FEd Fall 2001 Newsletter - Doing Research and Teaching

Fall 2001



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Doing Research and Teaching

Jan Tobochnik

How can we best integrate our teaching and research? Does the pursuit of one necessarily detract from the other? Can a physicist be good in one area and not the other? How can we use knowledge from one area to enrich our work in the other? The answers to these questions are becoming increasingly important to physics faculty at all institutions of higher learning.

The current separation between teaching and research is manifested in the existence of two organizations of physicists, APS for research and AAPT for teaching. This separation is not good for our profession. All of us who do research in any setting should be concerned with communicating the knowledge and skills of physics. And all of us who teach to any students should be aware of, if not engaged in, research. Thus, there are many reasons to bring APS and AAPT members closer together, and more physicists should be members of both organizations.

Members of APS have an important role in making their research accessible to students and their instructors. The American Journal of Physics provides one outlet for you to do that. As the new editors of AJP, Harvey Gould and I are hoping to recruit active researchers to write articles that will help bring contemporary research into the curriculum. Most college physics courses still primarily discuss topics that are between one and three hundred years old. When more contemporary material is included, it is usually very descriptive. We need to make physics research come alive in the classroom so that students can be engaged in a meaningful way beyond the level of Scientific American. Some students participate in on-campus research with their professors, off-campus research in government and industrial labs, or participate in NSF sponsored REU programs. However, this student research usually comes late in an undergraduate's college experience, and is frequently disconnected from the rest of the physics curriculum.

The computer may help to bring research activities to students earlier. Undergraduates can learn enough programming to write meaningful research-type simulations or perform numerical analysis. They can use the computer to analyze data from experiments even if they have not done the experiments themselves. As visualization becomes a more prominent feature in contemporary research, it should make more research accessible to students and hopefully motivate students to study physics. Students can already visit the Web sites of numerous research groups to learn more about what is going on in physics. Some of these sites have very good visual aids for explaining research projects. More of this material should be integrated into the curriculum. However, relying only on computer technology to make the physics curriculum more interesting would be a mistake. I also believe that we need to incorporate more experiments and empirical observations into the curriculum. The physics curriculum has become too theoretical. That needs to change.

Many of us are looking for specific help in teaching. From research on physics education, we now know that students encounter many conceptual difficulties in their physics courses, and there are new materials that have improved student understanding. Most of this work is at the introductory level, but there is a growing interest in student learning beyond introductory physics. In my own experience I find that many student difficulties carry over to higher level physics courses.

In addition to the conceptual difficulties that students face, there are at least two other barriers to learning physics. First, many students are not very proficient mathematically. Even though they can do algebra, few can do it quickly with a low error rate. Perhaps algebra prowess is not as important as it once was, and we should reduce the number of problems that require significant algebraic manipulation. Problems that primarily require students to fill in numbers to evaluate formulas are a waste of time. They might have been somewhat useful when students had to use slide rules that required an independent determination of the location of the decimal point in the answer and limited the precision of the answer to only a few significant figures. In this way students gained a sense of the order of magnitude and the precision of physical quantities. Today it's just an exercise in pressing buttons on a calculator. I can imagine a similar situation for algebra. Already many calculators can do graphing, simple symbolic manipulation, and even some calculus. Why ask students to press buttons to do these operations? Those who are actively involved in research need to help answer the question, "What skills are really necessary for understanding physics and doing scientific research?"

A second barrier is lack of motivation. Fewer undergraduates major in physics, and many of these students are more interested in engineering and other fields. Most of us believe that physics is an excellent major for many career paths, and it doesn't bother me that many of our students are using physics for purposes other than becoming research scientists. However, our teaching becomes less effective if the material is not of interest to students. We are in the midst of many exciting fundamental and practical developments in physics, such as quantum computing, the cosmic microwave background, atomic trapping, and nanotechnology to name a few. In addition, condensed matter physics, biological physics, and physics subfields that border other disciplines are providing a better understanding of complex phenomena. Physicists as always are at the forefront in developing new ways of attacking problems in many fields. Thus, there should be much more interest in studying physics even if students do not major in it. Why isn't there more interest? I believe that part of the problem is that students spend too much time in our courses doing work (such as routine problem solving and cookbook experiments) that is not relevant to anything else that they are doing, and is not especially useful in any conceivable future employment including research in physics.

