My Issues With Physics Education

A bunch of rocks | XKCD.comA few days ago I was chugging through the huge list of subscriptions I have on google reader, and I came across this post at ZapperZ’s Physics and Physicists: “What Is Worse Than A “Lost Soul”? An Ignorant Lost Soul!”. I enjoy reading his opinion posts and generally agree with most of what he writes (and this post is not an exception to that trend). ZapperZ writes a rebuttal to an opinion column in an independent university online newspaper. The author of this column argues that the Humanities need more attention as an academic subject, however, the point is argued in a way that attempts to diminish the importance of Science education in a generally spiteful manner.

Today it seems like the emphasis put on math and science in our country has made students satisfied with learning by sitting in lecture and simply regurgitating facts on multiple-choice Scantrons in a mindless Dark Age of their own. [...] Sure, they can dazzle with Darwin’s theory and calculate quantum physics, but in the area of critical thinking, they seem to be lacking. [...] all we can really do as [humanities] students is hope for something better for ourselves as critical thinkers. We need to defend our education as worthwhile and pursue the humanities because we like to do what we like and leave the rest to do the math. In the end, the humanities capture what the rest cannot, and that is, what it means to be human in this chaotic world.

This encompasses two sentiments that I’ve already blogged about in “Creativity in Physics”, and “It’s not just about access, it’s about accessibility”; overlooking the creative aspects of science, and failing to realize that the scientific curiosity which inspires us to study this “chaotic world” has as much to do with “being human” as the curiosity that inspires one to pursue any other discipline. I’m not going to try to tell you why this author’s opinions are poorly motivated, ZapperZ does that well enough. I would, instead, like to ask you to look beyond the surface matter of these opinions and think about what is motivating this author’s spite and distaste for science. Presumably the only prominent experience he has had with science is through the education system. Presumably these opinions are formulated from his experiences of the science classes he has attended in high-school. I can’t help but feel that his article illustrates more than just spite for science; it illustrates a failure of the scientific education system.

Over at Backreaction, Bee has frequenly expressed the need for a scientific revolution in many aspects of society, and I would like to add to that by saying that one of the most important revolutions that has yet to take place is in education. (Physics education is what I know best, so that’s what I’ll talk about, however, it’s entirely likely that one can draw many parallels to other fields of education.) For a while now, as a student, I’ve been developing a growing suspicion that we suck at the basics. The more of my peers I talk to, the more I get the feeling that institutions just simply have no idea how to properly teach physics. I think this is largely due to lack of proper scientific research in education. Ironically, the very thing we are attempting to teach subsequent generations – namely proper application of the scientific method – is the very thing we are not applying to try to understand how best to carry that out!

When I think back to high-school, I remember the vast majority of my friends developed a loathing for physics class, and hence, physics itself. Why? Well, I think it really all comes down to lack of context. Learning is an active process; no teacher can force large amounts of information into a student’s mind. It is the student who ultimately decides what information is going to stick. Without motivating the student, without provoking thought and curiosity to learn the topic, little will actually be learned. From what I gather, the physics curriculum in high-schools seems to exhibit a very industrial approach to learning. It’s as if we are trying to program students minds like a computer. Surely you know as well as I know that students’ minds are not computers, but the curriculum doesn’t seem to reflect this truth. The students are first taught the mathematical background needed to understand physics, then they are presented with physical laws, usually in the form of easily memorizable equations, then they do some example questions which tend to be extraordinarily detached from “real life”. By this time, most students become frustrated and/or apathetic and wonder: “why the hell am I learning this?”. If the students are lucky (like I was) they will have a physics teacher who provides “interesting problems” perhaps relating to “real life” situations that provoke curiosity and creativity.

… if your teacher was so good, why did your friends get so frustrated with physics, you ask?

