FEd April 1997 Newsletter - Editor's Corner

April 1997



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The Editor's Corner

Editorial: Boundaries

Stan Jones

Remember those boundary value problems from your E&M course, the ones we also ran into in Classical and Quantum Mechanics? I loved those things. Really, I did. A well-defined boundary value problem has a unique answer, one you can find by standard techniques, and one whose validity you can easily check at the end. There are many boundaries in the real world. Some are physical boundaries, some are psychological, some are bureaucratic, some are sociological. Some are real, and some are imagined. Some we construct to make life simpler for ourselves, or to avoid the uncertainties beyond that border. There is a boundary to our "comfort" zone, and until we cross that boundary, we do not grow. I want to talk about boundaries I see in our system of Physics Education, and how some of these boundaries can truly get in the way of our goal of giving our students, and the public, the very best.

Some of the physical boundaries that exist in Physics Education are the walls of our departments and buildings, or the confines of our company. Industrial scientists who want to have an impact on education are finding ways to reach beyond their institutions - by going out into the public schools; by bringing the public into their outreach programs; by joining organizations such as the Forum on Education. Physicists at universities are finding they can learn from collaborations with other scientists and engineers, and that education faculty can tell us something about how students learn. And they too are reaching out beyond the confines of the campus. The physical boundaries here are well-defined: it is clear what is inside our department or company, and where the outside world begins. The issue is how we define "our job." We can't make the mistake of allowing these boundaries to become barriers to our involvement in the larger world. There is a great need for greater public understanding of science, and we serve not only the public, but ourselves as well if we venture beyond our "walls' to make our contribution.

In Physics Education at the undergraduate and graduate levels, I also see some boundary problems that to me are artificially set up; problems where the boundaries are not well-defined, and perhaps do not exist at all. They are boundaries that people have set up in order to make physics and physics education a well-defined problem. I can think of three such boundaries. They are the boundary between pure and applied physics; between physics and other disciplines (say, chemistry); and between teaching and research. These boundaries started disappearing a long time ago in our discipline, but remnants remain, and for some educators they continue to get in the way.

In graduate training, we must decide what classroom experiences, and what research experience, to give our students. What role should applications of physics play? What is pure, and what is applied physics, is not always easy to identify. Many of the interesting research problems just happen to have a real-world significance; topics like materials, atmospheric physics, optics, the many aspects of condensed matter physics, magnetic resonance, and so on. Many physicists have learned that there is no particular virtue in avoiding a problem just because it has applications. As funding sources for research have evolved, many scientists have recognized the wealth of interesting new physics discoveries waiting to be made in supposedly "applied" areas. In a sense, we have found that the need to define a problem as pure or as applied is no longer significant. From an educational point of view, the fact that research has an application does not necessarily diminish its value as physics. Our graduate curricula must recognize and incorporate this reality.

In exploring the interesting properties of matter in its varied forms, physicists have found common interests with chemists, engineers, mathematicians, biologists, and more. To say that a problem is physics and not, say, chemistry, is often a distinction we cannot make. Techniques are also blurred. There are some ways of approaching a problem that are clearly physics, some that are clearly chemistry, but the importance of making this distinction has faded, if indeed it ever was important. Insisting, from a purist point of view, that the distinction be made can interfere with our ability to recognize and address very fundamental and intriguing questions. And many problems require an integrated, multi-disciplinary approach if we want to truly understand them. Physics is a discipline where change is rapid and exciting. As educators, we must always be open to this same rate of change. If what we do changes rapidly, what we teach, and how we teach, must also be flexible enough to change. We must be ready to provide our students an introduction to the new interdisciplinary ways of thinking. We must also be ready to help them explore problems that may not be as clearly "physics" as we may have thought was necessary.

The third boundary I listed above is that between teaching and research. I don't think I need argue very hard that one of the finest ways to learn is by doing, and that whenever students can become part of a research project everyone benefits. Research can be teaching. And teaching can be research. We should be learning from our students: how they think, how they understand or misunderstand the principles we discuss. In so doing we ourselves increase our understanding. And as we learn how students learn, we should be changing how we teach in order to be more effective. The debate over the relative priority of teaching and research, which has lasted through the ages, is based on a false dichotomy; the two go hand in hand.

I would argue this: whether or not boundaries exist, increasingly it is those who go beyond the boundaries who are making the changes in this world. Willingness to ignore boundaries, whether real or of the mind, marks the creative person. Defense of the boundaries is often a decision which binds one to the past.

In this issue there are several articles which highlight the blurring of boundaries. J.W. Harrell describes a new approach to the introductory course, a coordinated multi-departmental effort. Alexis Wynne relates her learning experience at an NSF REU site last summer. Mort Kagan compares the industrial to the academic life in a personal reminiscence. Bob Williams describes the outreach programs at the U. of Illinois. And so on. You can find elements of reaching across boundaries in much of this issue.

[webmaster's note: A couple of the articles referred to here were not contained in the electronic copies received for posting. We are attempting to get copies.]