THE NEGATIVE VIEW It might be that Physics Education has the same role that "Latin Education" has today

Editor's note: I invited several colleagues to respond to the question, "What will physics education be like in 100 years?" The query prompted this thought-provoking essay.

Physics Education in the next century

Jack Wilson


It might be that Physics Education has the same role that "Latin Education" has today. Certainly the trends have been in that direction for several decades. Rather than becoming more central, physics education has become less central. Part of that is our fault and part is a natural result of the changes in the world. We have seen that Physics research has really spun out into Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, Materials Engineering, Biophysics, Chemistry, Molecular Biology. Meanwhile the purity of physics has been maintained by allowing the remainder to collapse to a smaller, brighter denser core. Now far more physics research is done outside of physics departments. Increasing, more physics education is done outside of physics departments. It is done by Engineering, by Chemistry, and by Biology by integrating into existing courses, . Is it done well? No. Has the physics community offered strong alternatives? Not really. The trend over the last half century has been that physics graduates have become a smaller and smaller percentage of undergraduates. Look at Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, or even Biology to see a contrary trend.

There are many noble efforts, but they are not yet wide spread enough. It will have to be an effort of the entire community. The research community will have to take a broader view and take up an interest in physics education. As we saw in the work of the IUPP project and others, physics education in the 80's and 90's is not much changed from the first part of the twentieth century. If we can say the same thing at the next millennium, I think we will be saying it about a very small and uninteresting profession.

I realize that this is a bit negative view, but I find it much too compellingly accurate. I intend to spend the first part of the next century to try to make my prediction completely wrong. There is reason for hope, but unless we face the difficult facts of the immediate past, we cannot improve the future.

What is my prescription for success? The Physics Community must aggressively reclaim an interest in the cross disciplinary research areas that are so close to our borders. We have traditionally shunned research (and researchers who work!) close to our borders. We must abandon our priestly (some say arrogant) image. We have to radically change our undergraduate physics courses to present an exciting picture of physics taught by exciting physicists. We must show physics centrality to the information technology areas and to the burgeoning bio-technologies. We must build alliances into all of the areas shown above. We must find ways to communicate our excitement to the public and our colleagues in other research areas.

I am serving on the NRC Physics Survey Committee and have been struck by the amazing accomplishments of the last few years and the enormous opportunities opening to us. I also serve on many broad higher education, corporate, and governmental organizations. I am disturbed that the excitement of physics is not often seen in those latter arenas.

THE POSITIVE VIEW Assuming that the Physics community rises to the challenges described above, I could see an interesting future for Physics Education. The ingredients for that future are in operation today. The key issues remain: COMPUTERS, COMMUNICATION, COGNITION, CONTEMPORARY ISSUES, AND COMMUNITY. The amazing growth in computational power has put the equivalent of supercomputers in many persons' homes, TODAY. The rapid rise in the communications infrastructure and the technical breakthroughs in bandwidth provided through optical physics allow that personal computer to connect to resources at speeds unimagined a decade ago. We are teaching physics TODAY into the high schools through network based systems. I am not talking about the pitiful e fforts to teach physics using insipid world wide web materials. I am talking about full live voice, video, and data interactions that can give life to even the worst web site!

By the next millenium, communication will be entirely ubiquitous. Most likely the satellites that will introduce ubiquitous connectivity over the next five years will have been replaced by microcellular technologies connected by fiber that allow wireless communication to nearby receivers that are accessible essentially everywhere. Anyone will be able to connect to anyone else anywhere in the world. The issue will be permission to access and not ability to access.

