August 1997



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Comments from the Chair: A Hundred-Year-Old Bad Habit

Rush Holt

You may know the old joke about the teacher who says with exasperation, "I've taught this topic every year for 20 years and the class still does not understand it!" Many teachers will admit, at least privately, that the joke is a little too close for comfort. Although in recent years I have been teaching only an occasional class here and there, I remember all too well occasions when I as a teacher was frustrated by the students' apparent stubborn refusal to see a particular point as clearly as I did, even when I patiently repeated my explanation. Nothing is so hard to break as a bad habit, in this case the teacher's. Sometimes to gain a new perspective one has to climb steep terrain.

You might suspect that my remarks are not meant solely for teachers. The constituents of the APS Forum on Education are varied, coming as we do from industrial, academic, research, and policy communities. Also, the spread of Forum members across the other topical divisions of the APS is remarkably uniform. So, it is clear that the physicists from all perspectives look to the Forum for ideas and action with regard to education. Likewise, the Forum leadership looks to the members in the various divisions to represent the interests of the Forum throughout the practice of physics. This issue of the newsletter focuses on some aspects of undergraduate physics, and the topic is important for even those who do not teach undergraduates. Physics teaching is a reflection of how we view our discipline, and it determines how others view it.

As the APS prepares to celebrate the centennial of our society, we should consider something else that is more than a century old, something not so grand and glorious. I call it the theft of physics. In 1892 the standard setters for college admission met at the University of Chicago and prescribed that high school students should take one year of biology followed by one year of chemistry followed by one year of physics. We practicing physicists have succeeded in that system, but we should question a system where physics is the ultimate course, taught only after the casual and so-called less talented students have been weeded out. We thus exclude 80% of all students from the pleasures and benefits of our science. We proudly continue this tradition in college. We are left with a situation where a lawyer I know who can write a flawless pension plan says he never took physics courses because physics was for the brainy students. We are left with elementary school teachers who should be teaching physical science feeling inadequate and guilty. And we are left with Members of Congress who for the most part have little idea why they are funding (or not funding) physics research.

We have presented physics as declarations from on high, rarely as an activity that a student might want to dabble in after class. Some researchers have looked at our century-long experiment in teaching, and they have concluded that our traditional approach was not working as we thought it was. It comes as a revelation to beginning teachers that what students learn is often not what the teacher teaches. Even more disturbing than students' apparent slowness to understand some concepts is their quickness to learn things that are false. Students' misconceptions often mystify teachers who are certain that they have carefully covered the relevant subject matter. It now appears that those misconceptions are partly a result of our over-arching misconceptions about how students learn. Science is by nature non-dogmatic. Yet, why is it that scientists are so often seen as dogmatic? Why is it that elementary teachers emerge from college with no background in physics, or worse, courses that leave them with the sense that physics is to be done only by specially trained experts? Science Teaching Reconsidered, A Handbook, prepared by the NRC, presents a number of useful teaching suggestions, some obvious, others more subtle or clever. Most important, the handbook effectively challenges the misconception, prevalent among scientists for at least a century, that knowledge of a subject implies the ability to teach it. The handbook shows the error of ignoring what is known about how students learn. There is now significant research about how people learn. The lessons of this research are no less relevant for teaching graduate electrodynamics than for teaching introductory kinematics. Traditional teaching methods based on lectures, assigned readings, problem sets, and formulaic labs are less effective than inquiry-based, cooperative approaches that engage students actively. The changes necessary for truly effective teaching are fundamental and get to the heart of how we view our field and ourselves. I believe that developing more a "student-centered" learning tradition can only help physics as a discipline, but the changes may be difficult for us to accept and to implement.

Changes are underway, and I expect that the pace of change will accelerate greatly. The Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Research Council is "reconsidering" teaching as it prepares its decadal review of physics. And numerous individuals and some academic departments of physics are also re-examining physics teaching. A few are even beginning to recognize the professional validity of physics education studies. Maybe the students will finally begin to get it -- but not before we do.

Tripling the Number of Physics Majors at a Research University

by Joe Pifer

At Rutgers we have revised our undergraduate program to encompass non-traditional physics majors with a greater breadth of career interests and over the past nine years have seen the number of physics majors triple to 45 graduates in 1997 with another twelve minoring in physics. Our approach to making the physics major attractive has been to introduce a variety of options with widely different math and physics requirements:

  • Professional Option a standard no-holds-barred sequence of courses intended to prepare students for graduate school.

