New Approaches to Physics Education Flow from PIPELINE

By Leah Poffenberger

Three years ago, seven educational institutions embarked on a project to create new approaches to teaching physics to instill practical skills in undergraduate physics students. This project, known as the PIPELINE Network, is now bearing fruit with a published curriculum, the launch of a webinar, and a kickoff workshop in Provo, Utah on July 21.

The PIPELINE Network was assembled to address a need to improve student preparedness for careers in industry. A joint task force between APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) highlighted this deficit in undergraduate physics education in their 2016 report Phys 21: Preparing Students for 21st-Century Careers. The Phys 21 report identified four major areas where students could benefit from additional training: connecting fundamental physics to real world applications; developing technological skills; improving communication; and acquiring workplace skills such as project management. These areas have since been used as a guide for the PIPELINE Network’s development of new educational approaches for students entering the modern workforce.

“The workshop, publishing curriculum and launching webinars is a culmination of efforts at seven universities to give students skills for the workforce and help them develop entrepreneurial mindsets,” says Crystal Bailey, Head of Careers Programs at APS.

Pipeline participants

Participants in the PIPELINE workshop at the AAPT meeting in Provo, Utah, learned new ways to connect physics teaching with innovation and entrepreneurship.

Different methods of improving physics innovation and entrepreneurship (PIE) education were investigated at the seven institutions in the network: University of Colorado Denver, George Washington University, Loyola University of Maryland, Rochester Institute of Technology, College of William and Mary, Wright State University, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Representatives from three other institutions with strong PIE education programs—Carthage College, Case Western Reserve University, and Kettering University—served as advisors for the Network.

“I’ve learned from years of working with students that there’s a barrier to the idea of connecting physics with innovation, which is [a lack of] knowledge and confidence that physics students have when turning physics into something practical,” says Randy Tagg, Principle Investigator (PI) for the University of Colorado Denver’s PIPELINE projects. “As part of the PIPELINE grant I’ve been trying to figure out a way to actually incorporate practical knowledge into regular physics curriculum.”

As part of the PIPELINE Network, Tagg has implemented a two-semester sequence at the University of Colorado to give students a chance to learn practical skills like building circuits and assembling optics. The curriculum for these courses will be available through the PIPELINE Network, along with resources produced through the other institutions.

Throughout the three years of work on the PIPELINE Network, contributors at each university kept in contact, sharing notes and experiences through regular check ins, monthly video conferences, and one-on-one visits to collaborating institutions.

Tagg was a contributor to the Utah workshop, which took place at AAPT’s 2019 Summer Meeting. Like the larger efforts of the PIPELINE Network, the workshop focused on how to help students learn the four skill sets outlined by the Phys 21 report.

Bahram Roughani and Randall Jones, co-PIs for PIPELINE at Loyola University gave the first session at the workshop, focusing on a framework they’ve developed to incorporate real world physics applications into a regular introductory physics class. Tagg, assisted by University of Colorado lab managers Devin Pace and Kristopher Bunker, brought the apparatus they designed to teach students technical competencies and discussed the challenges with helping students grasp this knowledge.

Wouter Deconick from the College of William and Mary gave a shortened version of his three-week workshop on techniques for project management. His course will be available as a webinar through the PIPELINE network. Doug Arion, the PIPELINE advisor from Carthage College, finished out the workshop with a section on how to teach students oral and written communication skills.

Now that the PIPELINE’s original three-year mission is up, the goal now is to disseminate what the Network has learned and created to other physics institutions.

“My aspiration is that we see a widening impact, with many more institutions thinking about how to build a curriculum that gives students learning opportunities, both formal and informal, around physics education,” says Tagg. “I hope that we’ll eventually develop a community of people who are really seeing this bear fruit.”

For more on the PIPELINE project visit the PIPELINE page. Additional APS Careers in Physics information is available at the Careers website.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

August/September 2019 (Volume 28, Number 8)

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2020 APS Medal for Exceptional Achievement in Research Awarded to Myriam P. Sarachik
Physical Review Research Publishes its First Papers
APS Membership Unit Profile: The Division of Soft Matter
APS Innovation Fund: Inaugural Winners Selected
Seven Apker Award Finalists Show Off their Research Skills
Matthew Blackman Named 2019 PhysTEC Teacher of the Year
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