Home Stretch | Explaining quantum physics to teenagers

When quantum physics was incorporated into the physics curriculum of pre-university education, this created a big challenge for both teachers and students. Due to its abstract nature and contra-intuitive elements, quantum physics isn’t an easy subject to teach after all. As one of the teachers having to deal with this, Tim Bouchée decided to start a PhD on the topic at the Eindhoven School of Education (ESoE). The lessons he developed make use of interactive digital materials to support teachers and students in teaching and learning quantum physics. He will defend his thesis today.

The renewal of the physics curriculum in the upper years of pre-university education was the talk of the town a decade ago. Suddenly, physics teachers had to teach quantum physics to high school seniors. Tim Bouchée, teacher of pre-university education at Augustinianum in Eindhoven, saw his colleagues struggle and also had a difficult time teaching the new subject himself.

Different rules

“When I was a university student learning quantum physics for the first time, I generally managed to solve the equations, without really knowing what I was actually calculating,” he tells us. Quantum physics describes the behavior of light and matter at the very smallest level, yielding insights that have contributed to the development of various applications, such as lasers, cell phones and modern computers. But the nature of the subject itself is very abstract, which makes it difficult to introduce to high school students for the very first time. “It’s easy to picture what happens to a ball when it’s dropped, but things aren’t that simple in quantum physics. It’s difficult to make a connection between the physical effects and the phenomenon, i.e. what we actually observe.”

What’s more, the principles are counterintuitive and appear to contradict the knowledge the students acquired previously. “They learn, for instance, that electrons are negatively charged blobs that can’t just phase through a barrier. But at the very smallest level, they can,” says Bouchée. So a whole different set of rules apply, which easily confuses students. 

To explore effective methods for teaching and learning quantum physics, he decided to start a PhD at ESoE. His dissertation is part of the DUDOC-Bèta program, which is financed by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and enables teachers to conduct research into the subject they teach, and thereby improve the quality of science education.

Computer simulations

To find out what problems they experience and what opportunities are out there, he first talked to teachers and students. “One of the things students told me was: ‘I actually have no idea why we have to learn this. What good will it do me?’,” he says. This made it clear to him that it’s crucial to establish a clear link between the subject matter and the different applications, such as the electron microscope, QLED TV and MRI scanner. The students also struggled to see the relationship between the various topics within quantum physics. To solve this problem, he introduced a common thread in the lesson series he would go on to develop. Furthermore, his research revealed that the use of computer simulations might be a very suitable way of explaining the concepts of quantum physics, simultaneously giving students a bit more autonomy over the learning process.

Based on his findings, Bouchée then developed five lessons that center on the use of digital materials. To this end, he used existing computer simulations that were freely available, so he didn’t have to design them. He did spend some time on making the materials more suitable for use in the lessons. This involved, for instance, creating worksheets – which are available (in Dutch) online – containing several exercises, which tell the students exactly what they have to do. This not only acquaints students with quantum physics in a fun and activating way, but it also prepares them well for the final exam, as the lessons align with the themes in the textbook.

Bouchée demonstrates one of the computer simulations that are used in the lessons he designed. On the screen we see small colorful blobs – the electrons – move around. “Through this simulation, the students are familiarized with different models of atoms. It allows them to see what happens at the smallest scale,” he explains. “Instead of me telling them in class, the exercise guides students through a step-by-step discovery of what model is the best fit. This way, they research their own way to a conclusion rather than me handing it to them.”

Very motivated

The lessons have been tested by different groups. General experience was very positive; many students thought the lessons were useful and motivating. But there was also a group that had trouble learning this independently. “These students felt like they were thrown in the deep end and this made them insecure,” he tells us. “Incidentally, that didn’t even relate to the grade they got.” He thinks that in the future, research could be carried out how you can offer this group more assistance and support.

In general, the students were very motivated to get to work on this method. “The ‘time on task’, which indicates how much time students actively spend on a task without getting distracted, was also high,” he says. “During one of the lessons, which I attended as an observer, the teacher walked away, but the students didn’t even notice and simply continued with the exercise. I thought that was very special.”

A better teacher

Conducting his research, talking to other researchers and attending conferences were very educational to Bouchée. These experiences further defined him as a teacher. “I now put a lot more thought into what I want to achieve in my lessons and how I can go about that,” he says. “Before I was kind of a slave to the method, sticking to the textbook too much. But now I think: this is important to me, so that’s what I’ll do.”

These important things may involve scientific literacy, but also climate change and the role physics and technology can play in finding solutions. Bouchée attaches importance not just to preparing the students for their final exams, but also to creating conscious, well-informed citizens. All in all, his research has had a much wider impact than just teaching quantum physics, he believes. “It’s made me a better teacher.”

In addition to digital materials, Bouchée also uses tests to demonstrate physical concepts in class. The photo depicts a test involving quantum dots as an application of the particle in a box model, one of the topics students research in the lessons he designed. Quantum dots are tiny grains (nanoparticles) consisting of semiconductor material, varying in size from 2 nm to 10 nm. When quantum dots are exposed to blue light or UV light, some of the electrons within the quantum dot receive enough energy to go into an excited state. When they subsequently default back to their ground state, they emit light. The tubes (see photo) contain a liquid in which several quantum dots have been dissolved. The size of the quantum dot determines what color light it emits. Quantum dots have several applications, including their use in QLED TVs.

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