  • Engineering Physics Option a five-year program leading to dual degrees in physics (BA) and engineering.

  • General Option a liberal arts (BA) degree designed for pre-med, pre-law, etc. students, high school teachers, and students with no particular career goal in mind but who are attracted to a science major that gives them the flexibility to try out a variety of different fields or possibly double major.

  • Applied Option a BS degree that emphasizes a breadth of technical knowledge rather than narrow specialization and is designed for students who do not want to pursue a Ph.D., but who are interested in a job in some applied area or possibly a Masters degree.
  • We also have a minor in physics and a newly introduced minor in astronomy centered on our 0.5 m instructional telescope.


    One of the ways we differentiate between options is by awarding the professional and applied majors a Bachelor of Science degree and the general and five-year engineering majors a Bachelor of Arts degree. The university defines the BA as a comprehensive degree implying knowledge of a broad range of disciplines with an in-depth of study in one or more disciplines; while the BS is a specialist degree implying intensive technical knowledge of a particular discipline and cognate subjects. In reality BS and BA students are required to take the same distribution of liberal arts courses and the only difference lies in the number of technical credits required, and hence in the number of free electives. It's up to the BA student to make a wise choice of electives to obtain greater breadth than possible with the BS.

    Nationally, there is no consensus as to which type of education is preferable for a scientific career. But students interested in a physics career, rightly or wrongly, have no doubt that the BS degree is much preferable. We use this perception to counteract the temptation for students who are struggling with the very challenging professional or applied options to change to the less rigidly prescribed general option. At the same time when advising BA students we attempt to counteract the perception of the BA as an inferior degree by emphasizing the long term importance of a broad education. In particular, we strongly encourage general majors to pursue a second major or several minors as well. In the previous three years 60% of the physics BA students completed a second major in addition to physics, as compared to 29 % of the BS students.


    Introducing a flexible curriculum will not guarantee an influx of physics majors; good advising is by far the most important factor in increasing the number of majors. Students who are unsure about their career goals are easily discouraged by indifferent, inaccurate, or hard-to-get advising. The problem is compounded if students can choose among numerous options. Our advising system uses carefully written documentation of the requirements, an e-mail alias reaching all majors and touch-tone registration. It is essential that the advisor be knowledgeable about all academic requirements so that students are not sent away frustrated or misinformed. For this reason we have moved from an advising committee to centralized advising with the undergraduate director doing most of the advising, except for professional option students who are assigned a mentor.

    We find the most effective way to recruit physics majors and provide meaningful advice is at the first meeting with a student interested in majoring in physics. Such students frequently drop in without an appointment, but even if the student's interest seems tenuous, we find it essential, if at all possible, to immediately take the time - 15 minutes or more - to explore the student's interests, outline the career opportunities, help him or her choose the appropriate option, and to give the appropriate written material. This is the ideal time to discuss the advantages of getting a broad education and perhaps doing a double major. Many students have only a vague or very narrow understanding of what a career in physics might entail and such intensive one-on-one advising helps them solidify their thinking and see the advantages of studying physics. For some students this first meeting is the last time they will seek individual advice except in their senior year when they are job hunting or looking into graduate or professional schools. Others keep closer contact by frequently dropping in for a "quick question" or by e-mail.


    There are three ways to broaden the curriculum. The first, allowing students in other options to pick a subset of the courses intended for the professional, costs nothing in teaching load and helps populate courses which otherwise might not have sufficient enrollment to be offered. The second, allowing or requiring courses in other disciplines, again costs nothing. The third is to offer courses specially designed for the new option, which, of course, impacts the teaching load. In order to offer the general and applied options we offer five semesters of "special" junior-level courses and expect to introduce one or two more as we develop the applied major and attract more students.

    Advanced General Physics. This course addresses our basic assumption that at a minimum, a general physics major must have a thorough and deep, mathematically based understanding of the concepts of introductory physics. This is frequently not the case even for students who have done well in an introductory sequence. In addition, the general option students come from a variety of academic backgrounds, so it is difficult to design a lecture course that meets all of their needs. Our solution is actually a leftover from a pedagogical fad that swept through physics 30 years ago self-paced learning the Keller Plan.

