A Textbook Case in Physics

Bill Lax, Florida, State U.

Oskar Vafek
June 16, 2014

Oskar Vafek, an associate professor of physics at Florida State University, decided to test his first-year graduate students’ understanding of quantum mechanics by having them write their own wiki textbook. A Career Award from the National Science Foundation in 2010 helped him put the idea into practice, and the final product became public in April. In the edited interview below, Mr. Vafek describes his approach to The Chronicle’s Danya Perez-Hernandez.

Q. How did you come up with this idea?

A. I was actually reading The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, a staff writer for The New Yorker. He describes conditions under which a sufficiently diverse group of people can arrive at a decision which is often superior to that made by a single member of the group. So the idea was to create something like that. An aggregate of information by the students.

Q. Can you describe the process?

A. We started by using Google Sites, which is free. Maybe after half a year we switched to MediaWiki. It is a little bit more technically challenging, but it is easier to type equations, which is of course important for physics textbooks. It is essentially the same technology used by Wikipedia, but we can set certain aspects of it. For example, we can set some pages to be viewable but not editable by the world, and only those with log-in access can edit. So I found that to be ideal for a project like this.

Q. What was the students’ response?

A. They were enthusiastic. Even before it was part of the course, I suggested it to maybe 10 or 15 of my graduate students. They had essentially no direct gain from it, only their curiosity and interest to put this together. That very initial reaction was quite positive, which encouraged me to proceed. It’s their opportunity to share what they know, even if it is within their peer group.

Q. How did the students benefit?

A. It essentially turned them from passive learners to active learners. In order for someone to be able to explain something to someone else, they must first understand it. And placing students in the role of textbook writers certainly shaped their scientific writing skill and improved their conceptual grasp of the subject.