APS News

Promoting Physics Innovation and Entrepreneurship Education: the PIPELINE Program

By Crystal Bailey, APS Careers Program Manager

APS is proud to announce a new NSF-funded project, PIPELINE, to promote innovation and entrepreneurship education in physics at the undergraduate level. This project will combine efforts of six institutions — Loyola University Maryland, Rochester Institute of Technology, William and Mary, The George Washington University, the University of Colorado Denver, and Wright State University — to develop and disseminate new curricular and co-curricular approaches to physics innovation and entrepreneurship (PIE) education. This project will also advance our understanding of how these practices affect student and faculty attitudes towards innovation and entrepreneurship in physics.

PIPELINE will implement various PIE activities at member institutions during each academic year of the three-year grant, revising approaches (or where appropriate, “swapping” them between institutions) during each iteration, and finally documenting and disseminating the developed curriculum. PIPELINE will also develop research tools for investigating the link between PIE experiences and student and faculty attitudes about innovation and entrepreneurship; these tools can be used by physics departments at other institutions for gauging, monitoring, and improving institutional change around PIE. Throughout the project’s lifespan, findings and materials will be broadly shared with the physics community at APS and AAPT meetings, in APS News and other publications, as well as on the new project website.

Motivation for this project stems from the fact that 90 percent of physics students, including half of all Ph.D. recipients, find employment outside of traditional faculty positions — yet there are very few experiences incorporated into the standard undergraduate physics degree which explicitly help to prepare students for these career eventualities. Examples include relating physics content to its real-world applications, building students’ communication skills, or familiarizing students with basic business concepts, both of which are important for successful private sector careers. It has been shown that [1] physics programs which provide engaged learning environments focused on future career development have higher retention rates and improved student experiences, and that future employability is an especially important factor for students from underrepresented groups when choosing a major [2, 3]. Therefore, a program that incorporates workforce-relevant training into the curriculum could lead to better enrollment, retention, and diversity of new majors, as well as generating more workforce-confident graduates.

At the same time, by its very nature physics research prepares physicists to be generalists. Most of the world’s greatest game-changing technologies (e.g. the transistor, the laser, medical devices, and the fiber optic cable) have originated in the minds of physicists, who are able to draw upon a deep understanding of the physical world to create new, out-of-the-box solutions which in turn lead to new technologies. Widespread incorporation of technology-focused experiential learning spaces in physics departments will leverage students’ versatility, curiosity, and creativity, and allow them to apply that deep knowledge to addressing important human needs.

Despite the many advantages of incorporating more workforce-relevant activities into the physics curriculum, there are a variety of challenges to widespread adoption of PIE practices. These include (1) a lack of faculty awareness of actual employment outcomes for physics graduates, and therefore limited understanding of the need for experiences relevant to a non-academic career path; (2) discomfort with incorporating entrepreneurial content because it seems foreign to those with purely academic backgrounds; and (3) a lack of institutional buy-in, such that adding a new course, track or facility seems too ambitious for many departments. PIPELINE hopes to address these challenges by involving physics faculty who have already built successful entrepreneurship programs (e.g., at Case Western and Carthage College), so that the development of PIPELINE materials and practices are guided by well established innovation and entrepreneurship expertise. Also, the project will develop approaches that are diverse in terms of overall resource and time commitment required to implement, so that future adopters can identify and use models that best fit their own resources and needs.

But perhaps the greatest obstacle to widespread adoption of these practices is the sense that PIE adoption is tantamount to undermining physics as a “pure science,” seeking to transform it into a “vocational” field. However, these approaches are intended to build upon, rather than replace, “traditional” physics education in that they can be easily integrated into existing courses or added as co-curricular activities. To be effective teachers and mentors, most academic physicists must learn something about “entrepreneurial” subjects like project management, resource management, funding, and intellectual property. By integrating PIE material into the physics discipline, we would not only be supporting the vast majority of our students destined for the private sector, but also the small percentage who will become permanent academic physicists as well.

By supporting the widespread adoption of practices which explicitly promote innovation, career confidence, and career preparedness among physics majors, PIPELINE has the potential to improve student learning and career outcomes, and to elevate the profile of private sector and entrepreneurial paths as legitimate career trajectories for physics faculty and students. These changes will not only positively impact physics as a discipline, but indeed the entire STEM workforce. Physics faculty who are interested in learning more about PIPELINE can visit the project webpage for information about member institutions, links to join the PIPELINE mailing list, and announcements about upcoming PIPELINE sessions and conferences. Additional questions can be directed to Crystal Bailey (bailey@aps.org).

1. R. Hilborn, R. Howes, and K. Drane, “Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics: Project Report,” The American Association of Physics Teachers, College Park, MD, January 2003.

2. S. J. Basu, “How Students Design and Enact Physics Lessons: Five Immigrant Caribbean Youth and the Cultivation of Student Voice.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching, vol. 45, no. 8, pp. 881 - 899, 2008.

3. S. J. Basu, A. C. Barton, N. Clairmont, D. Locke, “Developing a framework for critical science agency through case study in a conceptual physics context.” Cultural Studies of Science Education, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 345 - 371, 2008.

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