A person's computing and communication infrastructure will be worn or perhaps embedded. I am guessing that it will be more likely worn, so that changes can be rapid and personal privacy protected. That personal computing and communications infrastructure will be in continuos communication with the network through the microcellular network. There will certainly be no real difference between the telephone, the network, and the entertainment system. Visualization will be an important aspect of the system and will include direct neurobiological imaging (creating optical images in the individuals field of view through direct stimulation of the nervous system) and large panel shared displays that can visualize information, education, or entertainment through interaction with the personal systems and microcellular network. The microcellular network will include processing nodes and access to information that will let one access almost any information with powerful data acquisition tools assisted by personal software agents that live on the network and have the sole duty of ferreting out information of interest to you or packaging that information in the best visual package.

Learning physics, or any other subject, is about interactions and it is particularly about human interactions. The entire computication (computing and communication) network described above is designed to facilitate interaction among human beings in an information and analysis rich environment. That kind of environment will be used to allow the learning of physics.

Surely that leaves no room for a teacher? Wrong again. Interaction with professors or teachers will remain a key part of the process, but what that teacher does will be far different. Filling blackboard with chalk, flipping overhead transparencies, or showing PowerPoint slides will not be a significant part of the teaching process. The professor will set the stage, pose the important questions, facilitate the interactions and monitor the learning process. There will be a lot of give and take. Memorization of equations will be even less important than it is today. The ability to discover a problem, have insight into the problem, modularize the problem, and then construct a path to solution, becomes the main goal. Computational skills that were important to us will be irrelevant to them. Human beings provide creativity and not computation. The fundamental mathematical skills will not look much like those taught today.

When students study physics they will do so in collaboration with other students and monitored by professors. Sometimes they will elect to go to social areas where they learn in the same space as other students. Sometimes they will elect to join the group electronically rather than physically. A very high percentage of learners who have not yet begun employment will elect to learn in environments that might be called colleges or universities. They will have nice lawns, beautiful old buildings, and nearly 300 years of tradition. They will have shared living spaces called dormitories. They will drink beer and wine and do other things calculated to worry and annoy their elders.

When they go to physics class they might decide to do so from a blanket on one of the lawns or from a lounge in their dorm. The mind boggles at the other possibilities! They may decide to go to a walk-in laboratory. There they will find a smorgasbord of work areas with nearly every piece of equipment connected to the network. Their activities will be monitored there by a system that will protect their safety, suggest alternatives, and monitor their progress. The system will provide carefully analyzed reports to the professor to help her monitor each student's progress. The professor will be assisted in that regard by apprentice Physics Professors termed "graduate assistants." At various times during the week, learners in designated teams will all meet at the same time. Some will elect to do so in the same place and others will not. Nevertheless, the interactions will go forward with the professors leading resource rich discussions and all students interacting whether physically present or not. Being a passive student is not an option. As the questions flow back and forth everyone is expected to respond, to discuss and respond again after discussion. Groups will form to consider questions, dissolve and re-form again to consider the next topic. They will formulate problems and dump them to parallel systems that will the respond with the solutions and visualizations. The professors will have given careful thought to just how much of the task they want to assign to the system and how much they are asking the students to do.

Once students have entered employment the situation will change abruptly. Rather than delivering the student to the education, we must deliver the education to the student. Students are far too busy to take time off to go to the university. They would not even drive across town for a night class. Classes will be delivered to them at their workplace and their home. The students will have access to the experts independent of the location of student and expert. The ubiquitous access to education will be fortunate, because everyone will need to engage in continuous educational experiences, and few will have the luxury of taking a few hours or years and going to the university.

There will remain a very small number of students who elect to go into physics research and chose to apprentice themselves to research programs. They may be found at universities or at government or industry laboratories. Their education will be under the auspices of the best practitioners of their small discipline. Those practitioners will not all be found at the local university. It will be a virtual research group that might be located anywhere in the world, but all share an interest in the particular research field and in the student's progress. Students will collaborate across the world and across languages, with the network taking care of the language translation as well as communication, analysis, data mining, and visualization.

I find that an appealing vision. Do you?


Jack Wilson is Acting Provost, J. Erik Jonsson Distinguished Professor, and Professor of Physics and Engineering Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the Forum on Education.