Physics Education, in a Bit More than a Minute

MinutePhysics, an extremely popular YouTube channel that explains physics topics (though typically in a bit more than a minute), posted an “open letter to President Obama” about reforming high school physics.  Here’s the video, and my thoughts are below.

I actually have conflicting feelings about this. First, I would point out we do cover some of that, but not in physics. In my district, the Big Bang and astronomy were covered in an “integrated science” class on Earth and space science and some basic physics. And for some weird historical reason, we’ve decided that atomic structure is a chemistry topic until you get to college (I calculated the energy of nuclear mass defects in my first high school chemistry class, and that is straight-up E=mc^2) while high school physics is just elementary mechanics and E&M, probably out of some combination of bureaucratic inertia and a view of what was considered “practical” when these curricula were standardized. 

I honestly think the way we teach physics and chemistry in high school now prevents us from adequately covering modern physics. Quantum mechanics doesn’t really have any conceptual overlap with mechanics at this basic level and so it’s hard to integrate into the physics curriculum. This is also the view of some of advocates of a so called “Physics First” curriculum; the standard curricular divisions of high school biology, chemistry, and physics don’t really make sense given the way modern science works. One group advocated just really trying to integrate all three subjects and just have a three-year science sequence that isn’t separated as much by field. That would help remove any potential turf war between what parts of atoms are physics or chemistry and what biochemistry is biology or chemistry.

As an aside, relativity actually seems like it would be doable in high school. Or at least the only bit we cover in undergrad physics.  The Lorentz transformation is just algebra, and honestly that’s enough to help you understand a lot of its relevance to life (GPS correction, length contraction, etc). If I could propose one dramatic change to how we approach high school physics, I would honestly be okay with less emphasis on modern physics and more on just the general idea of energy. Physics (and really all of nature) is about minimizing energy.

Should Science Majors Cost Less?

The Atlantic has just published an interesting article: should public universities charge less for majors the state considers to be economically important?  The idea is a proposal from a Florida higher education task force.  The article brings up some immediate problems that come to mind, namely that it can be hard to predict specific majors that will be important over long periods of time and that this system and that students aren’t equally good at all majors.

I can also think of some other problems.  First, science and engineering majors actually require big capital investments from colleges.  They require lots of equipment and materials for labs.  Lowering the “cost” of these majors to students puts more of the cost needed for education on the university.  I could also see this system becoming gamed by smaller schools.  The actual proposal doesn’t just refer to STEM majors, it’s about any major the state considers important to its industries.  According to the Atlantic article, the Florida government has already designated the STEM disciplines, some education specialties, health fields, emergency and security services, and “globalization” as “strategic areas of emphasis”.  It’s not stated, but I would assume the state would help schools make up the difference between normal tuition and the price for discounted majors.  But what’s to stop a school from choosing to focus on say education and foreign affairs to get extra money from the state, and have a bare-bones science program so the extra money can go to other expenses?  Or who’s to say a school won’t try to encourage as many kids as possible from joining full or extra price majors to get more money, especially if an influx of STEM students on discounted tuition were to severely affect finances for labs?

On a less practical note, I would also worry this might homogenize the schools.  There’s a lot to learn from meeting people of different majors in college, or just meeting people who are really passionate about their field.  If a lot of friends are just majoring in mechanical engineering because “it’s cheap”, I wonder how effective they would be.  And what ideas they might never have if they never run into a philosophy or music major.

A “scientist” by any other name

I’ve just started reading “The Essential Engineer“, a somewhat belated college graduation gift I bought for myself as I switch from being a “science” student as undergrad to an “engineering” student in grad school.  And just the preface has already made me start screaming yes (in my head).  Evidently one of the points the author, Henry Petroski, hopes to drive home is the difference between science and engineering.  And this strikes me as something fairly important, especially because you see it pop up ALL. THE. TIME.  Petroski writes about a story in The New York Times about the arrest of a worker at Los Alamos National Lab that switches between calling the accused a “scientist” and an “engineer”.  Or the near-universal American description of aerospace engineering as “rocket science”.  It’s also interesting, because it seems like a kind of weird conflation, given that engineering has only become heavily dependent on science in the last century.  To me, it seems kind of like calling the person who operates on you and the person who manages your medication both “doctors”, though maybe this example falls flat because people do tend to run into surgeons and pharmacists a lot.

One could claim that this is nitpicking, and to be fair, it kind of is.  But I feel like conflating two entire general professions might actually harm them.  For example, my undergrad institution’s student newspaper recently published an editorial about the career fair being too “science-focused”, but then went on to only talk about how most companies wanted engineers.  That’s certainly a legitimate complaint, but it ignores the fact that my undergrad university had very few companies recruit students in non-engineering science majors (which would be considered the ACTUAL science majors).  For some reason a lot of advisors viewed the science majors as not being in the “liberal arts” either, and while I could understand not viewing something like biology as being equivalent to art history, that doesn’t really fit the traditional view of liberal arts in my mind.  It also put science majors in this weird Twilight Zone between “practical” engineering and “useless” liberal arts fields.  Or there’s the fact that a lot of “STEM reform” seems really engineering-focused.  To use my own life as an example, I didn’t really know what engineering was until college when I was exposed to it.  I kept thinking I would do physics even though I knew I didn’t want to do theoretical physics.

