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Recognizing the Importance of Undergraduate Science Education

By Robert C. Hilborn

In any discussion of undergraduate physics education, it is important to emphasize its connections with other levels of science education, as well as other aspects of the fourfold scientific enterprise encompassing science, mathematics, engineering and technology. In my thinking about the subject, there are four numbers that I believe dominate all considerations: 24 percent, 3 percent, 15 percent and 40 percent. Let me explain what these percentages represent.

Only 24 percent of high school students currently take some form of high school physics, compared to about 54 percent who take chemistry, and 93 percent who take biology. Even with the most optimistic estimates, this means that fewer than half of the students entering college have any background in physics. The implications for all college science courses are ominous. Many of the students will be innocent of basic physical principles such as conservation of energy and momentum. They will lack the sharp problem solving and math skills that are often honed by physics courses, and their knowledge of electricity, magnetism and simple circuits will be close to zero.

Only 3 percent of the students who take calculus-based introductory physics in college go on to take another physics class. If we include those taking algebra-based physics, the number is even smaller. This illustrates the dilemma of how to balance the need to prepare potential majors with the need of students who will have careers in other fields.

The final two percentages apply to the Ph.D. end of the physics educational pipeline, but have direct relevance for undergraduate physics education. Less than 15 percent of the Ph.D.s in physics in the United States go to women and minorities. That deeply troubles me as a physicist, a physics teacher and as a human being. Physics, as well as society as a whole, cannot afford to continue to let that much of the nation's talent fail to see physics as a viable career path, or to find themselves unwelcome in physics.

Forty percent is the fraction of Ph.D. physicists who take career positions in academia or conduct basic research in industry and the national laboratories; 60 percent go elsewhere for employment. Yet most undergraduate programs and nearly all the Ph.D. programs focus solely on preparing for a career in basic research with almost no attention paid to what in fact most physics Ph.D.s actually do for careers. To exacerbate matters, public recognition and prestige focus on graduate education and basic research to the detriment of teaching and to careers outside academia and basic research.

I don't wish to downplay the importance of research, both as an intrinsic good and as an equal partner with classroom teaching in both the graduate and undergraduate physics enterprise. But I do wish to point out a widespread and ultimately unhealthy bias against what myopic academic physicists have called "non- traditional careers."

Now let me turn to the question of fostering and implementing science education reform. The American educational system is not a monolith. That is both a strength and a weakness, but it is a fact. It requires programs to encourage both small-scale innovations that may later grow into major national reforms, and also broad initiatives, like the calculus reform movement, that can directly effect systemic changes. Programs like NSF's Instructional Laboratory Improvement program, although modest in scale, have acted as crucial catalysts for curriculum development and improvement at the local level.

Another fact: the financial and educational needs of public colleges and universities can be quite different from those of private institutions. Those public institutions with only bachelor's or master's degree programs are under particularly acute stress. Generally their financial resources are more constrained than those of research universities or private institutions, but their ambitions are just as high. All of us will need to be creative in finding a diversity of programs to match the diversity of American higher education.

A final point: education does not end with the awarding of a degree. Science educators and scientists in general need to be concerned with continued outreach to the general public. Investments in everything from traveling demonstrations for schools, to science and technology museums and TV shows will all pay enormous dividends in the public's awareness and appreciation of science.

Let me close with a visual demonstration that illustrates the underlying theme of many of my remarks (see figure). The three interlocking loops are in a configuration called the Borromean Rings, named after the Borromeo family of northern Italy in whose coat of arms they appear. One ring represents undergraduate science education, which is closely linked to the second ring, representing pre-college science education, as well as the third ring, which represents graduate education and research. They are closely intertwined, with considerable overlap. But there is an unusual feature to the Borromean ring configuration, which is shared by the enterprise of science education: If any one of the rings breaks, the entire complex falls apart. It is a vivid warning to anyone who believes that we as a nation do not need to pay serious attention to undergraduate science education.

Robert C. Hilborn is the Lisa and Amanda Cross Professor of Physics at Amherst College in Massachusetts and past-president of the American Association of Physics Teachers. This article first appeared in the Spring 1996 issue of the APS Forum on Education newsletter.


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