New engineering and physics professors use new methods to challenge students

A new physics professor on campus can detect when a laser beam waivers the width of a hair on  a journey to the moon, while a new engineering professor challenged his students to simulate the same trip in a rocket ship.

Their reach toward the moon isn't the only tie-in between David Starling, assistant professor of physics, and Joseph Ranalli, assistant professor of engineering, who arrived together at Penn State Hazleton for the fall semester.

Starling is creating a laser lab on campus, and Ranalli's engineering students are building equipment for the lab. Both professors, too, seek ways to interest students in their introductory courses.

"They have a lot of shared research and tremendous energy, a shared love of students and teaching," Elizabeth Wright, director of Academic Affairs for Penn State Hazleton, said.

Ranalli said his professors influenced him to become a teacher."I saw their passion. I thought I would share it with the next generation of students," he said. For an early lesson, he chose a computer game to help students learn the design process.

The game required students to devise a plan for sending a rocket to the moon. They had to choose engines and fuel for stages of the rocket, but also learn about entering and leaving the orbits of Earth and the moon. "Students seemed to like playing the game," he said. "I almost describe it as a virtual lab exercise," he said.

Starling, meanwhile, tries to include a demonstration each time he teaches a chapter. In one class, he spun a bicycle wheel, and held it horizontally. Then he flipped the wheel so it turned in the opposite direction, just as a turntable he stood on began rotating like a merry-go-round. "It just shows the conservation of angular momentum," he said. Doing the math to explain the motions gets complex.

"So when you see it, it's pretty cool," Starling said.

Math never rattled him, thanks to his grandmother. As a boy he spent an hour with her before school. "She would run the multiplication tables with me ? When we started doing the science, math was never the problem," he said.

Instead he could concentrate on the principles of physics, which he found to be "simple, beautiful, not complicated." From a few laws "you derive all the intricate behavior of the universe." Those laws are true in the classical physics of Kepler and Newton.

But as a graduate student, Starling ventured into quantum physics, which the uninitiated realize isn't straight forward as soon as they hear the name of a fundamental precept. It's called the Uncertainty Principle, Werner Heisenberg's idea that an observer who knows the position of a particle can't simultaneously know its momentum.

Starling confronted uncertainty through research in quantum optics for his doctorate at the University of Rochester. "If you try to measure, very strange things happen depending on how you measure," he said.

His lab became adept at making measurements so sensitive that his adviser said they could detect "the deflection of a laser a hair's breadth even if it traveled all the way to the moon." Their work helped improve measuring techniques and also has military applications, he said.

Now that he settled in Hazleton with his wife, Sarah, an instructor in psychology at the campus, Starling wants to study another confounding theory: entanglement, a concept so strange that Einstein spent many of his latter years trying to debunk it. Einstein failed. Experiments proved the theory correct, but it remains a source of wonder.

Starling explained by using an example in which two friends each have a marble. If one marble is red, the other will be blue.  "You walk into a room. You find your marble is red, (so) you know mine is blue," he said.

Some particles share that linkage. If one particle has an "up" spin, for example, the other has a "down" spin. The spins aren't apparent until one is observed, then the other particle displays the opposite behavior. That happens even if they are too far apart to have exchanged a message at the speed of light. "Things can be both, and only choose when you look at it," Starling said.

He and his students will get a better look at the particles in the laser lab that he is building with a grant from Penn State.

The lab requires red and blue lasers and a sturdy table to keep the lasers from wobbling. Onto the table, experimenters will screw in tools such as mirrors, wave plates that change polarization, an oscilloscope to measure pulses, and a photon detector - the instrument that Ranalli and a team of engineering students will build with Starling.

"It will save him a lot of money putting his lab together," and provide experience for students, Ranalli said.

The chance to build a detector for a photon, a single particle of light, piqued students' curiosity at the undergraduate research fair where professors outlined research projects. "I must have had 10 to 15 students approach," Ranalli said.

Eight signed up and began meeting with Ranalli and Starling, who taught them basic lab techniques such as how to measure voltages while they waited for the arrival of parts ordered to build the photon detector. After the students help build the equipment, Starling hopes some will stick around the lab to try it out. They can develop science skills to complement their engineering training.

Likewise, Ranalli figures there's no reason that engineering students cannot take an interest in pure, as well as applied, science.

In his own research, Ranalli started one project that will help students and another that will involve them. With a professor at the University Park campus, he is creating software to use in a solar engineering class for fourth-year students. The software will replace tables that students consult now. "It will help bring the student homework into the computer age," he said.

Ranalli's other project might bring information about green energy to smartphones. He wants to develop an app to help homeowners decide the best place on their property to install solar panels or wind turbines. The idea came to him after a neighbor in Mountain Top, where he lives with his wife Melissa, asked for advice on where to put a solar heater for a swimming pool.

Two students offered to help, including one who learned computer programming while in high school. They will make the app on the platform used by Android phones. "All the tools are free. Anybody can download and develop an app," Ranalli said.

He broadened his research into wind and solar power because next year he will teach third- and fourth-year students in the bachelor's degree program in General Engineering with an Alternative Energy and Power Generation Track.

Ranalli specialized in power generation while doing the research for his doctorate at Virginia Tech University. He studied the effects of acoustics on combustion, which he said could be as basic as putting a speaker next to a candle and noticing how the flame wavered. His experiments looked at flames in gas turbines to suggest ways to redesign the turbine.

Next he spent three years of post-doctoral research at the National Energy Technology Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy in Morgantown, WV. There, he evaluated the effect of recirculating exhaust gases, as would be done to capture carbon, and of burning alternate fuels such as hydrogen gas or syngas made from coal.

"We don't know what that would do to turbine design," Ranalli said.