Physics Teaching in Gateway Classes: A Global Perspective

Surajit Sen, State University of New York at Buffalo

This Forum on International Physics (FIP) invited session was on Wednesday, March 7, 8-11am, at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The session focused on challenges associated with teaching freshmen and sophomores as they go through the gateway courses in physics. Being at a FIP session, there was particular emphasis on the challenges faced in the US institutions, and in those outside the US. The session was slated to have 5 invited speakers. However, Professor S. Minhaz Hossain of the Department of Physics, Indian Institute of Engineering, Science and Technology was unable to come due to visa related delays. The 4 talks that were presented considered a broad array of issues that we face locally and globally in teaching gateway physics courses.

The first lecture was presented by Professor David J. Helfand of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Columbia University and a past president of the American Astronomical Society. Professor Helfand has made significant contributions to developing effective and engaging methods in undergraduate education at Columbia and as a professor, vice chancellor and President of Quest University in Canada. His talk, contextualized via “Deriving Kepler’s Laws as Kepler Did—From (simulated) Noisy Data” brought up the issue of how limited learning in a traditional classroom can typically be and what may be the ways in which students can learn through active engagement, collaboration, field experience and practice, a style he was deeply involved in realizing while at Quest (see D. J. Helfand, “Mucking about in the mess: research-based education at Quest University Canada,” Council on Undergraduate Education, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp 28-34 (Spring, 2016)).

Dr. Daniel Siegel is the executive director of the Mindsight Institute and a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Medical School. His training is in pediatrics and in child, adolescent and adult psychiatry. An expert on mindfulness, Dr. Siegel is a celebrated author and psychiatrist. His writings include three New York Times bestsellers, “Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain,” and with Tina Payne Bryson, “The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Brain” and “No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind.” His lecture touched upon the essence of adolescence as one with the emotional spark, different abilities than adults for social engagement, a phase when one is novelty seeking and also with tremendous ability for creative exploration. Dr. Siegel’s talk was all the more relevant because adolescence is a phase most beginning college students are in when they find themselves in the physics classrooms. His talk emphasized how important it is to be able to supercharge the creativity and ingenuity of the adolescent brain and how readily one can temper this energy. His words shed light on the importance of being creative and engaging in teaching these young students. This lecture was followed by a lively discussion on mindfulness, creative energy and consciousness. Dr. Siegel reminded the audience that humans may not have survived all these years if it were not for the creative energy of the adolescent brain!

Professor Jason Hafner of Rice University gave a detailed overview of his experiences in teaching gateway level physics to a global audience as a massive open online course (MOOC) offered on the well-known edX ( platform. In addition, he also taught the class as a regular lecture course at Rice University. His talk was titled, “International student experiences in Introductory Physics MOOCs.” He used a physics textbook from the site which has been pioneered at Rice University. The homework was done online. While the Rice course was a regular course like in most universities, the MOOC was not in real-time and was continuously used on the edX platform even after the course was completed at Rice. The online site had some 180,000 sign ups worldwide from almost all the countries of the world, though the majority were from the US, India, Canada and the UK. Of these, some 3,300 students completed his online course and some 1400 responded to his surveys. The majority of the students indicated that they took the MOOC for fun! A great many also indicated that they benefited from the online lectures even though they were pre-recorded. Many students felt it would have been desirable to have had interactive lectures. According to Professor Hafner’s surveys, a great many students continued with their intended curriculum after having completed the introductory MOOC. The surveys indicated that the student body appreciated the free resources that were made available as part of the MOOC. The students indicated a desire to see more difficult problems, more practical problems and also problems with video solutions. They also expressed a desire for a schedule for completion of the course. Professor Hafner concluded that it may be beneficial for student learning if the teachers incorporated its contents as a resource into their courses.

The final presentation was done by Professor Mulugeta Bekele from Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia who focused on the past and current challenges of teaching physics to Ethiopian students. The talk ended with a broader discussion on the state of physics education in Ethiopia and in much of the African continent. The issue of focusing on physics in Africa as a topic of regular consideration in the March Meeting was suggested during the broader discussion.

The discussions in Professor Bekele’s talk centered on how Ethiopia has seen its share of political change through the twentieth century. After some 1700 years of traditional elitist education under the influence of the orthodox church, secular higher education took its roots in Ethiopia in the 1950s (see for example, A. Bishaw and S. Melesse, “Historical analysis of the challenges and opportunities of higher education in Ethiopia,” Higher Education for the Future, Vol. 4, Issue 1, pp 31-43 (2017)). The several colleges and universities in existence in Ethiopia were mostly organized under the Haile Selassie I University in 1961. However, the enrollments remained very low (e.g., enrollment in institutions of higher education were some 4500 in 1970 out of a population of 34 million, among the lowest in the world). The socialist military coup of 1974 led to the rise of the Derge regime and the name change of Haile Selassie I University to what is now known as the Addis Ababa University. This was a tumultuous time in Ethiopia’s modern history. In spite of it all, the higher education system expanded, graduate programs were developed and the number of women in higher education increased from around 10% in 1986 to some 16% by 2000. Ethiopia has tried to increase the number of teachers by arranging to train them in the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the University of Delhi and other institutions in India. Regardless problems remain with low enrollments and brain drain to developed nations. In all, it has been a challenging journey for Ethiopian science to the twenty first century and a great deal needs to be urgently done for Ethiopian science and physics to be robust enough to serve the nation’s needs.

This FIP session hence turned out to be rather unique. Professor Helfand’s talk touched upon how to effectively engage and educate the typical adolescent student in gateway physics courses in a way that they can associate with what they are learning and discover it for themselves. Dr. Siegel’s talk gave a peek into the workings of the adolescent brain and how important it is to connect with the creative energy at this period of the student’s lives. Professor Hafner’s lecture brought up the intriguing possibilities associated with offering physics courses on a global scale whether it is for credit or as a learning resource to enhance the material that the student needs to take as a part of some curriculum. And finally, Professor Bekele’s lecture took the audience to the realities and challenges of physics and science education when nations face poverty and large scale and rapid socio-political change. We came off humbled by the challenges of teaching gateway classes. We became more aware of the difficult situations students face in learning physics in many parts of the world. In closing we hope that this session’s discussions on being aware of the student’s preparedness and maturity, our individual ability to communicate, and almost everyone’s ability to use the internet can make physics education accessible to all.

Surajit Sen image

Surajit Sen