Summer 2003


Editorial:  Random thoughts from the editor.

Stan Jones

 Here are some random thoughts I’ve had recently: 

Thought #1:  Why do we spend so much time and effort reforming introductory physics education when the vast majority of these students are not physics majors?

 I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t do this:  here at Alabama we are reformatting our intro classes in an integrated lecture/lab style along the lines of project SCALE-UP.  This is exciting, and is where the bulk of my non-administrative time goes.  But what motivates us to do this?  Surely, not to gain more majors, although this may happen if we really do it right.

I can give a partial answer.  We do it because we believe in the importance of a physics education for all students, and we think we have found better ways to do it.  Moreover, it is satisfying to us to know we are doing a better job of teaching.  And for me, teaching studio style is much more fun, as I get to talk to the students one-on-one now.

Related thought #2:  Why don’t we reform the way we teach physics majors courses?

There are, to be sure, reformed courses and curricula in some schools, but by and large, the effort and the publicity focus on the introductory courses.  There is in particular a great deal of innovation in the use of technology in the introductory classes, which makes sense because these tend to be large enrollment classes.  But can we make use of technology in advanced courses as well?  I don’t see a lot of effort (but some) going into this.  Chalk, or perhaps marker pens, seems to be the technology of choice.

Thought #3:  Has the FEd decided what its purpose is?

I think the answer to this is yes.  A forum is meant to be a place where issues can be discussed, and the FEd has developed in recent years a great lineup of sessions at APS meetings.  We have moved into the divisional meetings, which is very important since attendance at the general meeting has declined.  And the newsletter has done a good job of spreading news of the truly impressive number of innovative educational projects going on around the country.  We need more “discussion,” meaning more letters from the membership, but by and large the FEd has become both visible and valuable.  I wonder if you agree??

Random Thought #4:  Is a physics degree still relevant?

I once was going to write a column comparing physics to philosophy; both are intellectual explorations of the inner workings of reality, but both can be said to be of only intellectual, not practical value.  Only “pure thinkers” would want to major in philosophy, right?  Was physics becoming the scientific version of philosophy?  I then discovered, however, that our philosophy department graduates about twice as many undergraduate majors as we do, and decided it was too late to make that comparison.  Why are fewer and fewer students choosing to major in physics?

My purpose for phrasing this question as I have is this:  physics, or what physicists do, has changed dramatically in the past 10-20 years.  The borderlines between physics and other disciplines have become extremely vague, and “multi-disciplinary” has become the catch phrase of both the administrators and the federal funding agencies. Public interest in the search for the fundamental particles has waned dramatically, although excitement about cosmology has taken its place.  Unusual and exotic materials consume the interest of many researchers.

What does all this mean for undergraduate physics education?  Are we still to teach our majors as though we are preparing them to explore the fundamental world, or should we instead prepare them for the inter-disciplinary world of the 21st century?   What is important for a physics graduate to know?  What skills are essential?  Is the traditional physics degree still the way to go, or should we be changing with the centuries?  I don’t claim to know, but I just wonder.

Parting Thought:  This will be my last newsletter issue as co-editor of the FEd newsletter.  You will notice that the leaves have already started to change, and the summer issue is just appearing.  I have always tried to publish “my” issue during the season represented in its header, but my other duties have become so time-consuming that I have finally missed that goal.  It is time for someone to take over who can devote more time to this important job.

I have very much enjoyed working with the Forum on Education, and with the other editors.  I have been introduced to many innovative programs going on throughout the country, and have met many outstanding educators.  I compliment my co-editors, who do an outstanding job.  It has been a pleasure working with them. I plan to stay active in the FEd, and I thank you for your support of this newsletter.