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Spotlight on the Profession of Physics

Physics Education: Education of a Physicist

By Arthur F. Hebard


Arthur F. Hebard Photo credit: Alicia Chang/APS
Arthur F. Hebard
Photo credit: Alicia Chang/APS

All of us who refer to ourselves as physicists have at one time or another been influenced by the physics education system. If asked why physics education is an important subject, most of us would agree unhesitatingly with the answer that it provides us with access to a vast body of knowledge which has been collected and tested over the ages and which has enabled the triumph of science over superstition and ignorance. Physics education is also important because it teaches methods of inquiry and analysis that expand upon this body of knowledge to drive the development of advanced technology in our modern society.

Although these answers might make us feel good, they do not address the most compelling requirements for a good physics education system; namely enhancing the scientific literacy of the general public and providing a well-trained technical workforce. These requirements have been embraced in a recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study[1] which concludes that physics education must change to adapt to a new landscape in which physics itself is becoming more interdisciplinary and society is becoming increasingly dependent on technology.

The problems are acute in many areas. For example, in K-12 only about 1/3 of the physics teachers have physics degrees and less than 30% of high school seniors are enrolled in physics courses. These students score lower on physics tests than comparable students from other countries. The decreasing numbers of undergraduates majoring in sciences is also worrying. Dropout rates by declared physics majors are high, and student interest in physics careers is waning.

At the PhD level, a recent American Institute of Physics (AIP) report[2] reveals that PhD production has been declining since 1994. The number of Americans entering physics graduate programs is the lowest in more than 30 years, although much of the slack has been taken up by an influx of students from foreign countries. Workforce needs in the US will be severely compromised if the economy stagnates and many of these foreign PhD recipients find it more attractive to return to their countries of origin to pursue their careers.

NAS studies and AIP reports cogently state the problems confronting physics education, but to most individuals, myself included, these problems are not real until experienced firsthand. Active personal involvement is required, and to be effective, such involvement must be on a broad front, taking up the energies of more than just a few of us. If, for example, a large number of APS members commit to volunteerism and individual action, significant progress can be made. Whether you are an academic teaching Mechanics 101 or an industrial physicist modifying the composition of a widget to reduce manufacturing costs, you understand and appreciate physics and can therefore be effective in addressing critical problems confronting physics education.

There are three ways to become involved: (1) by acting in one's professional capacity to improve opportunities for learning in the workplace, (2) by volunteering in educational and related activities through existing organizations such as the APS, and (3) by spontaneous individual acts.

Workplace advocacy and implementation of changes in physics education can have equal impact in academic, industrial, or government lab settings. I have mentored summer students with equal effectiveness at Bell Laboratories and at the University of Florida. In these programs, hypotheses are tested, problems are solved, research is completed, papers are written, and the successful students go home feeling good about science. Internships for students and sabbatical leave for faculty help lubricate the connection between industry and academia. Invitations to alumni to come onto campus and speak to students about their careers can also be very effective.

Meaningful curriculum reform should be guided by the principle that physics education is not just for the purpose of producing professional physicists. Graduates with PhDs are often too specialized and have trouble adapting to nonacademic careers. Attitude changes are needed. No longer should the conferral of a master's degree be viewed as a consolation prize but rather as a valued and marketable degree that qualifies the recipient for a wide variety of lucrative and satisfying jobs. A number of schools are already providing alternative offerings including professional masters degree programs, career-skills courses, dual track undergraduate majors, and combined physics-business or physics-engineering majors.

Small-scale changes can be easily accomplished. For example three of us on the faculty at UF spontaneously decided last year that a course on "Communication in the Scientific Arena" was needed for our graduate students. The intention of the course was to hone oral presentation skills without compromising technical content. Our hope is that no student from the University of Florida will give a contributed talk at an APS meeting or be interviewed for a job without having taken this course.

Volunteering is also an effective way to make an impact on physics education. For some this might mean tutoring the underprivileged or spending a few hours a week helping to teach science in a local high school. For others like myself, it is volunteering through one's professional society. The APS has a very effective education and outreach program that is supportive of the mission "to expand and diffuse the knowledge of physics". These marching orders are highly suited to the physics education cause and progress is greatly facilitated by the enabling structure and resources provided by the APS.

APS outreach extends across the broad areas of education, public affairs, governmental relations, public information, international affairs, women and minorities in physics, and careers and professional development. Visit the APS web site and familiarize yourself with the opportunities. Call a present or past committee member and ask questions. You will discover that it is easy to find like-minded spirits, and by acting together your individual efforts will be magnified and made more effective. My own commitment has been to the Committee on Careers and Professional Development (CCPD), a committee that through its Careers and Professional Development Liaisons (CPDLs), identifies and aids faculty career counselors at more than 200 physics departments. This is done for the most part by (1) disseminating current information on career and employment trends, (2) organizing workshops at regional and national APS meetings to exchange information on model programs, and (3) maintaining and updating a dedicated CPDL website[3] to encourage dialogue between physics departments regarding career development programs for students.

At the individual level physics education can be addressed in a multitude of ways. Exude enthusiasm for physics, excite the students, engage everybody who will listen, and inform the citizenry! For example, on the highways and at the gas pumps, I have found myself explaining the Doppler effect and red shifts because of an orange-colored sticker on my rear bumper that reads, "If this sign is blue, you are going too fast". Explain your research using bulletin boards, seminars, and web pages and by all means avoid giving the impression that your work is so important that you shouldn't have to explain it. Finally, be active on the small-action front: participate in science fairs, visit a classroom, do a demo, write your congressman, or send a thoughtful letter to your local newspaper.

There is no one solution to improving physics education. Physics education is a multifaceted issue that occurs on many scales. The active involvement of physicists who understand and appreciate physics is however definitely required. There are many professional and personal rewards for becoming involved. Clearly, the health of physics is at stake, and that should be motivation enough. For me, the opportunity to interact daily with young people energizes and is fulfilling. I know I have less gray hair because of it.

Arthur Hebard is a professor of physics at the University of Florida and previously was a research scientist at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J. for 23 years. He is currently chair of the APS Committee on Careers and Professional Development.

References:
[1]Physics in a New Era: An Overview, The National Academy of Sciences, 2001 (http://books.nap.edu/books/0309073421/html/index.html)
[2]2000 Physics Academic Workforce Report, American Institute of Physics (AIP) Pub. Number R-392.4, March 2001 (http://www.aip.org/statistics/)
[3]CPDL web page at http://www.aps.org/careers/guidance/cpdl/index.cfm




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