A valid question. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for me, I was not an “A” student. I had average grades good enough to get by, so I felt safe enough to be able to skip some of the regular homework problems in favor of the more “interesting”, ungraded problems that fell outside the regular curriculum1. I also, luckily enough, happened to pick up a popular physics book which gave me added context and made me curious about things like relativity, curving spacetime and black holes. I reassured myself that all of these things I was learning like “vectors”, “forces” and “energy” would get me closer to understanding black holes. But as for the other students, who had no intention of becoming physicists2, they were given no motivation (even from a curiosity perspective) for learning these concepts. To minimize the pain of enduring this kind of systematic force-feeding of knowledge, students begin to make their own associations; they associate specific problems with specific equations and mindlessly chug through to get a number at the end (hopefully not forgetting the units in the process).

This kind of curriculum does not facilitate the learning of creative and critical thinking that are characteristic of “real life” science3. It is, therefore, no surprise to me that many people do not associate these things with science. People, of no fault of their own, fail to realize that science is not a collection of facts, science does study the new and unexplained, and science is not a belief system; it is more like a “doubt system”.

Fortunately, people are starting to realize that the education system is not all it’s cracked up to be. I saw the first glimmer of hope (and got the courage to develop the opinions I’m presenting) after attending a lecture given at McGill by Eric Mazur of Harvard University, who is probably best known for his research in education. His findings are probably best summed up in this New York Times article. Here’s an excerpt:

From what I’ve seen, students in science classrooms throughout the country depend on the rote memorization of facts. I want to change this. The students who score high do so because they’ve learned how to regurgitate information on tests. On the whole, they haven’t understood the basic concepts behind the facts, which means they can’t apply them in the laboratory. Or in life.

Just today I read a post on sciencegeekgirl (a recent blog find for me… I’m enjoying the read) describing a lecture given by a fellow named Dan Schwartz (she has another post about his work here). Apparently he is also an education researcher and his findings point in favor of allowing students to play around with ideas and problems first, and then teaching them the material required to better understand the solutions.

[...] We train people to become expert at routine tasks, but what we need to emphasize instead is innovative experiences. Let go of what you’re told, and try something new. For one, when students innovate a solution first, then they have a context for what they’re learning. When given the solution first, they don’t have a context for it. [...]

A sense of play seems to have a strong link to creativity and learning. Running with that theme is ZapperZ who has been writing wonderful posts about how to revamp introductory physics laboratory courses (Here’s his most recent installment). He explains why intro physics labs are important for developing conceptual skills (like critical thinking) that can be carried well beyond a physics setting, why he thinks the current lab experiments are inadequate, and he also comes up with interesting ideas for experiments that engage student curiosity and creativity, like this one from his third installment:

Construct a pendulum clock. To make this clock useful, it would be helpful if the pendulum can swing back and forth once as close to 1 second as possible. Then each complete oscillation will take just one second. That way, this clock [can] measure time in increments of one second. You may use a stop watch to calibrate your pendulum to verify that it makes a one-second swing. Try to build this as accurately as possible. You must describe in detail in your lab report how you accomplish this task and why you chose to do it this way.

In addition to all of these points I’d like to mention that despite the fact that current physics curricula seem to be set up to mostly benefit future physicists and engineers4, most students forced to take high-school physics won’t even go on to pursue careers in science and technology. Most will, however, go on to become active citizens in a democratic society. With problems like global warming growing in urgency, and as technology becomes more and more integrated into society, widespread scientific literacy will (and has already) become overwhelmingly important for well informed political and social decisions! (And yet, studies in the U.S. show that only 55% of people tested know that the Earth requires one year to complete an orbit around the Sun. Good grief!)

…but that’s just the way I see it. What do you think? I’d love to hear your experiences with the education system regardless of your specialization (or the age of this post)!

1. Unfortunately, as I discovered after graduating from high-school, and after the high-school obtained a new principal, my teacher had been restricted to teaching math on the grounds that he wasn’t sticking to the approved physics curriculum! 2. Actually I had no idea what “physicists” did and why they were different from engineers until the first year of my B.Sc. began. I just knew I wanted to understand the strange things about the world I heard about in books… 3. I actually wasn’t formally introduced to the scientific method until I happened to take a complementary course in psychology… and that’s where I learned it! 4. I actually don’t think the current education system, even above high-school level actually benefits future scientists and engineers much. I think creative, knowledgeable and competent researchers are produced at most educational institutions in spite of, rather than because of the education system.