Of course, there’s also some rationale for the science/engineering confusion.  If you’re in physics or chemistry and aren’t involved in fundamental theory, the distinction between science and engineering can be kind of blurred.  (Aside: ecology and the various disciplines of the Earth and space sciences don’t have this problem as much)  The research project I worked on at Rice on polymer membranes could very easily have fallen into a chemical engineering or materials science department, but I worked for a chemist.  Honestly, the main reason it might not have been engineering was how far away the research was from practical application at this stage.  But my roommate in Virginia is a biomedical engineer, and his work is a very basic science project that is also years away from practical application.  If you’re in industry, I’m not sure if there really is a clear division between, say, a chemist and a chemical engineer.  On the other end, some engineering research in academia can be very fundamental.  At one of my summer jobs in an engineering lab, one of the other students (an applied physics grad student) was working on developing a model to describe why carbon nanotubes bend during growth.  While that would be useful for manufacturing longer nanotubes, to be honest, there was a lot of mechanics he was considering in his model that we don’t understand yet.

The seemingly growing popularity of engineering science programs also blurs the distinction.  And of course, my new field also has a confusing name.  I’m in a “materials science and engineering” department, but you can also find departments labelled only as “materials science” or “materials engineering”.  Purdue has an amusing anecdote that their department is just “materials engineering” because the natural science departments objected to the engineering college using “science”.  But that’s actually one of the reasons I do find the field very attractive.  There is a very strong engineering, “practical” side of it, but also a side focused on understanding the science of how materials work.

So I realize this was kind of a rant, but I hope someone finds this interesting, because I do.

NaBloPoMo 2012

What is that terrible acronym?  Why it’s National Blog Posting Month, the quirky cousin of the relatively more formal (and well-known) National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.  For NaNoWriMo, participants are supposed to write about 5000 words a day for what will hopefully be a novel by the end of the month (or I suppose more accurately, something more like the uncut diamond of a novel, as actual revising and editing don’t need to take place during November).  NaBloPoMo, is not nearly as intense, but still a good idea for someone who struggles with blogging like I do.  Instead of basically churning out a book chapter a day, I just need to have a blog post a day.  Which seems totally reasonable.  At least, as long as I keep getting things to report on (or I suppose I could just rant).  So pleeeeeeease post things in the comments that you think I should look at.

And to have something of actual merit, I offer you this game someone pointed out to me.  No, really.  MIT’s Game Lab has made a first-person… something that shows you relativity.  But instead of flinging you off at warp speed, they have light slow down to approach a speed a human might actually get close to.  And this leads to lots of cool effects.  Unfortunately, I can’t get the game to work on my laptop, so I’ll just have to take people’s word for it.

Where Are You

So I said a while back I would explain where I am.  I don’t even remember when I said that, but I WILL explain why I’m so randomly busy.  I just started graduate school this August.  I’m at the University of Virginia, studying for a Ph.D in materials science and engineering.  Being a new student in a new city, I always find myself caught up in several other things as I adjust and work to establish myself, academically and socially.  But I love it here so far, and I’ve found that UVA has so many great resources that I didn’t even know about when I accepted their offer.  The career center tries really hard to be helpful for grad students.  There’s a Teaching Resource Center that offers advice for both faculty and grad student TAs (and they’ll even help you with lesson plans and critique you!).  And there’s a Science, Technology, and Society Department I hope to stalk will offer something for grad students.

On Forgetting that Politics is Weird in Other Parts of the World Too

So this popped up in my news feed on Facebook.  My first reaction was just “What.”  My second reaction is still on-going.  It’s not like Mr. Gumelar is saying Indonesians should ban science from schools; he’s just saying it doesn’t really fit into an elementary school curriculum.  I’m not sure I entirely understand what he thinks should be taught in elementary school (aren’t children going to learn culture and religion from their parents?), but it’s not the weirdest argument to make.  I think the reason I’m confused is because I’m missing context.  The article claims Gumelar is advocating a return to the model of education during Dutch rule over Indonesia which taught only “basic education”, which is never defined.  I am a bit amused that he is worried over the current education system being too Western-valued, but evidently does want the system imposed during colonialism.  (I know nothing of Dutch treatment of Indonesia or the historiography of it, so maybe it’s not as bad as my go-to idea of imperialism would suggest, but still, this seems surprising).  But I agree with the education observer quoted at the end of the article:  it still seems important to expose children to basic science concepts.

Following Up on Algebra and Science Debate

I apologize for the dearth of blog posts.  I plan on explaining myself over the weekend.  But I wanted to point out some new developments on two of the news pieces I’ve blogged about:  pondering the necessity of algebra and wondering if we need a “science debate”.

