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I had the (unplanned) opportunity recently to spend a few days in the local hospital. (I'm much better now, thank you.) Two somewhat related things struck me while I was there.
Almost without fail, the doctors, nurses and other personnel who knew that I was a physics professor had some bad memories of having taken physics. They did not like the course, they did not do well, and reading between the lines, I infer that they feel they did not learn much in the course. (One of my nurses indicated that physics was the ONLY grade of D she had in at otherwise quite good college record.) Certainly, this is not a new observation, but it is unfortunate that this 'bad taste' of physics with non-physicists, especially in science-heavy professions, is still so prevalent.
The other item is in fact how much physics WAS involved in my diagnosis, treatment and care. One can list the wide variety of non-chemical diagnostic tools that one encounters in a medical center: MRI (that is NMR), various types of X-Ray Imaging, and Doppler Ultrasound Imaging, not to speak of simple optical imaging and various types of 'scopes' to peer where one would not normally see. My problem is one deeply set in fluid dynamics, and in fact a small piece of NiTiNol wire was involved at one point, bringing in some condensed matter/materials physics.
I actually found the staff overall to be quite knowledgeable and capable. But, we need to remember ALL of our audience – not just the physics majors. What can we do to make their physics courses more palatable and more pertinent (without being simply made 'easier')? Do we need to include more useful & interesting applications in our courses, as some texts are now doing? Or do we ourselves need to be more broadly knowledgeable, so that we can invoke those applications that seem to be pertinent to a particular audience?
I have actually come home with a few interesting tidbits that I'll be sharing with my classes, both for my physics majors and for my general education students. I hope this information will make some of what they learn this term more pertinent. I encourage you to find your own interesting bits, with whatever 'adventures' you may have, and share these with your students (and perhaps here in a future FEd Newsletter).
Paul Dolan is Professor of Physics at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, and also teaches in the MSTQE, "Middle School Teacher Quality Enhancement" pre-service teacher program. He may be contact at P-Dolan@neiu.edu.