UK with teaching undergraduate courses to U.S. students.”

During the four-week course, UW-Eau Claire students studied at the University of Winchester in England.

Winchester, the original capital of England, is in a central location that made it easy for the class to travel to various locations for weekly field trips, Duffy says. Students also enjoyed learning about the city of Winchester’s impressive history, and visiting its science center and planetarium, she says.

Faculty say the field trips and other excursions were an important part of the course because their students connected better to the concepts discussed in the class when they could visit the locations where key scientists discussed in the class lived and worked.

“This was an amazing learning experience for the students as well as us,” Duffy says. “Seeing the places and tools of the discoveries discussed in class was eye-opening; it helped the students realize that they can be great scientists, too.”

At the end of the course, faculty mentors asked the students to complete reflection papers about their experiences, Thomas says.

“Many of them stressed how remarkable it was to visit Newton’s home, an experience that turned a name that appears in every physics textbook into a real person with a life story,” Thomas says. “They also were very impressed with the enormous structure of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, a 250-foot diameter steerable radio telescope, making it the third largest in the world. The Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, which contains a blackboard with Einstein’s board work, and the naval clocks of John Harrison at Greenwich also were rated highly by students.”

The class also visited the Royal Society in London, which showcased the work of many young scientists in the UK, giving the Blugolds a chance to talk with peers who are involved in a variety of world-class projects, Thomas says.

“Viewed as a whole, these visits gave the students an enormous breadth of exposure to the growth of science in Europe, right to present day cutting-edge research,” Thomas says of the immersion course.

The summer course in the UK was an opportunity to explore new cultures, while also expanding her understanding of general relativity and other STEM concepts, Landgreen says.

Even more importantly, Landgreen says, the immersion has expanded her thinking about what is possible for her future.

“While visiting Cambridge University, I found there are many research opportunities and a higher acceptance rate of women right now,” says Landgreen, who plans to pursue a career in research and development with materials. “I could definitely see myself doing graduate school there, or even moving to Ireland to work after college.”

The immersion also helped her connect in new ways with fellow STEM majors, giving her a support network that will be valuable as she continues her studies and then begins her career, Landgreen says.

While valuable for the students in the course, the experience also benefited the faculty who taught it and their future students, Duffy says.

“I look forward to bringing the personal stories, the fun of mathematics and physics, and the excitement of discovery into my classes on campus,” Duffy says.

Now back on her home campus, Landgreen says she is encouraging all Blugolds to take advantage of the many opportunities UW-Eau Claire offers students to immerse themselves in other cultures.

“This immersion course has made me love being a Blugold even more,” Landgreen says.

Photo caption: Visiting the apple tree that inspired Isaac Newton’s thinking about gravity was a highlight of a STEM immersion. Blugolds visiting the famous tree were (from left) Dr. Colleen Duffy, Jerry Guo, Tessa Landgreen, Kyle Glaeser, Dr. Paul Thomas, Zach Meredith and Dan Ott.