Getting Rid Of Students July 3, 2006Posted by gordonwatts in university.
This book documents the tragic exit of great talents from the natural sciences that results when overdriven undergraduates lose sight of the fun and sense of wonder that are at the heart of the most successful scientific careers.
Both groups of students voiced serious criticism of the deliberately competitive, grade on a curve, “overwhelm them and weed them out” approach that is widely used in teaching freshman and sophomore courses in SME-track curricula, particularly calculus, physics and organic chemistry.
And then in today’s New York Times there was an editorial with a similar theme:
The United States could easily fall from its privileged perch in the global economy unless it does something about the horrendous state of science education at both the public school and university levels. That means finding ways to enliven a dry and dispiriting style of science instruction that leads as many as half of the country’s aspiring scientists to quit the field before they leave college.
Me? Guilty!! For the past 6 years I’ve taught various versions of the introductory physics survey course. It covers 100’s years of physics in one year. We rarely spend more than a lecture on a single topic; there is little time for fun. And if we want to make room for something like that we usually have to squeeze out some other topic. Whoosh!
It gets worse. At the UW we are lucky enough to have a large contingent of students from excellent high schools. This means they have seen almost all of the material previously! Snore!
I have been lucky enough to teach the honors course for the past two years. They really know the material – so we get to do some advanced topics like Special Relativity (the year 1905!), but, really, we are just tinkering at the edges. A number of my students wondered why we had to start with this old stuff (implication: boooring!), and why not start with quantum mechanics. Or perhaps something about nano-tubes, or particle physics that is currently at the cutting edge. Well, yeah, that would be cool. But…
Even with the current system there are a number of problems. For example, many of the students who have had a decent high school course can’t solve a multi-step problem. Or it turns out their understanding of the physics concepts extends no further than the formula they have learned. And there is the old Professor’s mantra: You have to learn to walk before you run, sonny! Finally, there are a finite number of professors to teach these courses. The ideal situation would be to have enough courses to tailor the material to the student’s ability. But we need more professors in the department to do that (Hint! Hint!). Finally, many of our students come to us from other departments – their major requirements include our physics courses. If we are to radically change our curricula we have to mesh with all those other departments.
Enough complaints! It is probably very difficult to change the material we teach, but how about making what we do teach more interesting? After all, all physics from 100 years ago or more can’t be boring, right? Well, right. It takes energy and time, however. At UW we have a one-hour-per week tutorial that is based on the annoying-to-many-students Socratic method (however, it has been shown to improve comprehension). At the very least it is engaging: the students don’t sit and listen to me talk for an hour. Second, we have a 3 hour lab component to the course. You could imagine all sorts of exciting and cool things you could do. Sadly, we don’t (indeed, our lab receives the proportion number of student complains for the overall course). We are doing our best to improve it, but I think it really has to be knocked off the rails and re-imagined from scratch. Finally, there are many new lecture techniques – interactive techniques – that are slowly adopting to try to improve the lectures themselves. So, here at UW, there is plenty we can continue to work on to improve the course and the student experience.
But, let’s return, for a second, to the material covered. In next year’s honors course we are going to try an experiment, departing from a standard book and try Thomas Moore’s Six Ideas That Shape Physics series. This is a radical departure from the standard chronological order of teaching (1-dimensional motion, Newton’s law, energy, etc.) to something arranged around some basic conservation principles – which is more akin to how we learn how to think about physics in the upper division courses. We can do this experiment in the honors class because it is small (~100 people as compared to about ~1000 in the rest). Hey, if it is a success we’ll figure out how to address all those other problems and hopefully physics will become more interesting for the student.
But it will always still be hard work. This is school, afterall…