It is essential that those in research-oriented institutions and those in teaching-oriented institutions talk more to one another. Researchers need to communicate better about contemporary research and the skills students need to develop. Teachers and researchers in physics education need to communicate better what skills and beliefs students bring into the classroom, and how we all can effectively educate our students.

If there is an AAPT meeting near where you live, I urge you to go to it, at least for a day or two. Volunteer to give a talk about your work. Think about how you can convey your research to a general audience of physicists in such a way that those in the audience can take something of value home to their students. There are many active AAPT members who want to learn about contemporary physics research. I am confident that we can arrange more sessions that focus on contemporary research. Although you may not find many talks in the existing sessions that appear relevant to your teaching needs, you will find some. Your presence in the audience asking probing questions can help provide a different viewpoint than what is usually seen at many AAPT meetings.

More importantly, we need to schedule more joint APS/AAPT meetings. A number of regional chapters already do so. Joint national meetings seem to be dead at the moment. However, it might be possible to organize specialized APS meetings in conjunction with the AAPT national meeting. For example, the winter 2001 AAPT meeting was held jointly with the American Astronomical Society, and I understand that it was a very successful meeting for both associations.

You can also become more involved with AAPT and AJP. AJP publishes articles about contemporary research as well as articles specifically designed to improve teaching. However, it is not an archival journal of physics research nor are most of its articles directly focused on the classroom. As I stated, I would like to see more articles that discuss contemporary research and present something that could be used directly with students such as homework problems, mini-research projects, or access to experimental data to evaluate. In this way you could communicate your research to a much broader audience than you'll reach by publishing only in archival research journals. Also, read AJP regularly by subscribing to AJP through a membership in AAPT. Currently, there is a half price first year membership for APS members. Also, let me know what your needs and interests are. What kinds of articles would be helpful to you? I also encourage you to review manuscripts for AJP. If you are willing to do so, please complete the reviewer questionnaire at http://www.kzoo.edu/ajp/referees.html.

Another avenue for building bridges between research and teaching is the new Gordon Conference series on Physics Research and Education that was started in June 2000 and meets biannually. The focus topic of the first conference was statistical and thermal physics, and the focus of the next conference at Mount Holyoke College, June 9-14, 2002, is quantum mechanics. The goal of the conference is to bring together physicists doing research related to the topic, researchers in physics education, and faculty who are teaching courses in the topic. For more information on the next conference visit http://www.grc.uri.edu/02sched.html. The conference focuses on a different topic each time and your suggestions for the focus in 2004 would be welcome.

I began this article with a few questions. Now let me summarize my answers. Research and teaching should be integrated as much as possible. Every time we write an article for PRL or AJP, we should keep in mind how that article can contribute not just to the knowledge base of physics, but also to the enlightenment of our students. In the classroom we should be constantly searching for ways of introducing research methods and ideas, and communicating these ways to a broader audience through talks and articles in AJP and other publications. In our research we need to involve students at all levels.

Physics is a dynamic field, constantly changing as new ideas and tools are developed. These changes must be present in the classroom, and thus the best teachers will generally have some involvement in research. Many of us find that our teaching enhances our understanding of physics which in turn is useful in our research, and that our research provides excellent applications of the physics we are teaching. Separation of teaching and research is artificial and damaging. Let us all look for ways of reducing that separation.

Jan Tobochnik is the Editor of the American Journal of Physics and a Divisional Associate Editor for Physical Review Letters. His current research includes studies of the glass transition and granular material. In collaboration with Harvey Gould, he has written textbooks, edited a column, and developed software for the educational and research use of computer simulations in physics.

Jan Tobochnik, Physics Chair Departments of Physics and Computer Science Editor, American Journal of Physics Kalamazoo College 1200 Academy Street Kalamazoo, MI 49006 (616) 337-7098 JANT@kzoo.edu AJP related messages should be sent to ajp@kzoo.edu