Published: Feb. 7, 2022

CU Boulder’s Bethany Wilcox and Andrew Lucas will use support to improve physics education, expand our knowledge of fluids

Two young physicists at the University of Colorado Boulder have been awarded the Early Career Development Program (CAREER) at the National Science Foundation (NSF) to improve the teaching of quantum mechanics to students and to search for new kinds of fluids.

Bethany Wilcox, assistant professor of physics, has won $745,000 in support for a five-year research project to develop tools that can be used to improve teaching of quantum mechanics. Additionally, Assistant Professor Andrew Lucas has won $500,000 in support of a five-year research project to predict new kinds of fluids that can exist in nature.

The CAREER Program, one of the NSF’s most prestigious awards, supports early career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.

Bethany Wilcox

Bethany Wilcox is a NSF CAREER awardee.

Wilcox, a member of CU Boulder’s Physics Education Research group, aims to create a “flexible and robust tool” to measure student learning in undergraduate quantum mechanics courses.

“Such a measurement tool is important because applications of quantum mechanics within science and industry represent a growing area of potential and priority for the country,” Wilcox’s abstract states.

As technologies such as quantum computers are closer to being a reality, it will be critical that the STEM education community provides effective educational programs that produce a quantum-literate workforce that can work in these cutting-edge industries, she notes.

“Having a tool that can measure students’ learning of quantum mechanics concepts is a vitally important part of ensuring that these programs are effective at achieving their goals,” she adds. Her project also aims to provide the ability to compare the effectiveness of different quantum education courses and programs to identify efficient and innovative instructional strategies and approaches.

The new measurement tool would also optimally provide a mechanism to identify differential performance between different groups of students within quantum education.

Differences in performance are often reflective of inequities in the educational system in which some groups are better supported than others, Wilcox notes, adding: “Identifying these inequities is the first step to changing the system to ensure that all students, regardless of their identities or backgrounds can be successful, thus supporting the goal of retaining and supporting a diverse population of students in STEM programs and careers.”

Wilcox’s CAREER award is funded by American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

Wilcox thanked the NSF for the support: “The increasing national and international emphasis on potential application of quantum mechanics to a range of technologies makes it ever more critical that the discipline-based education research community provide the tools to ensure quantum education is both effective and equitable; this work will provide a tool that programs, institutions, and instructors can use to achieve those ends.”

Lucas, whose work spans multiple subfields of theoretical and mathematical physics, will pursue research towards discovering new kinds of fluids that can exist in nature, and re-design how hydrodynamics is taught to physicists.

The most well-known fluids are liquid water or the air of the atmosphere. The equations that govern such liquids and gases have been understood for hundreds of years, Lucas notes.

“More recently, fluid-like behavior has also been discovered in gases of ultracold atoms, electrons flowing through metals, and even in plasmas of quarks and gluons created at high energy particle colliders,” his abstract states.

Andrew Lucas

Andrew Lucas is a NSF CAREER awardee.

Lucas recently predicted infinite families of exotic generalizations of these previously discovered fluids. The goal of his project is to develop a systematic way of classifying and understanding new kinds of hydrodynamic behavior and to predict experimental realizations of these new fluids in ultracold atoms and quantum materials.

Lucas says his research will lead to a more systematic approach to predicting the collective behavior of a broad range of physical systems, ranging from quantum fluids of electrons or spins in metals to the dynamics of liquid crystals and other soft or active matter, and even to the collective behaviors of non-equilibrium biological systems such as bacterial suspensions or flocks.

The CAREER Award will also support education and outreach, including the development of a new course on hydrodynamics for senior-level undergraduate and first-year graduate students in physics.

Rather than focusing on the physics of everyday liquids or gases, as is done in conventional treatments of the subject commonly taught in engineering departments, “this new course will emphasize all of the many physical settings in which hydrodynamics arises in both classical and quantum fluids: the atmosphere, electron liquids, quark-gluon plasma, liquid crystals and the collective motion of living organisms,” Lucas states.  It will also focus on the profound relationships between hydrodynamics, statistical mechanics, and symmetries, which underlie many of the modern developments in the field.

These efforts will culminate in a set of book-like lecture notes, which will be freely available to the public through the arXiv preprint server.

Lucas expressed gratitude to NSF for its support of fundamental research in statistical physics, “including my own research into the foundations of the theory of hydrodynamics.” Adding:

“Beyond supporting my group’s research, this award also recognizes the importance of reviving hydrodynamics as a long-neglected component of the physics curriculum. I believe that both the research and educational efforts supported through this award will be an important piece of my scientific legacy.”

Michael Ritzwoller, chair of the physics department, said the two were well-deserving.

“Although they are still junior faculty members, Andy Lucas and Bethany Wilcox are already outstanding contributors to their fields and are exceptionally deserving of this early career award,” says Ritzwoller. “The awards will support advancements in theoretical physics and in the teaching of physics, both of which are vital to the continued evolution and growth in physics."

Including Wilcox and Lucas, 172 CU Boulder faculty members have won NSF CAREER Awards since 1996.