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Blurring the Boundaries in Physics Education

By Stan Jones

Remember those boundary value problems from your electricity and magnetism course, the ones we also ran into in classical and quantum mechanics? I loved those problems. Really, I did. A well-defined boundary value problem has a unique answer, one you can find by standard techniques, and one whose validity you can easily check at the end.

There are many boundaries in the real world. Some are physical, some psychological, some bureaucratic, some sociological. Some are real, and some are imagined. Some we construct to make life simpler for ourselves, or to avoid the uncertainties beyond that border. There is a boundary to our "comfort zone," and until we cross that boundary, we do not grow. I want to talk about the boundaries I see in our system of physics education, and how some of these can truly get in the way of our goal of giving our students the very best we can.

Some of the physical boundaries that exist in physics education are the walls of our departments and buildings, or the confines of our company. Industrial scientists who want to have an impact on education are finding ways to reach beyond their institutions, by going out into the public schools, or by bringing the public into their outreach programs. Physicists at universities are finding they can learn from collaborations with other scientists and engineers, and that education faculty can teach us something about how students learn. They, too, are reaching out beyond the confines of the campus.

These physical boundaries are well-defined; it is clear what is inside our department or company, and where the outside world begins. The issue is how we define "our job." We can't make the mistake of allowing these boundaries to become barriers to our involvement in the larger world. There is a great need for better public understanding of science, and we serve not only the public, but ourselves as well if we venture beyond our "walls" to make our contribution.

At the undergraduate and graduate levels of physics education, I see boundary problems that are artificially set up; problems where the boundaries are not well-defined, and perhaps do not exist at all: the boundary between pure and applied research; between physics and other disciplines, such as chemistry; and between teaching and research. People have set up these boundaries in order to make physics and physics education a well-defined problem. They began disappearing some time ago in physics, but remnants remain, and for some educators they continue to get in the way.

In graduate training, we must decide what classroom experiences, and what research experiences, to give our students. What role should physics applications play? What is pure and what is applied physics is not always easy to identify. Many of the interesting research problems just happen to have real-world significance, such as materials, atmospheric physics, magnetic resonance, and so on. Many physicists have learned that there is no particular virtue in avoiding a problem just because it has applications. As funding sources have evolved, many scientists have recognized the wealth of interesting new physics discoveries waiting to be made in supposedly "applied" areas. In a sense, we have found that the need to define a problem as pure or applied is no longer significant. From an educational point of view, the fact that research has an application does not necessarily diminish its value as physics. Our graduate curricula must recognize and incorporate this reality.

In exploring the interesting properties of matter in its varied forms, physicists have found common interests with chemists, engineers, mathematicians, biologists, and more. To say that a problem is physics and not, for instance, chemistry, is often a distinction we cannot make. Techniques are also blurred. There are some ways of approaching a problem that are clearly physics, some that are clearly chemistry; but the importance of making this distinction has faded. Insisting that the distinction be made can interfere with our ability to recognize and address very fundamental and intriguing questions. And many problems require an integrated, multi-disciplinary approach if we want to truly understand them.

Physics is a discipline where change is rapid and exciting. As educators, we must always be open to this same rate of change. If what we do changes rapidly, what we teach, and how we teach, must also be flexible enough to change. We must be ready to provide our students with an introduction to the new interdisciplinary ways of thinking. We must also be ready to help them explore problems that may not be as clearly "physics."

The third boundary is that between teaching and research. One of the finest ways to learn is by doing, and whenever students can become part of a research project, everyone benefits. Research can be teaching, and teaching can be research. We should be learning from our students: how they think, how they understand or misunderstand the principles we discuss. In so doing, we ourselves increase our understanding, and as we learn how students learn, we should be changing how we teach in order to be more effective. The debate over the relative priority of teaching and research, which has lasted through the ages, is based on a false dichotomy; the two go hand in hand.

I would argue that whether or not boundaries exist, increasingly it is those who go beyond the boundaries who are making the changes in this world. Willingness to ignore boundaries, whether real or imagined, marks the creative person. Defense of the boundaries is often a decision which binds one to the past.

Stan Jones is a professor of physics at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of the Forum on Education newsletter.


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