Teachers become pupils at immersive physics camp

Fourty-four teachers from around the world gathered for EinsteinPlus at Perimeter Institute, sharing ways to bring physics to life in their classrooms. 

The purpose of education, Albert Einstein once wrote, “is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.”
Such training requires a high tolerance for being stumped, especially when it comes to mindbending topics like quantum mechanics, general relativity, and the mysteries of black holes. 
Stumped was a recurring state of mind among 44 teachers from around the world who assembled at Perimeter Institute for EinsteinPlus, a weeklong summer program that, true to its namesake, encourages mental calisthenics over rote memorization.
The underlying idea is that, if the teachers can solve a vexing physics problem through teamwork and tenacity – and have fun in the process – they can inspire the same problem-solving perseverance in their students back home. 
Over the course of the week, the teachers – who came from Estonia, China, the US, Portugal, the Netherlands, and across Canada – trained their minds by using their hands in a series of classroom-ready demonstrations and experiments. They used beach balls to understand time dilation, buckets of water to understand force and momentum, and cheap household knickknacks to create “Dollar Store Demos.”
In one particular exercise, the teachers were divided into teams of four, with each group armed with a laminated map of the Earth, a ruler, a dry-erase marker, and a piece of string. Using only those tools and a bit of mathematical know-how, they were tasked with figuring out how complex, ultra-precise GPS navigation technology works. 
“Uh...” said Lucas Feitosa Campos, a teacher from Sao Paolo, Brazil. “Hmm...”
His puzzlement was shared by many in the room, who were trying to triangulate the position of an imaginary GPS device somewhere on Earth by applying the Pythagorean theorem, the speed of light, and some ingenuity.
Gradually, as groups talked through potential solutions, the air of befuddlement was replaced by the buzz of progress. Eventually, each group teased out a solution to the problem – some are correct, some close enough, and some are enlighteningly wrong. 
Failure is an important part of the scientific process, said Campos, and can be much more instructive than memorizing a bunch of formulae and facts. 
“It’s not just the content of the lesson that’s important, but the philosophy of learning something by trying to figure it out,” he said. “This philosophy of learning-by-doing should be spread.” 
And that is exactly what he intends to do in his home country: spread the EinsteinPlus philosophy among Brazilian teachers. Campos is an outreach coordinator at the ICTP South American Institute for Fundamental Research (ICTP-SAIFR) in São Paulo. When Perimeter Institute forged a partnership with ICTP-SAIFR in 2015, Campos attended a version of EinsteinPlus presented there by Perimeter’s Educational Outreach team. 
This summer, he travelled to Canada – along with fellow ICTP-SAIFR outreach coordinator Ana Serio – to glean more ideas and techniques for launching the Brazilian version of EinsteinPlus. Together, they’ll train Brazilian teachers with similar activities, who in turn will train their fellow teachers, all of whom will take the techniques to their classrooms.
All the EinsteinPlus participants will do the same, sharing what they’ve learned with their peers back home, in a model that maximizes the number of students reached. 
The hands-on, experiential learning of the EinsteinPlus program “allows us to feel reconnected with the magic of teaching,” said Serio.
“If we can make more teachers feel like this, and they can share that feeling with their students, it can be contagious and help change education.”
- Colin Hunter





About Perimeter Institute

Perimeter Institute is the world’s largest research hub devoted to theoretical physics. The independent Institute was founded in 1999 to foster breakthroughs in the fundamental understanding of our universe, from the smallest particles to the entire cosmos. Research at Perimeter is motivated by the understanding that fundamental science advances human knowledge and catalyzes innovation, and that today’s theoretical physics is tomorrow’s technology. Located in the Region of Waterloo, the not-for-profit Institute is a unique public-private endeavour, including the Governments of Ontario and Canada, that enables cutting-edge research, trains the next generation of scientific pioneers, and shares the power of physics through award-winning educational outreach and public engagement. 


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“If we can make more teachers feel like this, and they can share that feeling with their students, it can be contagious and help change education.”


- EinsteinPlus participant Ana Serio