    Advanced General Physics is a two-semester, three-credit course required of all general and applied option students. The material is broken into modules and students are given a study guide which includes textbook readings and homework. There are no lectures, although video taped lectures are available for a few of the harder modules. Students study on their own with the possible assistance of tutors (undergraduate or graduate, supervised by a faculty member) who are available 6 hours a week. When the student feels ready, he or she asks the tutor for a test from the ten or so kept on file for each module. The test is graded pass/fail and the student can retake the test for a given module as many times as necessary. The course grade is determined by the number of modules passed. The possibility for cheating is reduced by treating the grading as a learning process where the student explains and justifies his or her solutions. There are both advantages and disadvantages to the course:

    • Students can spend as much time as needed on areas where their preparation is weak
    • Students can defer studying on weeks when other courses have exams, which reduces the overall intensity of the curriculum
    • Students whose study skills are weak or who procrastinate do poorly in such an unstructured environment
    • The course provides an effective way to utilize faculty who are weak lecturers.

    The Physics of Modern Devices. This course is designed to help students make the connection between the physics they learn and their everyday life. The prerequisites are a year of calculus and of introductory physics. The syllabus is flexible, depending on the instructor's and students' interests, but typically includes a discussion of transistors, solar cells, nuclear reactors, refrigerators, television, lasers, compact disk players etc. One difficulty in teaching the course is a lack of a suitable textbook. Ideally the course should include a lab. This course is becoming increasing popular, with an enrollment last year of 47. One surprising element is that a number of engineers take it as a technical elective, because their engineering courses are too theoretical.

    The Physics of Sound. This course builds on student interest in acoustical systems and includes a weekly 80-minute lab. Again the prerequisites are a year of calculus and of introductory physics. Our intent is to position the course between "Acoustics for Music" and a full-blown technical acoustics course. We have not found a completely suitable
    textbook and the course tends to stray to one direction or the other depending on the instructor.

    Experimental Applied Physics. The center piece of the applied option will be a required applied physics lab that we are developing with the assistance of a NSF-ILI grant and grants from several equipment companies. The lab currently has a strong emphasis on lasers and optics and is biased toward giving students experience with the apparatus and techniques they are likely to encounter in an industrial laboratory. At present, in order to offer the course despite having only a few applied majors, we schedule the course at the same time as the modern lab for professional majors, but have the students do a different selection of experiments.


    Despite our large increase in the number of physics majors, we are not content with our program and are working on three areas with the goal of once again doubling again the number majors we graduate:

    Evaluation of our program. We need to keep better track of majors as their careers develop in order to get feedback on our program to improve it.

    Development of the Applied Option. It's very difficult to start a new option with no students and no resources. We built the applied option around existing courses so that we needed essentially no new resources. Now that we have some students (13 applied option majors in 1997), we need to redesign the option for the bottom up, asking what should these students learn in order to be ready immediately for a applied physics career. This will involve new, specially designed courses, and contact with industry to see what they expect from our students. We also hope to establish a summer industrial internship program open to any of our majors. Our long term goal is to make the applied option an attractive and equally respected alternative to the professional option.

    Training more High School Teachers. A few years ago we were graduating no students interested in high school teaching. This year we had five. Our Graduate School of Education has just introduced a five-year certification program leading to a undergraduate degree in a subject area such as physics and a Masters in education, which promises to be very attractive to students.


    The success of our program is the result of many people's contributions. I'd particularly like to recognize the support of our former Chair, Allen Robbins, the hard work of our Instructional Laboratory Manager, Dr. Michael Molnar, and the dedication and interest of Professors Mohan Kalelkar, Theodore Kruse, Peter Lindenfeld, Ronald Ransome, Joel Shapiro, and all my colleagues in the department.

