FEd Summer 2001 Newsletter - Browsing Through the Journals

Summer 2001



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Browsing Through the Journals

Thomas D. Rossing

  • Women hold a disproportionately small share of senior faculty positions in Japan's universities. According to a story in the 20 April issue of Science, 35 Japanese women scientists met to draw up a list of obstacles they face in obtaining grants and to plan a lobbying effort to create a better working environment. At present, most grants for new investigators are restricted to scientists of age 37 or younger. With more women wanting to resume their research careers after starting a family, a ceiling based on years in the field rather than age would be more equitable, the participants argued. An even greater problem is the rise in the number of part-time and nonpermanent university faculty and staff positions, a trend fueled by the sagging economy. Although the squeeze on tenured positions applies to both men and women, men are more likely to be appointed to permanent posts when they are offered.

  • The changes facing university physics departments in the UK were the subject of two days of discussion at the Institute of Physics annual congress, according to the May 2001 issue of Physics World. Two of the major subjects discussed were the decline in the mathematical capability of students starting physics degrees and how the four-year Mphys and Msci physics degrees would fit into the Quality Assurance Agency's new qualifications framework. Under this framework there will be five levels of university qualifications from 2003: higher education certificates; ordinary degrees; honours degrees and graduate certificates and diplomas; masters degrees and postgraduate certificates and diplomas; and doctoral degrees.

  • John Hubisz reports on a study of middle school physical science texts in the May issue of The Physics Teacher. The study, supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, aimed to determine whether there might be a link between the quality of textbooks used in middle school (grades 6, 7, and 8) and the students' poor performance on TIMSS tests. A previous study had looked at high school physics texts (see Phys. Teach. 37, 283-308, 1999).

    The reviewers found a very large number of errors, many irrelevant photographs, complicated illustrations, experiments that could not possibly work, and diagrams and drawings that represent impossible situations. They noted that a lot of the material had little to do with science. Unlike college-level textbooks, and some high school texts, middle school textbooks are seldom written by a single author or even a team of authors. Rather, they are produced by committees, and it is very difficult to find anyone with the authority to make corrections. While none of the books reached a level that could be called "scientifically accurate," the reviewers noted that most of the books were beautifully done with plenty of color diagrams and photographs. Hubisz , who is president of AAPT, feels that physics teachers have to become more active in schools. If good materials are going to be used, they must be brought to the attention of teachers and administrators. The full report can be downloaded at http://psrc-online.org/curriculum/book.html

  • There has never been a better time for physicists to set up their own firms, according to the April 2001 issue of Physics World, devoted to physicists in business. The opportunities in lasers and optics are enormous, and so-called photonic band-gap materials could be the next big thing. Without a doubt, the biggest spinoff from physics has been the World Wide Web, which was developed at CERN. Nanotechnology is beginning to develop. The special issue includes advice for would-be entrepreneurs. Rule number one: recruit experienced managers who can help you to grow the business. Founding entrepreneurs often become chief technical officers, leaving the day-to-day running of the firm to specialists, even if it means sharing the business. It?s better to own 10% of a large company than 100% of a small one is one person's advice.

  • India's physics community is spearheading a campaign to prevent the introduction of astrology into the country's universities, according to a story in the July issue of Physics World. Astronomers and physicists have been joined by other scientists in asking the Indian University Grants Commission to reconsider its decision taken earlier this year to introduce optional science courses in "Vedic astrology." So far their objections have had little effect. The Grants Commission has invited universities to set up departments of Vedic astrology that would offer bachelors, masters, and doctoral study programs, and has offered grants to set up an observatory, a library, and a "horoscope bank." Each department can also recruit a professor, a reader, and two lecturers of astrology. "It would be okay to introduce astrology as a subject in ancient Indian studies of anthropology or philosophy," according to Ganesan Srinivasan, president of the Astronomical Society of India, but what the Indian scientists are protesting is the projection of astrology as an applied science.

  • "Should I pay attention to the output from physics education R&D?" is the title of a guest comment by Donald Holcomb (based on his talk given at the Centennial Meeting of APS in Atlanta) in the April issue of American Journal of Physics. In Holcomb's view, the most useful result from physics education R&D has come from organized and carefully documented listening to students through interviews and questionnaires. Such interviews tend to show that mathematical derivations in the classroom, use of computer programs in real time in the laboratory, and asynchronization of classroom and lab work are typically ineffective. In assessing the usefulness of a particular project in physics education R&D, a good question to ask is whether the researchers have selected an important question to study. The author urges nonpractitioners of physics education research to beware of the often unrecognized barrier to productive change: "I learned physics in a certain way, so I'll teach it the way I learned it. If today's students work hard, they can learn it in the same way I did!"

  • Noting a shift away from the study of physics in schools, the Scottish branch of the Institute of Physics has taken steps to strengthen physics teaching in Scotland, according to a note in the July issue of Physics World. One project is producing a video and possibly a CD-ROM or Web-based materials aimed at pupils aged 13-14 before they choose their subjects for Standard Grade. Physics education is generally healthy because all physics teachers hold a physics qualification. However the profession is aging, and there could soon be a shortage of young physics teachers, the Scottish branch wishes to help prevent.

  • The world's first degree course in science and science fiction at the University of Glamorgan is described by course tutor Mark Brake in the January issue of Physics World. Science fiction exists not just as a rich genre of film and text but also as a living cultural phenomenon that influences the way we see the world, Brake explains. The science fiction element of the course focuses on the relationship between science, culture, and society. The course aims to produce graduates "who not only have a dynamic and pluralistic understanding of the nature and evolution of science but can also critically develop and communicate ideas about science and its cultural context."

  • A laboratory-based nonlinear dynamics course with an interdisciplinary content for science and engineering students is described in the May issue of American Journal of Physics. The course, taught jointly by the physics and mathematics departments at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, includes 7 weeks of prescribed experiments plus a 3-week project. The prerequisite is one year of calculus plus a junior-level course in the student's major.

  • Currently, 28 percent of our nation's high school students take at least one course in physics, Frederick Stein, APS director of education and outreach, reminds us in a guest editorial "Modeling Effective Teacher Preparation" in the May issue of Journal of College Science Teaching. Although this is a significant improvement over the last decade, many courses do not develop good conceptual understanding. The ongoing and overwhelming need for inservice teacher enhancement programs in physics points to the failure of programs in our colleges and universities to prepare students adequately for teaching. PhysTEC, the Physics Teacher Preparation Coalition, was set up as a partnership of APS, AAPT, and AID to augment the role of physics departments to better prepare future teachers. PhysTEC inverts the strategy of university-based projects involving all science departments to that of a nationally recognized coalition with a single discipline aimed at a large number of colleges and universities linked through professional societies.

  • For centuries telling stories has been a valuable way of imparting a message, and it is possible to communicate physics through story, an article in the January issue of Physics Education reminds us. This approach may be more useful for children who are concrete thinkers than formal methods of teaching physics. Back in the 1940s, George Gamow created the mild-mannered bank clerk Mr. Tompkins to tell stories about relativity, quantum physics, and a variety of physical phenomena.