FEd Summer 2001 Newsletter - Chair

Summer 2001



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A Message from the Chair

Jack M. Wilson

Physics forms the foundation for modern society. It has made possible the world's largest industry, Information Technology and it created the tools, techniques, and concepts that have made biotechnology an exciting intellectual adventure. So why do I feel like society undervalues physics? Is it because the funding level for the physical sciences has gone from parity with the life sciences in 1970 to about a third of that today? Is it because I think the best and brightest students today elect computer science or the life sciences instead of physics as my generation did? Is it because several writers have decreed "the end of physics?"

I am not alone in having these thoughts. In this past year the National Research Council finished the most recent decadal survey of physics, led by the committee chair Thomas Appelquist of Yale. (Physics in a New Era: An Overview; Physics Survey Overview Committee, Board on Physics and Astronomy, National Research Council; 208 pages, 7 x 10, 2001. http://www.nap.edu/catalog/10118.html ). I was a participant on this study. These questions were often discussed during the multi-year process of studying physics and making recommendations for the investment of resources in both physics research and education.

It is a vexing issue. As we examined various fields in turn, we were all excited by the tremendous progress, the promising prospects, and the intellectual excitement. We wanted to prioritize but that proved very hard to do. The opportunities are so enormous, and it was very difficult to compare opportunities in unlike fields. Rather than a strict prioritization, the committee endeavored to identify some of the very exciting prospects.

For the first time, education was a large part of the discussion in the committee. In the beginning, there were hopes for a separate NRC volume on Physics Education, but after two turndowns from NSF, it did not materialize. There was the usual jockeying between the research side of the house (MPS) and the education side (EHR) in which each wanted the other to take a bigger part. There were additional concerns raised over how this study might fit with the many other activities sponsored by AAPT, APS, and AIP. In the end we had to reconcile ourselves to having coverage in the main volume. The committee was broadly constituted with only one person (your Chair) primarily identified with physics education, but with several others who had strong secondary interests there.

The report ranged across the levels of physics education from K-12 through the graduate level. As the committee began its work, a fairly large group of physics educators was convened by Leon Lederman to discuss the issues. In such groups there is always a lot of support for addressing "the K-12 problem." Sometimes I worry that large groups of (primarily) higher education faculty discussing the "K-12 problem" sound a bit like passing the buck. Given the composition of the group, it was both surprising and pleasing that they also focused very strongly on undergraduate reform efforts and made that the leading, but not sole, priority for the committee. Once the committee was constituted, and then re-constituted after the unfortunate death of the first chair, David Schramm, this issue was debated once again. Among some in the research community, there was a feeling that undergraduate physics was in pretty good shape and that we should instead focus on K-12. This gave us the opportunity to present the work of Hestenes, Halloun, McDermott, Hake, Redish, Mazur, Thornton, Laws, and others. We also identified (with the help of Edward F. "Joe" Redish) a number of promising approaches to undergraduate physics education. Many of these issues were not familiar to the other committee members. In the end, the report does put a lot of weight behind the undergraduate reform efforts. Of course the committee process and the NRC review procedures do "reduce the amplitude" of coverage of any issue, and I think that is especially true of the educational issues. Still the report does give strong encouragement to reform at undergraduate and at the K-12 level.

At the advanced undergraduate level, the report provides the usual strong support for undergraduate research involvement and for connecting physics to the changes in the world.

Nearly every educated American has heard of Moore's Law and knows that it means that computing power doubles in approximately 18 months, but how many know that Moore's Law is a direct result of the physics of creating small structures on silicon? Another doubling law suggests that the bandwidth deployed is doubling in even shorter time periods (sometimes called Gilder's Law). Without the advances in the physics of lasers, optics, detection, and amplification, this could not be happening. As an aside: the first criticisms leveled at the report complain that condensed matter is painted too much as the "handmaiden to technology." The physics community has a hard time taking credit for their own contributions to society!

At the graduate level, the committee struggled with the issues of doctoral supply and demand and with the creation of professional masters degrees. There was also an acknowledgment that PhD's career paths were changing, and that graduate programs need to change to respond to this.

The committee celebrated the "steady increase of the number of women involved in physics at all levels," while lamenting that physics continues to lag chemistry and mathematics in the number of women obtaining PhD's.

For those in APS and AAPT who wrestle with these issues on a day-to-day basis, there will be nothing new or shocking in the NRC report. Many will likely wonder why the committee was not bolder! For those of us who live our daily lives in the research universities, the NRC report can be seen as a welcome gesture of support from our colleagues who do not make their living as physics educators. I think the report does provide both the encouragement toward, and some pointers to, productive directions for physics departments.

I leave the report to you as a reading assignment due for the next newsletter. You will find the research sections to be accessible reading that provides a guide to much of the exciting present and future activity in physics.

In the next newsletter, I will try to take this discussion to the next level. Where will physics education need to go in the next decade? How does physics education fit with the rapidly changing world of higher education? Should the physics societies accredit physics departments the way that Engineering, Chemistry, Business and others accredit their own? Does physics have a role in eLearning or on-line education, or is that the purview of the schools of management and computer science?

See you next newsletter.

Jack Wilson is Chair of the Forum on Education. He is the founding Chief Executive Officer of UMassOnline, the University of Massachusetts Virtual University. Prior to this he was the J. Erik Jonsson '22 Distinguished Professor of Physics, Engineering Science, Information Technology, and Management and was the Co-director of the Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship at Rensselaer. At RPI Dr. Wilson led a campus wide process of interactive learning and restructuring of the educational program.