    Abstracted with permission from "Tripling the Number of Physics Majors at a Research University" in Conf. Proc. #399 The Changing Role ofthe Physics Department in Modern Universities, Proceedings of the Undergraduate Physics International Conference, J. Rigden & J. Redish, editors, 1997

    Mentoring the Whole Life of a Physics Major: From Recruiting and Introductory Classes to Research and Careers

    Neal B. Abraham

    I would like to describe a complex mixture of mentoring activities, including some that are not traditionally thought of as mentoring which range from early activities in the recruiting of new students, through strategies in introductory and intermediate courses, to internships and research experiences and career counseling. The opening summary could also be the conclusion: What works? The answer is that many things work, and no one thing works for every student. To make anything work for a new student, the successful old programs often need to be repackaged, personalized, and invigorated with energy and compassion. And to make the task more difficult, what works one year often does not work the next. Successful programs are often forgotten by students from one year to the next and they may not be as successful the next time because the local needs and context have changed. You must listen carefully, act thoughtfully, assume nothing, and bring a renewed personal and friendly touch over and over again.

    It is well documented that a far disproportionate share of students earning bachelors degrees in physics (and in mathematics and science more generally) from under-represented groups come from colleges and universities whose student populations have substantial numbers of students from those groups. Additional facts include the following: predominantly undergraduate colleges and universities have a disproportionate number of physics majors; research and career internships help both to attract and retain students; informal and formal peer teaching nurture confidence; teamwork and human-scale faculty members can have an immense impact on the social rewards of doing physics; and there is a synergistic effect of student peers sharing their academic pursuits. That institutions serving traditionally under-represented minority groups carry out their tasks with a certain missionary zeal, cannot be denied. But I think that a close look at these successful programs offers insight that can benefit all students in many different kinds of institutions. Indeed, this has been the consistent message in the studies and findings of Project Kaleidoscope of what works best in undergraduate mathematics and science education The programs leading to this success can be accomplished on many other campuses and they turn out to be equally valuable for women, men and members of under-represented groups.

    The New York Times in November 1995 and Physics Today in August 1996 touted the numerical strength of the physics major program at Bryn Mawr College, a private liberal arts college for women which graduates a total of about 300 students each year. Approximately 40% of the undergraduate students take introductory physics in one of four different courses, approximately 30% of the graduates take their degrees in mathematics or science and, over the last two decades, the number of physics majors has grown steadily, albeit fitfully with both two and five-year periodicities in the numbers, until most recently. Currently, five percent of the graduates take (or will take) their degrees in physics, practically 100 times the national average for women as a percentage of the women in their graduating class. In 1995 Bryn Mawr's ten women physics majors were surpassed only by Harvard's 15 and MIT's 12. In recent years about 1-2% of the 150 women earning Ph.D.'s in physics each year earned A.B. degrees from Bryn Mawr and a similar number earned Ph.D.'s in related fields. But these represent barely a third of our majors; others are successfully pursuing medicine, law, high school and secondary teaching, and work in science museums, industries, and research labs. In 1997 we graduated 15 physics majors (five of them double majors in mathematics (3), biology (1) and philosophy (1)). We have an additional 15 senior physics majors enrolled for the Fall of 1997. Figure 1 shows the number of physics majors as a function of year. The circles represent projections.

    The specific causes of our surge in majors, countering national trends for men and women, are a little hard to identify. We believe that they are tied to a mixture of factors including recruiting, advising, introductory course strategies, intermediate encouragement, research opportunities, and the large and synergetic relationships that these women form with each other. Many of these features are part of what we might call "generalized mentoring".

    So what do I mean by whole life mentoring? The answer is that we must seek to intervene and provide counsel, comment and insight at each stage of a student's thinking about physics. Most of all they are clever and attentive: they have read the publicity about the employment malaise, heard about the long hours, the difficulties of balancing families and careers, the abstract courses and the arcane testing hurdles. We start early by helping the admissions office during recruiting with posters, scripts for tour guides, and handouts for students and their families. We work with all students who want to take physics, entice some to take physics earlier, convince others to take physics at some point, recognize good work and encourage good students to continue. We provide a rich set of educational, learning and teaching experiences (both those in formal class and lab settings and those in informal consultations with faculty and fellow students. We affirm a variety of learning styles and a variety of demonstrations of mastery, encourage and arrange internships and research experiences throughout the four years of the undergraduate experience) counsel and encourage pursuit of a wide variety of careers, and, at each level, demand excellence and insist on involvement. We encourage all undecided students to consider taking our departmental placement exam which serves as a basis for assessment and counseling about starting points in the curriculum. We also work hard to make early contact with those qualifying for advanced placement by external AP exams or International Baccalaureate degrees, since some of those students are daunted by the maturity expected in sophomore courses. One early message in mentoring the whole life of a student is that you must stay in contact in order to provide advice and support. Waiting to talk to those who spontaneously enroll in the second year course may reduce potential majors to a third or less of those who might have continued successfully.

