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Physics for the New Millennium

By Josh Halpren

New Millennium Conference

Photo of Tori Vogel and David Varillas using liquid nitrogen to instantly freeze items by Teresa Larkin.

Physics professor Teresa Larkin strongly believes in making physics accessible and fascinating to all of her students. Students in Larkin’s Physics for a New Millennium class come from across the university, but are all given the opportunity to learn about physics in a class setting and put these skills to the test through the Annual New Millennium Conference. This year’s April 27th conference marked the event’s 12th year.

Larkin created the conference as part of the course so that students would have experience writing more substantially and scientifically than they would in the form of a lab report. “They go through the whole process,” says Larkin. “From formatting, to writing an abstract, to peer review, they get the full conference experience…I wanted to give students a more robust opportunity to show me through a less traditional venue that they understand the physics we are studying.” Each year Larkin compiles and publishes the students’ research. 

From the moment the class begins the conference is set in motion. Within the first two weeks of class, students select a topic they are interested in and submit drafts by spring break. According to Larkin, “this allows me to give them pretty thorough edits, and we get to have a pretty in depth peer review process.” Students then present their research to their peers along with several guests from the local scientific community at the conference. 

Sociology major and applied physics minor Tori Vogel, CAS ’14, was able to connect her research to the work she is doing in her Disability Studies class. Vogel’s research, entitled “Restoring the Sense of Hearing: The Cochlear Implant and its Effect on the Deaf Community” examined the inner workings of cochlear implants, the devices designed to restore hearing for deaf individuals, as well as the controversies they have caused among deaf individuals. “Some people see the cochlear implant as a rejection of deaf culture,” says Vogel. “Many people don’t realize that just because someone who has never been able to hear can now hear, it doesn’t mean they have the ability to understand what they are hearing. Especially for those individuals who are born deaf, if the brain doesn’t use its sense of hearing by age two, it will reallocate the memory to other senses.”

Walter Tyrna, SIS ’14, was also able to apply his research to his major. The international relations major and Spanish minor created a research project entitled “The Sound of Grandeur: Spanish Colonial Architecture” in order to look at the way the physical design of a structure can influence the activities conducted inside that building, and how architecture changed with society. Tyrna, who had take philosophy courses in the past looked at the reverberation times of sound in a variety of Spanish religious structures. “In the buildings of religions that were much more focused on outward, or divine forces, there are higher ceilings, more echoes, and higher reverberation time,” says Tyrna. “But as religion began to focus more on the individual, buildings were constructed with lower reverberation times so that people could more easily hear who was speaking.”

Other students decided to use the conference as an opportunity to research something completely different from their area study. Music major Lee Kaufman-Berson, CAS ’12, researched the physics of the internal combustion engine, the engine used in the vast majority of automobiles. Kaufman-Berson looked at the efficiency of the internal combustion engine as compared the electrical engine and soon discovered how drastically different the two are. “Compared to electrical engines, internal combustion engines are incredibly inefficient,” says Kaufman-Berson. “Only ten percent of the gasoline you put in your car is actually used for moving the car forward.” 

When Larkin created the course in 1998, she wanted a wider variety of students to be able to take physics classes in order to satisfy their natural science general education requirement. “We wanted all students to have an opportunity to study these concepts,” says Larkin. “The students in this class show that physics really can be applied successfully to a variety of fields.”

See the full list of research topics in the conference program.