FEd April 1996 Newsletter - Putting Wheels on Undergraduate Research and Physics Outreach to K-1

April 1996



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Putting Wheels on Undergraduate Research and Physics Outreach to K-12

by Dwight E. Neuenschwander

The complete physics education is an Arch with two sides. One side is course work, with its end-of-chapter exercises and exams. The other side of the Arch, equally important, is a generous dose of extracurricular professional development activities designed to enhance the student's communication skills, professional identity, self-confidence, leadership qualities, and networking. Two extracurricular instruments that enhance the professional development of individual students--while enlivening the culture of the physics department--are Undergraduate Research and Physics Outreach to local K-12 grades.

Undergraduate Research
The usual image of undergraduate research pictures an externally-funded program where undergraduates assist faculty in cutting-edge work that is published in Physical Review Letters. This approach is analogous to the tight focus and deep pockets that characterized NASA through the Apollo era. Examples of this "NASA-Apollo Model of Undergraduate Research" include the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates summer programs and the DOE Science and Engineering Research Semester. To solve some research problems the NASA-Apollo type program is crucial because of the resources it makes available. However, the NASA-Apollo Model is not the only model for undergraduate research. What is the ultimate aim of undergraduate research? I would suggest the following Mission Statement for it:
The PURPOSE of undergraduate research is not the research itself, but the growth in self-confidence of the undergraduate scientist.
The PRODUCT of undergraduate research is not a publication, but the transformation of the student.
The lessons of undergraduate research experience, such as rising to the occasion, dealing with "stuckness," communicating, defending one's work before an informed audience, are too important to be left to only those who are accepted into a highly structured program. In the wider view of the Mission Statement, it is not necessary to have a grant or a cutting-edge problem in order to create some meaningful research experience for the undergraduate physicist. This realization is liberating. Complementing the NASA-Apollo approach, we remember the much smaller scale of the Wright Brothers' shop as they designed, built, and tested their Flyer.

A Wright Flyer Model of Undergraduate Research may feature a student and faculty member (or other mentor) meeting weekly to extend a calculation, design a computer simulation, or conduct a table-top experiment. I am convinced that meaningful Wright Flyer projects can be sustained. In my own experience at Southern Nazarene University, since 1989 I personally mentored some 20 students in about 30 Wright Flyer projects, resulting in over 50 presentations at regional meetings (and eight student-authored or co-authored publications since 1991), all with zero external funding. The value of the experience to the student was independent of the project's publishability. (Also, during those same years a half-dozen of our students were accepted into NASA-Apollo Model programs at other universities and national laboratories.) Just as the work of the Wrights and the work of NASA were equally important in the history of aerospace, the Wright Flyer Model and the NASA-Apollo Model are both important for physics education, and physics needs lots of homes for both of them.

These themes are discussed in a 26-page booklet published by the Society of Physics Students (SPS), How to Involve Undergraduates in Research: A Field Guide for Faculty. It may help put wheels on the vehicle of undergraduate research, from describing the implementation of Wright Flyer and NASA-Apollo Models, to practical matters such as coaching student presentations. Originally distributed to SPS chapters, the booklet is available to others from the SPS by sending $5 to the address below.

Physics Outreach to Grades K-12
When we think of educational reform, we tend to think "top down" in terms of NSF funded Projects and national standards. Top-down approaches are important, and for certain purposes they are essential. But they are not the only models for encouraging science education reform and increasing science appreciation. Another model is a grassroots, or "bottom-up" approach. Until every single physicist is taking a presentation into at least one local K-12 classroom per year, we are not doing everything we know to do for science education. I may not be able to control Congress or the implementation of national standards, but I can volunteer to take my lenses and magnets to a nearby fourth grade, and heed the advice of their teacher on how to communicate effectively with this audience.

There is a genuine need for such interactions. Teachers tell me that among their greatest obstacles to effective science teaching are lack of materials to prepare demonstrations or experiments (much is paid for from the teacher's own pocket), and lack of time to prepare demonstrations or hands-on activities (the day in the life of an elementary teacher is structured down to the last ten minutes). Making ourselves available to "take physics on the road" helps answer these needs.

We know the physics, but it is the teachers who know how to communicate with their pupils. From them we can learn much about communicating to young inquisitive minds, and to the general public, in jargon-free language. Had the culture of physics in recent decades held outreach in the same esteem that it reserved for those who win grants, then the intellectual climae towards science in today's society might have been much better than the present reality.

Many chapters of the SPS have already established a tradition of physics outreach to local K-12 grades and the public. To assist them the Society recently began publishing The Physics Outreach Notebook, offering advice and ideas solicited from successful practitioners in the art of "taking physics on the road." Hole-punched installments are added as they are published. Originally distributed to SPS chapters, the Notebook installments we have to date are made available to others for $5, payable to the SPS.

Faced with describing physics principles in third grade languages, bearing the responsibility of being considered an "expert," and revealing that there are many deep questions to which we do not know the answer, through outreach efforts the university students and faculty gain a sobering experience in science communication. Second-graders ask, "What makes the sun shine? What holds the moon up when it's on nothing? Why are all people different?" These are profound questions, the very questions that drive science. Hearing them from the mouths of babes is a humbling experience. That they no longer ask these questions by grade seven is tragic. Thus we must do what we can.

The question of what "the country" is doing about science education reform is important, but is only the second question. The first question is, What am I doing personally about it within the sphere of influence that I already have? This is the first question because I alone have the responsibility to answer it, and because I alone determine what the answer shall be. Dwight E. Neuenschwander is Manager of the AIP Education Division and Director of the Society of Physics Students Address of the SPS:

Society of Physics Students
One Physics Ellipse
College Park, MD 20740