Philosophizing with students of science


Marc Dhallé and Fokko Jan Dijksterhuis have developed the project for the fourth module of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics. Marc is an experimental physicist. In the course of this research, he is especially busying himself with superconductive magnets for CERN. Fokko Jan is working at the School of Management and Governance and involved in ATLAS. He is originally a mathematician, but he has also explored the field of history of science and technology. He is conducting historical research and has personally developed his knowledge of philosophy of technology and society.

Interdisciplinary module

Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics students have fully shared the fourth module. For the project, the students have built an electromagnetic experiment, also involving the historical context; a real High Tech Human Touch module. Marc indicates that the "Vector Calculus and Electricity and Magnetism are both very honourable disciplines, which have developed over the course of 250 years". This development has occurred almost parallel and both have strengthened each other. The development of these disciplines and the experiments involved have made it possible to provide the module with an historic twist. "The students had to pick from a list of historic experiments and recreate it, only with modern means." At the end of the module, the students have to demonstrate their chosen experiments to each other.

Different cultures

‘We have consciously made mixed groups from the start," Marc explains. The groups consist of students from both physics and mathematics. In the beginning, there is some resistance; the students have to get used to each other. "It is funny to see differences in culture already in the first-year students," Fokko Jan says. Marc elaborates on the differences: "for the applied physics student, it means that they will sometimes think more strictly and cleanly about a problem, like an applied mathematics student does, and for the applied mathematics student, it means that they learn to cut corners pragmatically sometimes, because it is simply more efficient.” These differences in culture remain visible, even if someone has graduated years ago. "Fokko Jan is a mathematician and I am a physicist, and we still notice it when we talk to each other," Marc says.

Figure it out themselves

The personal responsibility of the students was heavily called upon in this module: de students often had to dive deeply into the theory long before the material was offered in lectures. "Sometimes the subjects would only be discussed in the courses halfway through the quartile," Marc explains. This was a conscious choice. "It is important that you do not always know in advance what you need. That is what we have to do, too; we sometimes have to figure things out," Fokko Jan continues. In addition, it had the added benefit that the students immediately understood the usefulness of the offered material. "The students have already run into the questions themselves; they now recognize the issues and the material is less abstract because of it," says Marc. In this type of education, the students' ability to schedule well is very important, because "a side-effect is that the students do not start until late", according to Marc.

Historic positioning

During the module, not only the aspects of physics and mathematics came to the fore, the historic side was important as well. "The students had to create an experiment and they had to do three things: build it, explain it and put it in a historical perspective," explains Fokko Jan. How did the experiment contribute to the development of our knowledge about Electricity and Magnetism? Students investigated how certain knowledge came about. The level of enthusiasm varied amongst students. Marc explains: "there are people who are ready for it and people for whom it will all remain a little vague." Marc attended some of Fokko Jan's lectures and he thought those lectures were at least very interesting!