    Introductory courses are most successful when they have a minimum of prerequisites, a combination of applications and an emphasis on conceptual understanding, and when students are encouraged to talk, write, discuss, and think about physics in more than chalkboard presentations, formalized homework problem solving and textbook-based memorization and regurgitation. Sometimes we use a conceptual and thematic approach. Sometimes we require oral reports and diary entries on readings of current events of scientific or science policy significance. Demonstrations can often be distracting and inconclusive but we are convinced that they have an important pedagogical value as a supplement to textbook descriptions and illustrations, blackboard sketches, and professorial narratives. We find that mixing demonstration apparatus with laboratory equipment gives students a sense of continuity and participation that improves their mastery. Our labs are relatively conventional, but we often try to see that they have a twist. Ours are rarely "prove the theory by experiment", or "fit the theory to the experiment", since some aspect of the idealized problem is tampered with to give anomalous experimental results. The student teams and the teaching assistants and instructors then search for explanations, reducing a larger class to only two or three investigators. We also try in lab to have different subgroups of students doing different things a design that is hard on instructors but challenging for the students. We use demonstration apparatus in the laboratories for "conceptual labs" (the "instructions" might be: take this miscellaneous collection of apparatus, figure out some interesting phenomena and questions, and write us an essay about the issue and the evidence). We also find it is important to build student confidence, especially in the introductory courses. It helps enormously to give encouragement in writing (on homework and exams) and in person. It can also help to use neutral colors for grading and comments: red is often taken to be harsh and critical. Sometimes we give midterms back in person to take the chance to offer a few comments or words of encouragement. Of course there is always positive benefit to returning exams quickly, with comments and interpretations, and will prompt debriefing to make testing and test reworking a part of the learning experience. Sometimes we approach students in lab or in the corridors to assure them that they are doing well enough to major. In short, we find that the best way to expand the pool of majors beyond the "hard core", self-selected and hard to deter, is to provide advice and encouragement.

    We also have a vigorous program of research opportunities during the academic year and summers for students. Through a complex web of fundraising Bryn Mawr is able to support from thirty to fifty students doing summer research in mathematics and the sciences. Though opportunities are numerous, our population of majors far exceeds our ability to offer them summer internships. Hence we have a vigorous program to encourage students to look for research internships in industry and government labs and at other colleges and universities. In physics we have a faculty member who is designated to advise students about such job hunting, much of the Fall is spent in helping students identify options, prepare resumes that emphasize their interests and practical experiences in computing, electronics, and instrumentation. We find that students gain considerable maturity and confidence from working with those who had not taught them more elementary subjects and from returning to campus with summarized accomplishments which their local mentors had not seen pass through the foibled stages.

    Our academic year student research program has also grown and evolved. We ask interested students to talk with each faculty member to gain an idea about research opportunities. We ask students to apply to the department, indicating their choices, and then use departmental discussions to assign students and to help faculty members balance their desires to be supportive and encouraging of eager students with practical issues of time management and student needs. We have often had trouble getting students to complete thesis writing at the end of a year-long project in a timely fashion, but this has gotten easier since we moved from a single end-of-the-year report to an alternative pioneered by our chemistry department. We now have students doing research give oral reports at the end of the Fall semester, giving them motivation to work through a formulation of the background, motivation, and goals for their ongoing work. This sometimes painful process, compelled midway through the project, makes the writing of introductory and background chapters of a thesis far easier to begin early the Spring semester. We then join with the chemistry departments of Bryn Mawr and Haverford colleges for a student poster session in a public forum late in the Spring semester. This is a good opportunity for the students to see the work of their peers and for underclass students to learn more about on-campus research opportunities. It is also a good time for faculty and students to mingle and to learn of the career choices of the seniors.

