APS News

APS-Led Education Program Revamps Teacher-Prep Courses

By Desirée Scorcia

Brian White and Mark Wilkins earned their bachelor's degrees in physics back in 1992. After graduation, Brian took a job teaching high school physics and chemistry in Illinois, and Mark found work as an animator for Disney. Neither went on to earn any further degrees, but according to a recent survey published by the American Institute for Physics (AIP), both are representative of a group of people whose highest degrees are their physics bachelors.

The AIP report, released in July, marks the first time the institute has collected data about the careers of physics bachelors several years after graduation. The institute surveyed a total of 1200 people who had earned their degrees between 1991 and 1993. Of these, approximately 400 did not have additional degrees beyond their physics bachelors.

The report says that five to eight years after graduation, about 60% of this group have the same title as their first career path job, which the AIP described to respondents as "a job that will help you in your future career or a job in the field in which you want to make your career." The report stresses that physics departments should be aware of the potentially vital role they play in preparing undergraduate majors for their first "real job."

Like the majority of physics bachelors, White has stayed with his first career path job. As a 10, 11, and 12 grade physics and chemistry teacher at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, White uses his physics education every day, to plan lessons and teach students essential problem-solving skills.

Wilkins, like the other 40% of physics bachelors, has changed job titles several times since he graduated. Right now, he is a technical director at PDI/Dreamworks animation studio — the company that put out the movie Shrek — in California. Wilkins finds technical approaches to computer graphics problems to help animators do their work.

Though their career paths are quite different, both Wilkins and White feel equally well prepared by their undergraduate physics education, and both use physics in some different, and some remarkably similar, ways.

White teaches mechanics, electricity and magnetism, thermodynamics, and the other basics of physics to his students. He uses the equations of motion, light, and sound to design problems, experiments and demonstrations for his classes.

In one lab that White teaches, students watch a videotape of a NASCAR race. They use the speed of the car, given in the "in-car telemetry" on the tape, and the time it takes to reach the finish line to graph the motion of the car. White then has the students calculate the average acceleration from their graph, and determine the length of the straightway.

White has also developed a digital library of short physics video clips for his students. They include shots of skateboard crashes, skiing accidents, car wrecks, and bungee jumps, that he uses to spark class discussions on physics in real life.

"Students love them," says White. "Most of them are either amazing or funny, but they all demonstrate some concept in physics. This summer I carried a video camera around with me pretty much everywhere, and captured everything from rainbows to the inside of my lawnmower engine when I was working on it. It's a great way to get students interested in learning physics."

Wilkins uses the same equations of physics as an animator. It can be a lot more realistic to simulate the way dust swirls, a bridge sways, or clothing moves, using a computer than drawing it by hand, he says. The same equations of motion that govern how a ball falls and bounces in reality are used to create the effect on screen. The real challenge, according to Wilkins, is simplifying the equations without compromising the appearance of reality.

"The question is, how can we take a complex simulation that would take forever and pull out the time-consuming pieces that don't add to visual impression of accuracy? Sometimes, that can involve pushing things too far in that direction and then fixing them."

Wilkins says that the first few weeks of a shot are spent experimentally figuring out what parts of the simulation must stay, and what can go. "We constantly get funny results," he says, "like things interpenetrating each other. In Shrek, there were a lot of instances where the characters would walk away and leave clothing behind for an instant, before it caught up with them."

Both men agree that while some of the skills they use in their jobs, such as teaching techniques and computer programming, were gleaned outside of their physics education, studying physics gave them both a serious advantage.

"Majoring in physics has absolutely given me advantages far beyond just learning the equations," says Wilkins. "It taught me analytical problem-solving skills — how to see each piece of the problem, and then rule out the part that troubles me to get to the solution."

White says for him, one of the best things about studying physics as an undergraduate was that it taught him how to be a student.

"I think that to teach effectively, I have to put myself in my students' shoes," says White, "and anticipate prior misconceptions about the subject. My physics major laid the foundation for me to be able to learn physics to a point beyond merely passing the exams and other requirements as an undergraduate; it gave me the ability to learn on my own to the point that I can always strive to be a more effective teacher by learning more about my subject."



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