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Conceptualizing a New Degree

Conceptualizing a New Degree

By Sheila Tobias

Beginning in the 1990s, concern began to be expressed as to the underenrollment of university students in physics. In the U.S., where university students can switch in and out of majors throughout their course of study, failure to recruit is compounded by failure to retain. U.S. colleges and universities have lost 16% of their first-degree physics graduates in the last five years (24% in the last 10 years), dropping from a nationwide annual graduating cohort of 4,600 to 3,800 - a 40-year low - compared to the production annually of 78,000 engineers.

In fact, fewer than one-third of U.S. physics majors actually become "physicists" (as defined by the profession). Research findings indicate that students do not choose science in general, physics in particular, because of "narrowness of study" and "inflexibility" as regards future employment. Given these findings, perhaps a physics curriculum designed to prepare students for further physics study is not the most appropriate curriculum for the rest. Not just the teaching, textbook and laboratory, but the physics curricula are being increasingly subjected to review. Supported by national funding and by one another, we now have a large number of physicists - even Centers for Physics Education Research - dealing with the "best practices" in the teaching of physics and the training of physics instructors, as well as the productive uses of "project-based teaching," "workshop physics," and "peer instruction."

But is this enough? Will improved pedagogy be sufficiently attractive to win back the physics student who likes and does well at physics, but isn't inspired by the career options currently available? Some of us who care both about the continued health of physics and about the lack of physics-trained professionals populating other fields (e.g. banks, Foundations, government) think that, in addition to improvements in teaching, some altogether new graduate degree programs are called for, leading to careers related to physics but not circumscribed by physics and its immediate applications. Those involved in these new degree programs are calling them "Professional Masters" intending therewith to convey their equivalence (if not congruence) with the MBA and LLD degrees.

It is easier by far to create new programs within existing degree structures in higher education than to create new degrees. New programs certainly have their challenges. They often involve wholly new techniques or new applications of old techniques. They challenge the notion of who is the "expert" in a changing field, one in which no "expert" received his or her degree. And quality control has to be imaginatively reinvented when the lines between disciplines are blurred. Finally there is the issue of pedagogy: how is one to teach a new subject?

Though often stimulated by the pressure of emerging fields, the creation of new degrees is not an inevitable consequence of new discoveries or new research directions. In my view, a new degree has to have its own dynamic and rationale to be supported by higher education administrators and their stakeholders. Thus, the new professional MS degree in the sciences (and mathematics) is not to be construed as just a way of accrediting or institutionalizing or allocating scarce resources to one or more emerging fields. Rather, it is a means of providing and legitimizing some post-baccalaureate alternatives for science and mathematics majors who don't wish to do medicine or engineering, or pursue a research PhD, but do not wish to leave science altogether.

Until now, these students have had nowhere to go, except directly into industry where, as terminal BS or BA degree holders they are housed in research labs as techies. There is of course the MBA or law option. But for many of the students we are eager to serve, such post-graduate options cause them to have to reinvent themselves as law or business students, and to compete with students who, while not well-schooled in mathematics or science, are able to compete with them in the arts of advocacy and/or marketing.

The Sloan Foundation - along with the Keck Foundation, the mathematics community, and local initiatives at a few dozen universities - supports the new professional master's degree with hopes of positively impacting the science/math pipeline in a number of ways: seed reform in graduate education more generally; keep non-research oriented students in the major; provide a cadre of science-trained professionals useful to business, industry and government; and bring more science-trained people into the power centers which tend to be over-populated with professionals from the law and finance communities.

Thus, the professional MS in science and mathematics is characterized not only by new subject matter, but also by new pedagogies and new means of evaluating applicants for admission and matriculation. The new professional MS degree programs are not identical. Some involve an emerging new field, such as bioinformatics; others interdisciplinary study, such as computational sciences; still others, science/mathematics "plus" business, law, organizational theory and communication. New pedagogies are also being discussed, such as case studies within a modular schedule at the Keck Graduate Institute; a lab rotation through a variety of cutting-edge research fields at the University of Arizona; and, at Michigan State University, a series of "basics for business" weekend short courses tailor made for the background and mindset of science/mathematics students.

Like the MBA, which took nearly 40 years to sell to students and employers, these programs must be packaged and sold. What we are after is a high-level education in the science/mathematics underpinnings of today's and tomorrow's technologies, one that will offer graduates flexible careers at the interface of R&D, product development, regulatory affairs, intellectual property issues, marketing, finance and management. Let us hope students will perceive these opportunities the way we do and that employers will provide innovative career pathways once they are in the work force.

Sheila Tobias is the author or co-author of seven books on the subjects of mathematics and science teaching and learning, among them They're Not Dumb, They're Different (1990), Breaking the Science Barrier (1992), and Rethinking Science as a Career (1995). A version of this article appeared in the November 1999 issue of the European Journal of Physics. Information about Sloan-sponsored professional MS programs can be found online at www.ScienceMasters.com.

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