    We also have a program sponsored by college funds to "apprentice" students as faculty members, so that they can see the whole life of a faculty member. In this program we are encouraged to help the students participate in the design and uncertain phases of a research project, in the assessment and ordering of equipment and apparatus from the instrument shops, and in regular reassessment of the goals and accomplishments. In some contexts it is argued that it is important to make a research project "successful" or "conclusive". Instead we have found that it is equally valuable for students to have some insight into the doubts, despair, and indecisions that are natural parts of our professional lives. We have a similar program for teaching apprentices and involve those students in preparing and assessing assignments, examinations and class presentations.

    Giving students teaching opportunities is another form of mentoring. The coaching of student teachers helps to give them perspective on learning and pedagogy. The work of students as laboratory teaching assistants, tutors, monitors of a physics clinic for problem solving, graders, or in any facet of the program provides an opportunity for students to see other students making progress in their mastery. The students mentor each other. They seek advice and guidance from each other. They work together in teams both as students and as teachers. Much is made of the importance of role models, and we have found in the educational environment that one of the most important forms of role modeling is having peers, or near peers, fill the pipeline of success. When a student can see a role model at every level of success, she is hard pressed to make generalizations about gender difficulties and she finds many encouraging looks and words that she may soon be like them.

    We have made some interesting choices about our intermediate and advanced curriculum. One goal is to provide a rich set of laboratory experiences, so students in our intermediate electronics course each have a bench with a full set of apparatus. While the students are encouraged to cooperate, visit each other's benches, and to ask questions and share answers, no one makes the experiment work (no other hands are on the knobs and dials) at each bench except the student herself. This may make some things slower, but it builds confidence over the semester that each student can operate oscilloscopes, design circuits, and analyze data. Other labs emphasize teamwork; some labs involve one-week projects, others are multi-session projects (some laboratory courses meet three afternoons a week) with freedom for students to explore different alternatives. And many labs are well equipped with research-grade apparatus which introduce students to sophisticated technologies and research style and strategies, both of which students may see again in research projects. When labs run long, we often take 20-minute breaks for tea (faculty supplied) and snacks (student supplied). Conversations are wide-ranging and vigorous and help to build camaraderie. The lost time is more than made up in the added efficiency that a break and a little sugar can provide.

    In our junior and senior level course work we teach most courses in alternate years, in a coordinated program with the Haverford College physics department, so that most courses are offered every year at one campus or the other. Haverford's number of physics majors is about the same size as ours, though predominantly male as is typical in co-ed schools, and these courses, when students choose to mingle, give them a co-educational environment and a wider variety of instructors. Beyond the commingled courses, we also emphasize in these courses that work and material is not simply defined by texts and in-class presentations. We use library reserves and frequently ask students to prepare written or oral reports on supplemental topics. Nonetheless, both because of numbers and on principle, we have resisted merging our second year courses with those at Haverford., those prior to the declaration of the major. Experience teaches us that confidence is fragile for some women physics majors, and the added pressure and competition in larger and co-ed classes in the first two years contribute to a noticeable reduction in the number of women majoring in physics. We also find that students must be acculturated to making use of office hours, planning ahead to work on problem assignments, and developing teams for initial out of class discussions. Smaller sophomore-year classes make it easier for the faculty member to meet regularly with each student, inviting them for midcourse assessments in addition to handing back exams personally with short discussions about their performances and ways to improve.

    Another way to mentor is through providing advice in a variety of media: printed handbooks, posters, and websites are among the ways we try to make information available. Our brochures, posterboards and website range over such topics as careers, preparing for teaching, preparing for the GRE, where recent graduates are working, and how to plan for different and flexible futures. We update them often and discuss them with students over pizza and soda in the evenings. We also frequently mix with students to discuss time and stress management, to review our curriculum, and to have meals with our colloquium speakers. Our evening (dinner time) speaker program held in the cafeteria sideroom has been the most successful way to draw students and has given them the opportunity of dinner with other physicists. We have found that our own contacts, alumnae, and the CSWP speakers list give us a nearly inexhaustible supply of women with diverse careers, talents, topics and stories. We rely less on the infrequent visits by outside women than on the daily support networks that develop among students within the department; programs and facilities range from a "majors' room" with computers and lockers, key access to kitchenette and computers and classrooms, desks in research labs for students doing research, mailboxes for messages, homework solutions in the conference rooms as well as in the more distant library, and student-run evening physics clinic for answering of questions. With a little luck and lots of synergy, our majors have come to think of the physics department as the place where they can and will find each other for teamwork or companionship, for problem solving or relaxation, daytime, nighttime and weekends. They mentor each other as much, indeed even more sometimes, than we mentor them.

    There are other little touches which give "whole life" added meaning. There are bulletin boards in the department corridors which contain information about new science, women in science, summer jobs and careers, and activities of current majors and alumnae. The students design T-shirts, celebrating such things as "women in classically forbidden regions" and "strangely attractive women", demonstrating their scientific humor and their awareness of their unique participation as members of an under represented group in physics. The majors often organize field trips to industrial, university, and national labs and we arrange class schedules to support these trips.

    And we provide current students with space to call their own, not only classrooms to use in off-peak hours, but rooms for majors with computers and lockers, mailboxes for departmental messages and for the return of exams and homework, and access to departmental facilities including kitchenette, microwave, and evening telephone (for local calls). As a result, the physics department is the "home office" and social center for many of our students. They come to find friends (and physics colleagues), they come to relax, as well as work, and they feel comfortable in their teamwork and in their differences.

    Let me reiterate an earlier point that makes the task for all of us that much more difficult when it comes to mentoring. Our students are agile and active readers, they listen well and they hear our code words and our occasional despair. Every word about job shortages, the absence of women, chilly climate discrimination in laboratory work and research groups, hiring crunches, horrors of graduate school teaching, difficult working conditions for teaching assistants, and competitive testing and grading practices are heard and magnified. We must work hard to spread reality and we must caution students where appropriate. One of the reasons we post and report on our alumnae career paths is to assure current students that employment options remain open. We must counsel students against applying at some graduate schools where teaching is abysmal or where the expectations are for one prior year of graduate-level work, an inappropriate standard but one that is not uncommon when Masters-level foreign students and advanced placed undergraduate majors at research universities might gain that qualification. Poor teaching in graduate level courses is not a secret, so it behooves graduate schools to invest in burnishing their programs and thereby their reputations. And, in my considered view after three terms on the GRE Board of Examiners for the Physics test, continued use by graduate schools of GRE cutoffs (for admission or for continuation) are unforgivable kowtowing to indefensible statistical information. Nearly all of the top 1/3 of GRE physics scores are captured by foreign test takers. Students taught in small classes (in the liberal arts colleges where physics majors are disproportionately numerous) have essentially no experience with and no interest in the mental gymnastics of multiple choice examinations with a minute or two per problem. I know of no demonstrated value, valid correlation, or justifiable reason for the use of such a test as a barrier of any sort for pursuit of a career in physics. Except that most of us who are now physicists once survived or excelled in such a test, I challenge any user of the GRE to demonstrate a research or teaching skill that is adequately or appropriately measured by multiple choice gymnastics. Given the system, we necessarily coach our students and rehearse them to improve their scores and therefore to widen their opportunities for graduate school, but we consider it a relatively demeaning exercise that has minimal value in their physics education. When you know that the US medians are less than thirty right answers out of 100, that women at all kinds of institutions do one standard deviation worse than their male counterparts, that liberal arts college students do one standard deviation worse than their university trained counterparts, and that these differences are not correlated with any other measure of student performance, then I trust you will conclude as I have that the GRE exam is better discarded than reformed. And, in the meantime, if you do not mentor your students to do as well as they can and to be prepared for the worst score they have ever received on a standardized test, you will lose them in droves, particularly, as it turns out, the women and minority students. If any other proof were needed, the continued admission to and success of our majors at graduate schools around the country speak volumes about the limited value of the GRE score, as most would have been excluded from admission based on their scores alone.

    In conclusion I suggest that mentoring has three primary tasks: giving honest advice, instilling confidence, and leaving room for growth. Among the best ways to do this are:

    • share secrets of successful teaching and learning strategies;
    • validate student mastery and career choices;
    • ensure a personal and socially supportive atmosphere;
    • be aware of the fragility of success.
    • And finally, for good and effective mentoring, keep asking, keep trying, and keep listening.

    Neal B. Abraham is Chairperson of the Department of Physics at Bryn Mawr College. For a longer version of this article, see

    Figure 2 (below) shows a Spring 1996 photo of most of the 40+ senior, junior and sophomore physics majors at Bryn Mawr.

    Browsing Through the Journals

    Thomas Rossing

    If you don't like the news, don't shoot the messenger. Several communications circulating on electronic forums have complained that by quoting different points of view in these columns, I have given tacit approval to these points of view. It is not the intent of this column, of course, to offer approval of any particular point of view. It is rather to call attention to news and views about physics education in various journals that FEd members don't necessarily read regularly. Hopefully, readers will find some of these snippets interesting enough to read the original articles and discuss them. Perhaps some readers will respond by writing letters to the editor for publication in the newsletter. We encourage this; all we ask is that they be kept reasonably short.

    According to a speech entitled Attracting and Preparing Teachers for the 21st Century" by U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, reprinted in the May 1997 issue of Community Update (DOE publication), the entire context of American education is changing. "We need teachers skilled in using computers as a powerful teaching tool, and many more teachers versed in English as a second language." State teachers of the year, asked to comment on the new teachers they had mentored, expressed strong concerns that new teachers are unprepared to manage classroom discipline, he warned.

    The thesis that scientific knowledge is a cultural construct is challenged by Kurt Gottfried and Kenneth Wilson in a commentary in the April 10 issue of Nature. According to Andrew Pickering, who typifies what the authors call the "Edinburgh school of sociology", "The quark-gauge theory picture of elementary particles should be seen as a culturally specific producta communally congenial representation of reality...The preponderance of mathematics in particle physicists' account of reality is no more hard to understand than the fondness of ethnic groups for their native language." This view comes about, the authors suggest, because historians of modern physics have, until recently, paid little attention to experiment while exploring theory in great detail. Proponents of the Edinburgh school, however, tend to overlook predictive power, the strongest evidence that the natural sciences have an objective grip on reality.

    According to an article in Science (Oct. 4, 1996), Japan has cut back its science requirements in high school from fifteen hours per week, in the 1960s, to eight and from 1048 hours in elementary school to 735 (compared to 450 hours in the United States). The Japanese authorities are concerned that students do not understand and enjoy science but rather engage in rote learning and cramming for university entrance examinations. The percentage of Japanese high school students taking physics has dropped from more than 90% in the 1970s to 20% at the present time.

    On the other hand, a note in the May issue of Physics World relates the happy news that more students than ever have
    applied to read physics at UK universities next year. About 80% of students now take GCSE physics or double award science, compared with 30% of boys and 10% of girls in 1980. On the other hand, the number of students taking A-level physics in schools continues to decline. In response to this, the Institute of Physics is launching a £1 million program to invigorate physics education for 16- to 19-year olds.

    Australian universities have appealed to the government to increase funding of higher education to avoid the country falling behind its counterparts in Southeast Asia, according to a note in the May 15 issue of Nature. The appeal was made against a backdrop of increasing unrest on university campuses, partly because of cuts in funding abruptly implemented by the coalition government of Prime Minister John Howard last year. Recent student demonstrations in both Melbourne and Sydney protested the introduction of full fees for Australian students. Fay Gale, vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia pointed out to the Government that Taiwan and Singapore now outstrip Australia by factors of two and three, respectively, in proportion of GDP spent on education.

    "Active Learning in the Lecture Hall" is the title of a paper by biologist Elaine Anderson in the May 1997 issue of Journal of College Science Teaching. Essays, special team presentations, a field project, and concept mapping are among the active learning experiences successfully applied in large lecture sections for non-science majors. She cites the advice of Raymond Orzechowski (J. College Science Teaching 24, 347 (1995)), however: "Don't try too much in the beginning, especially with students who lack prior experience and skills in group learning."

    The National Research Council (NRC) has issued a series of reports called "Preparing for the 21st Century" to inform policy makers and the public about conclusions by the NRC, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. One of the reports entitled "The Education Imperative" urges that education be the Nation's top priority. Objectives include requiring that college entrance exams include a section that evaluates scientific inquiry, providing more grant money for graduate students, and setting institutional standards for graduate schools. The six reports can be found on the web site:

    Science Teaching Reconsidered, a recent publication from the National Research Council, explores the teaching experiences of undergraduate science educators in an effort to "facilitate change in the way science is taught to students in U.S. colleges and universities." Science teaching, according to the NRC, is a mixture of creativity, imagination, innovation, and practical application. The handbook is available from National Academy Press (800-624-6242) for $10 plus $4 shipping/handling.