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Playing with Physics Innovation and Entrepreneurship (PIE) Education

By Linda Barton

Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E) programs are springing up across the nation, and physics departments are showing interest in including I&E elements in undergraduate physics curricula. However, a full integration of physics innovation and entrepreneurship (PIE) programs would require a wholesale revamping of the traditional undergraduate physics curriculum. In most cases, departments would resist and change would always be a difficult, long process. Fortunately it is possible to revitalize undergraduate physics programs and invigorate undergraduate physics students through the inclusion of PIE activities, without disruption. "Playing" with PIE allows a department to test out some new ideas before committing to a broader scope of activity. Here are a few things we've tried with success at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).

Invited Speakers: Every department has colloquia, but too often these talks are far too advanced and esoteric to engage the average undergraduate. If industry speakers are brought in, they are often far advanced in their careers, and undergraduates have a hard time relating to them. Instead, we invite recent graduates working locally in industry, many of whom have terminal BS degrees, to give informal talks to undergraduate physics majors about engineering development jobs, teaching jobs, or other "off the beaten path" positions. The talk is followed by informal meetings between the recent grad and current students. This gives the undergraduate students a direct view of what they could actually be doing in a few years, and what skills they need to develop. Often overlooked as a resource, such speakers can help with job placements, co-op or intern placements, as well as give practical advice for the next cohort of students. Often the invited speakers are honored and happy to be asked to come back and help.

Referencing Current Technologies: Too often we, as physics educators, are stuck in the mindset where "Modern Physics" means circa 1910. Our discipline favors systematic development of the building blocks of technological and scientific progress. All this scaffolding takes a very long time to develop, which can shortchange students, who need to see that physics plays an integral role in technologies we all use right now. RIT offers a seminar survey course for physics majors in which students give group presentations on truly "modern" technology (within the last 25 years). The groups not only spend time on the physics, but also the corporate processes, patents, personalities, and business decisions that went into bringing these products to market. I have learned a lot about OLED's, carbon fiber technology, Gorilla Glass, high-energy magnets, and other technologies by listening to these presentations. So often these students are amazed to find out that Nobel prizes go to industrial physicists, that corporations stumble into fascinating technologies, and that gizmos we count on every day rely on innovations grounded in basic physics. Students gain insight into the chaotic path toward development of real products, and also acquire an ability to give an interesting and germane talk on a subject they are not expert in.

Doing Pop-Up Classes: Another approach is to offer pop-up classes. These are extra-curricular, non-credit-bearing seminars or activities on any technical subject. One of the courses offered by RIT was a single two-hour session, while others have spanned several weeks. Pop-ups can allow you as an educator to test out new ideas, address weaknesses in the basic technical training of students, or just offer advice and help outside the usual classroom environment.

In the pop-ups offered at RIT, students have learned how to use Arduino microcontrollers, build basic electronic kits (thus developing students’ soldering and fabrication skills), and use the machine shop. Some pop-ups even taught some materials characterization techniques. A variety of other short pop-up classes being planned for the spring are aimed at teaching computational skills. These proficiencies are directly transferable to industrial internships or co-op positions, and give students the tools to tinker on their own. Pop-up courses have also been offered on professional development topics, such as choosing graduate programs, resume writing, interviewing, and networking skills like "elevator speeches."

These pop-up courses have been very well received by students, and have required minimal faculty time investment, institutional buy-in, equipment or facilities. In addition to developing specific expertise, they have allowed our students to work together, "just for fun," which has built camaraderie and cooperation.

Practically speaking, the overwhelming majority of our undergraduate physics majors will not go on to graduate school and an academic career doing physics research. Many are headed for industrial R&D, teaching, engineering, or entrepreneurial ventures of their own. There are many ways that we can supplement their training to better prepare them for these futures, while maintaining the integrity and strengths of a traditional physics program. Change comes rather quickly. All it takes is one or two faculty members in a department to say "How can we add some stuff to make our physics bachelor's program more useful for students headed for these common, exciting, and non-academic paths."

The author is associate professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Linda Barton

Linda Barton

Don’t miss a special webinar on Pop-Up Classrooms featuring Professor Barton on January 24, 2017. Visit the Pop-Up Classes webinar page for more information.

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Rachel Gaal
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
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