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The State of Undergraduate Education In the U.S.A First Look

by John Mateja, Chair, APS Committee on Education

Recently, The American Physical Society was asked to comment on the state of undergraduate science, mathematics, engineering and technology (SMET) education in the U.S. as part of a comprehensive review being conducted by the National Science Foundation. As the review is in its early stages, the NSF is particularly interested in knowing where the community believes progress in undergraduate education has been made over the past 10 years and where challenges still exist. The following comments, developed by the APS Committee on Education, were forwarded to the Foundation by the Society's President, Kumar Patel.

The following areas are those in which the APS believes important progress has been made over the past 10 years.

  1. The increased involvement of undergraduates in research may be the most important development in undergraduate education over the past 10 years. The NSF's Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program and the Department of Energy's national laboratory research experiences are outstanding examples of the kinds of programs that have enabled students from a variety of institutions to engage in an activity that significantly enhances their critical thinking and investigative skills. To meet the needs of the community, however, the number of undergraduate research opportunities must be increased significantly. To help meet this need, programs like the NSF's Research Opportunity Awards that would enable additional faculty to mentor students and the Department of Energy's and various other federal agencies' student and faculty research participation programs must be expanded.
  2. In physics education, the realization that many students in the first undergraduate physics courses are not "understanding" the fundamental concepts necessary to build physical models or physical intuition has been an important advance. New active-learning strategies that are laboratory-and inquiry-based are being developed. Early results look very promising.
  3. In many ways, the mathematical description of the world that we use in science is like a new language for students. One of the most exciting projects of recent years was undertaken by the NSF to help students visualize mathematical concepts. The calculus computer visualization project has helped students better understand these important constructs and concepts, and will, ultimately, help our students in their science courses.

The following are areas in which the Society believes there is still a need for improvement.

  1. In general, our faculty are still not familiar with the research about learning and the positive impact of research-based learning strategies on student performance. Most of the innovation occurs in the classes of individual professors and has little impact on other faculty at the same institution. In general, there needs to be greater effort to support institutional systemic change.
  2. There is a considerable need to enhance the skills of our students to better prepare them to deal with the kinds of problems they will find in the real world and to enable them to better adapt to today's ever changing workplace environment. At present, our education system is primarily devoted to developing conceptual knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge to solve well-defined "end-of-the-chapter" problems. The American Institute of Physics is completing a survey of former physics majors who are now in the workplace. They have rated various skills and knowledge relative to their importance in these former students' current work. Although the survey is not complete, the top items identified were the ability to address complex poorly-defined problems and the need to develop various social skills required for effective work in groups.

    Further, success in the workplace requires well-developed communication skills. While "Writing across the Curriculum" programs have been important in this area, the community might adopt a new banner, "Communicating across the Curriculum," encouraging the development of both our students' written and oral communication skills.
  3. For a number of complex societal reasons, large segments of our population are underrepresented in science and technology. While progress has been made, more remains to be done. There have been programs that encourage women and minorities to pursue SMET careers but in some cases the commitment to retention and student success has been absent. Programs that investigate the issues of climate and of teaching methods that discourage women and minorities should have a high priority if the national goals of inclusion of these groups in the future SMET work force are to be realized.

    As stated earlier, the NSF's review of undergraduate education has just begun. This is clearly an area where both the APS and its membership must play an active role. The Committee on Education and the Society encourage the participation of APS members in this important NSF review and look forward to an active dialogue on the subject over the coming months.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin