APS News

Department Chairs Explore Issues in Undergraduate Education

A special conference of physics department chairs, held May 9-11 at the American Center for Physics in College Park, Maryland, focused on the issue of undergraduate education in physics. The conference was sponsored by the APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers, and was intended to help department chairs of physics departments nationwide improve their undergraduate physics programs along the lines of the latest research results on physics education.

The impetus for holding such a conference derives from two recent reports: "Shaping the Future" from the National Science Foundation, and "From Analysis to Action," from the National Academy of Sciences, both of which exhort the higher education community to reform and revitalize undergraduate science education. In addition, the AAPT sponsored a September 1996 conference to discuss possible reform efforts in this area, resulting in a widely distributed report entitled "Physics at the Crossroads" that calls for the development of an infrastructure to support the notion of continuous, nation-wide reform in undergraduate physics.

"Undergraduate physics programs are under increasing pressure from university and college administrations, industry and funding agencies to better educate and train our students at all levels, from introductory courses to advanced senior-level courses," said Jerry Gollub (Haverford College), who co-chaired the conference with Roger Kirby (University of Nebraska, Lincoln). "The expectations for our programs have changed, and evidence is mounting that they need revitalization." Specifically, Gollub noted that most departments have a small number of physics majors with respect to faculty size, and that many faculty and students have expressed dissatisfaction with their experiences, particularly in introductory courses.

According to Robert Hilborn of Amherst College, current statistics indicate a steady decline in the number of physics majors, and a survey of the conceptual understanding of several thousand introductory physics students indicates cause for serious concern. However, he reported that "interactive- engagement" methods seem to improve both conceptual understanding and student attitudes towards physics, which is cause for some optimism for the future. For example, Eric Mazur of Harvard University has found that the use of peer instruction, which actively involves students in the teaching process, makes physics more accessible for students, as well as improving their conceptual learning.

"We are being asked to change the way we teach," said Edward Redish (University of Maryland, College Park). "Instead of only training tabletop research scientists, we are now being held responsible for adding value to all of our students." Lillian McDermott, who heads the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington, has found that the gap between what is taught and what is learned in introductory physics courses is much greater than most instructors realize. In fact, on certain types of qualitative questions, student performance is essentially the same, before and after instruction, in calculus-based and algebra-based physics, with or without standard laboratory or demonstrations, and regardless of the size of the class and proficiency of the instructor. To address this shortcoming, her group is developing a set of instructional tutorials in introductory physics that supplement, but do not replace, traditional lectures and textbooks.

The conference featured two "classroom" sessions to illustrate how instructional tutorials can promote the intellectual engagement of students. In each, the participants worked through a set of research-based instructional materials developed by McDermott's group to supplement the lectures and textbook of a standard introductory physics course. The tutorial on electric circuits guides students through the process of constructing a conceptual model for electric current from direct experience with simple circuits consisting of batteries, bulbs and wires. Participant observations form the basis for a scientific model that can be used to predict and explain the behavior of simple electric circuits. The tutorial on light and shadow requires students to make observations using bulbs, masks and screens to account for various phenomena, such as the formation of images and shadows due to extended sources.

Conference participants separated into two breakout groups to discuss the development of flexible curricula. "We viewed it as a broadening of educational and career options, implemented by increasing elective courses and lowering the number of required courses," said George Skadron of Illinois State University, who headed one breakout group. The other group's recommendations included surveying employers to learn what skills they seek in potential employees, introducing topical courses to capture the interest of more students, developing multiple tracks to encourage diversity of career goals, and improving the student advisory process. Many institutions have already begun to implement some form of these suggestions.

For example, Louis Bloomfield of the University of Virginia has developed a course for non-science students entitled "How Things Work," introducing them to physics in the context of everyday objects. Each segment of the course covers about 25 familiar objects, ranging from bicycles to clocks, and from microwave ovens to nuclear reactors.

The conference also featured numerous other breakout sessions, exploring such issues as the reward systems for faculty, courses for non-physics majors, recruitment and retention of women and minorities in physics, improving the mentoring process, and discovering more accurate ways to measure learning. Saturday evening the participants reconvened to share summaries from each breakout session, and to hear keynote speaker Robert Eisenstein of the NSF provide a view on the future of physics from Washington, DC.


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin