FEd April 1996 Newsletter - On the Importance of Undergraduate Science Education

April 1996



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On the Importance of Undergraduate Science Education

by Robert C. Hilborn

Let me begin by thanking the leaders of the National Science Foundation for organizing this important and timely review of undergraduate science education and for inviting me to represent the physics community in this enterprise. In addition, all of us owe the members of the review committee a debt of gratitude for undertaking this Herculean task. I would also like to acknowledge the many leaders of the American Association of Physics Teachers and the American Physical Society who provided valuable comments on draft versions of my written testimony. Though the particular formulations of the issues are my own, I believe that they accurately reflect a wide range of consensus within the physics community about the challenges facing undergraduate science education.

In my remarks today, I want to emphasize the connections between undergraduate physics education and other levels of science education and other aspects of the scientific enterprise. (When I say science, I mean the four-fold enterprise of science, mathematics, engineering and technology.) In my thinking about undergraduate physics education there are four numbers, 24%, 3%, 10%, and 40% that I believe dominate all considerations. Let me explain what these numbers represent.

First the 24%. Only 24% of high school students currently take some form of high school physics. For comparison, about 54% take chemistry, and 93% take biology. That means, even with the most optimistic estimates, that fewer than half of the students entering college have any background in physics. The implications for all college science courses are ominous. Many of the students will be innocent of basic physical principles such as conservation of energy and momentum; they will lack the sharp problem solving and math skills that are often honed by physics courses, and their knowledge of electricity and magnetism, not to mention simple circuits, will be close to zero.

The 3%. Only 3% of the students who take calculus-based introductory physics in college go on to take another physics class. If we include those taking algebra-based physics the numbers are even smaller. This points out a dilemma mentioned in other testimony several times today: How to balance the need to prepare potential majors with the needs of students who will have careers in other fields.

The final two numbers apply to the Ph.D. end of the physics educational pipeline, but have direct relevance for undergraduate physics education. Less than 10% of the Ph.D.s in physics in the United States go to women and minorities. That deeply troubles me as a physicist, as a physics teacher, and as a human being. Physics, as well as society as a whole, cannot afford to continue to let that much of the nation's talent fail to see physics as a viable career option, or to phrase it in a way probably closer to the mark, find themselves unwelcome in physics.

The second Ph.D. number is 40%, the fraction of physics Ph.D.s who take career positions in academe or in basic research in industry and the national labs. 60%, the majority, go elsewhere. Yet most undergraduate programs and nearly all the Ph.D. programs focus solely on preparation for a career in basic research with almost no attention paid to what in fact most Ph.D.s actually do for careers. To exacerbate matters, public recognition and prestige focus on graduate education and basic research to the detriment of teaching and to careers outside academe and basic research.

By these remarks I don't wish to downplay the importance of research, both as an intrinsic good and as an equal partner with classroom teaching in both the graduate and undergraduate physics enterprise. But I do wish to point out a wide-spread and ultimately unhealthy bias against what myopic academic physicists have called "non-traditional" careers.

Now let me turn to questions of fostering and implementing science education reform. The American educational system is not a monolith. That is both a strength and a weakness, but it is a fact. It requires programs to encourage both small-scale innovations that may later grow into major national reforms (like Workshop Physics) and also broad initiatives (like the calculus reform movement) that can more directly effect systemic changes. I would like to make a special plea for programs like Instructional Laboratory Improvement program of NSF that, although modest in scale, have acted as crucial catalysts for curriculum development and improvement at the local level.

Another fact: the financial and educational needs of public colleges and universities can be quite different from those of private institutions. I believe that public colleges and universities with only bachelors or masters degree programs are under particularly acute stress. Generally their financial resources are more constrained than those of research universities or private institutions, but their ambitions are just as high. All of us will need to be creative in finding a diversity of programs to match the diversity of American higher education.

A final point: education does not end with the awarding of a degree. Science educators and scientists in general need to be concerned with continued outreach to the general public. Investments in everything from traveling demonstration shows for schools to science and technology museums to TV shows (we really could use a show called Philadelphia Physics and a 10 part series on science by Ken Burns to supplement Nova and Bill Nye, the Science Guy)- all of these will pay enormous dividends in the public's awareness and appreciation of science.

Let me close with a visual demonstration that illustrates a theme that underlies and connects many points I have raised. These three interlocking loops of wire are in a configuration called the Borromean Rings named after the Borromeo family of northern Italy in whose coat of arms they appear. I just learned about these rings last week in a research seminar on the topological properties of states related to Bell's Theorem in quantum mechanics, but explaining that connection would take a half-hour's lecture. For our purposes here I want one ring to represent undergraduate science education which is closely linked with both pre-college science education, represented by a second ring, and graduate education and research, represented by the third. As you can see these are closely intertwined, with considerable overlap. But there is an unusual feature of the Borromean ring configuration, which is shared by the enterprise of science education: If any one of the rings breaks, the entire complex comes apart. A vivid warning to anyone who believes that we as a nation do not need to pay serious attention to undergraduate science education.

Robert C. Hilborn is the Lisa and Amanda Cross Professor of Physics at Amherst College, Amherst, MA. These remarks were taken from testimony given before the National Science Foundation Review of Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology: Disciplinary Perspectives, October 23, 1995