The Editor's Corner
Remember those boundary value problems from your E&M course, the
ones we also ran into in Classical and Quantum Mechanics? I loved those
things. Really, I did. A well-defined boundary value problem has a unique
answer, one you can find by standard techniques, and one whose validity
you can easily check at the end. There are many boundaries in the real
world. Some are physical boundaries, some are psychological, some are bureaucratic,
some are sociological. Some are real, and some are imagined. Some we construct
to make life simpler for ourselves, or to avoid the uncertainties beyond
that border. There is a boundary to our "comfort" zone, and until
we cross that boundary, we do not grow. I want to talk about boundaries
I see in our system of Physics Education, and how some of these boundaries
can truly get in the way of our goal of giving our students, and the public,
the very best.
Some of the physical boundaries that exist in Physics Education are the
walls of our departments and buildings, or the confines of our company.
Industrial scientists who want to have an impact on education are finding
ways to reach beyond their institutions - by going out into the public
schools; by bringing the public into their outreach programs; by joining
organizations such as the Forum on Education. Physicists at universities
are finding they can learn from collaborations with other scientists and
engineers, and that education faculty can tell us something about how students
learn. And they too are reaching out beyond the confines of the campus.
The physical boundaries here are well-defined: it is clear what is inside
our department or company, and where the outside world begins. The issue
is how we define "our job." We can't make the mistake of allowing
these boundaries to become barriers to our involvement in the larger
world. There is a great need for greater public understanding of science,
and we serve not only the public, but ourselves as well if we venture beyond
our "walls' to make our contribution.
In Physics Education at the undergraduate and graduate levels, I also
see some boundary problems that to me are artificially set up; problems
where the boundaries are not well-defined, and perhaps do not exist at
all. They are boundaries that people have set up in order to make physics
and physics education a well-defined problem. I can think of three such
boundaries. They are the boundary between pure and applied physics; between
physics and other disciplines (say, chemistry); and between teaching and
research. These boundaries started disappearing a long time ago in our
discipline, but remnants remain, and for some educators they continue to
get in the way.
In graduate training, we must decide what classroom experiences, and
what research experience, to give our students. What role should applications
of physics play? What is pure, and what is applied physics, is not always
easy to identify. Many of the interesting research problems just happen
to have a real-world significance; topics like materials, atmospheric physics,
optics, the many aspects of condensed matter physics, magnetic resonance,
and so on. Many physicists have learned that there is no particular virtue
in avoiding a problem just because it has applications. As funding sources
for research have evolved, many scientists have recognized the wealth of
interesting new physics discoveries waiting to be made in supposedly "applied" areas.
In a sense, we have found that the need to define a problem as pure
or as applied is no longer significant. From an educational point of view,
the fact that research has an application does not necessarily diminish
its value as physics. Our graduate curricula must recognize and incorporate
In exploring the interesting properties of matter in its varied forms,
physicists have found common interests with chemists, engineers, mathematicians,
biologists, and more. To say that a problem is physics and not, say, chemistry,
is often a distinction we cannot make. Techniques are also blurred. There
are some ways of approaching a problem that are clearly physics, some that
are clearly chemistry, but the importance of making this distinction has
faded, if indeed it ever was important. Insisting, from a purist point
of view, that the distinction be made can interfere with our ability to
recognize and address very fundamental and intriguing questions. And many
problems require an integrated, multi-disciplinary approach if we want
to truly understand them. Physics is a discipline where change is rapid
and exciting. As educators, we must always be open to this same rate of
change. If what we do changes rapidly, what we teach, and how we teach,
must also be flexible enough to change. We must be ready to provide our
students an introduction to the new interdisciplinary ways of thinking.
We must also be ready to help them explore problems that may not be as
clearly "physics" as we may have thought was necessary.
The third boundary I listed above is that between teaching and research.
I don't think I need argue very hard that one of the finest ways to learn
is by doing, and that whenever students can become part of a research project
everyone benefits. Research can be teaching. And teaching can be research.
We should be learning from our students: how they think, how they understand
or misunderstand the principles we discuss. In so doing we ourselves increase
our understanding. And as we learn how students learn, we should be changing
how we teach in order to be more effective. The debate over the relative
priority of teaching and research, which has lasted through the ages, is
based on a false dichotomy; the two go hand in hand.
I would argue this: whether or not boundaries exist, increasingly it
is those who go beyond the boundaries who are making the changes in this
world. Willingness to ignore boundaries, whether real or of the mind, marks
the creative person. Defense of the boundaries is often a decision which
binds one to the past.
In this issue there are several articles which highlight the blurring
of boundaries. J.W. Harrell describes a new approach to the introductory
course, a coordinated multi-departmental effort. Alexis
Wynne relates her learning experience at an NSF REU site last summer.
Mort Kagan compares the industrial to the academic life in a personal reminiscence. Bob
Williams describes the outreach programs at the U. of Illinois. And
so on. You can find elements of reaching across boundaries in much of this
[webmaster's note: A couple of the articles referred to here were not
contained in the electronic copies received for posting. We are attempting
to get copies.]