Assessing Essential Concepts in Quantum Theory

In last Sunday’s NY Times magazine, David Javerbaum wrote an outstanding opinion piece titled A Quantum Theory of Mitt Romney. The article uses key concepts from quantum physics and uses them to show how the quirks of Mitt Romney (or the most commonly portrayed stereotypes of Mitt) make perfects sense through the lens of quantum physics. One of my favorite aspects of this piece is that he uses the favorite phrase of mine, Complementarity, in his description. I worry the word is in danger of being lost as modern physics seems to be leaving the Copenhagen Interpretation in the past. Yet the concept has helped define my pragmatic, harmony-seeking, outlook on life and conflict.

But anyways… A physics teacher/blogger/tweeter I follow commented that the article provides evidence of the author’s understanding of physics. So that gets me thinking about teaching and assessment. If an instructor does an outstanding job of teaching and explaining the concepts of quantum theory, then the student should be able to write a comparable essay comparing any person or thing to a quantum phenomenon.

For example, my first thought was to create a quantum theory for toddlers (or more specifically, my almost-three-year-old son). If you understand concepts like entanglement, superposition, probability, etc. and you’ve ever spent extended time around a toddler, you should be able to see how the essay practically writes itself.

In the past, after teaching Physics 1 students about wave/particle duality, part of my assessment was to require students to develop an analogy using an everyday experience or idea that exhibits a dual nature to explain the nature of light. I now see how the concept can go much further.

The article tries to use quantum mechanics concepts to explain Mitt Romney. In the physics classroom could we give kids the article and use Mitt Romney to explain the quantum mechanics concepts? Then we can ask students to discuss who or what they would explain using quantum concepts. I imagine kids explaining their relationship with their parents, or the interactions within cliques using these concepts. Presto, there’s your final assessment over the QM unit.

Comment starters:

What do you think about using this article in physics classrooms?

What analogies do you think kids would want write about?

What complex aspect of your life do you think you could explain using quantum mechanics?