NPR’s Diane Rehm show recently hosted Andrew Hacker, the author of the “Is Algebra Necessary?” piece, along with a “program supervisor of mathematics” in Montgomery County (I’ve assumed that means he develops math curricula for his school district?),  a Duke economics and public policy professor, and writer/columnist Judy Bolton-Fasman to the show to debate the merits of teaching algebra in high schools.  Hacker rephrased most of his argument.  Unfortunately, Nolan, the math program supervisor, made what I considered one of the weakest defenses.  He merely said the general idea of math builds critical thinking skills without explaining why.  When Nolan said this, Hacker immediately interrupted him and said there is no data proving that math education makes students better thinkers or more active citizens.  This really irked me, because a) I felt that Hacker was incredibly rude for talking over Nolan during his speaking time and b) Hacker himself admits he has no numbers supporting his claim that math is the “number one academic reason” students drop out of school and based it on personal talks with unspecified teachers.  I also think Nolan should point out that Hacker’s “citizen statistics” class would probably fail.  Hint:  Statistics is really confusing without a background in algebra, unless you think statistics is nothing but averages and raw probability values.

Another aside:  There was a discussion on the Diane Rehm Facebook page post about this, and it was interesting to hear some people claim that algebra defenders were being misleading by characterizing algebra as addition, multiplication, division, etc.  You know what I think?  THIS IS BASICALLY ALGEBRA.  Algebra is (mostly) the application of many arithmetic operations in a way to find unknown variables.  So my argument is that if you think algebra I is “too hard” to teach high schoolers, I’m not sure how competent you think they are in mathematics (and I’m not sure they’ll ever be that competent, since algebra I forces you to repeat a lot of arithmetic and would probably improve your skills).

The Washington Post had another follow-up from someone who defended Hacker’s argument about the unnecessary nature of algebra.  Basically, he rips apart all of contemporary high school education.  And I’m totally okay with that.  Although I think high school should at least partially be a liberal education, I can appreciate the idea that people think otherwise.  I’m more annoyed when people single out science and math classes as unnecessary, and yet never seem to realize the arbitrary reasoning for other subjects. (Do we really need everyone to take four years of English?  Can’t we just do a composition class in a year?  Who needs to learn about civics?  You can just read the news if you want to understand government.)  At least here, the author is being honest and just arguing that if none of this works from a cognitive perspective, we should just throw out the whole system.

For the other piece, Science Debate got responses from both the Romney and Obama campaigns!  Go here for the side-by-side comparison and check out their homepage for links to reactions.

Skeptical About Online STEM Education

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an opinion piece about online learning, which is  skeptical of it.  Not a surprise, considering the CHE is full of people from “brick-and-mortar” institutions.  And like the usual trend of these articles, it comes from a humanities professor.  First, I found myself in half agreement with a lot of the points Dr. Hieronymi makes.  But I’ll also point out that we can do some of those things with online classes.   Online instructors aren’t just Wikipedia articles that talk; most of them do work to help distill information and provide feedback to students.  But even then, there is something to be sad for having face-to-face interaction.  As someone who was a teaching assistant in an introductory programming class, I can say even “technical” skills can transfer more easily in person (sometimes it pays to see someone else do something on a computer right in front of you, instead of shuffling between windows and your program).

But I’m going to present a very different critique of online education, that I never hear anyone mention.  What on Earth happens to lab classes?  I have never heard anyone ever point out that science and engineering students actually do need to show up to some physical space to actually touch real equipment and do something with it.  Unless we’re going to drastically rewrite hazardous materials laws, chemistry majors aren’t about to start stockpiling hydrochloric acid in their houses and I’m not going to get to buy the neutron source I used for all my particle physics at Home Depot.

And we can’t just virtualize all these labs.  As long as science and engineering job requires people to physically manipulate materials and equipment to get appropriate settings and amounts, students will need to get used to dealing with the actual imperfections of stuff.  While it was incredibly cool to get to instantly change settings and watch blocks hit each other to show energy and momentum conversation on the lab software I used for my AP physics distance learning class in high school (or something like it), it was nothing at all like what I actually did in college.  In my freshman physics class in college, my partner and I had to actually calibrate equipment to get meaningful results.  Sometimes this was a painstaking process,  like spending an hour adjusting springs so the masses we were testing wouldn’t fly out of our bucket and change the momentum (and also be a safety hazard).  Other times it meant dealing with actual

The Department of Homeland Security gets suspicious if a kid starts buying too much material with this symbol

uncertainties, like wondering if a dent in a ball would throw off the rolling results.  And while it can be annoying, it’s also important that  STEM students understand the limits of what technology (and physics) will actually allow them to do.  Of course, this doesn’t mean I want to deprive students of technology that could make labs better.  It’s completely fine that we used a digital camera and a computer program to automate calculating the distance of discs on our air hockey table instead of spending 3 hours figuring it out by hand.  And it’s great that computer programs can automate lots of other data collection.  But students also need to be able to adjust equipment as conditions call for it, like adjusting a laser to observe different kind of samples or understanding that some microscopes disturb the material you’re observing.

To me, labs are the hardest thing to convert to distance learning unless we come up with some radically new way to allow students and other people in training access to materials and equipment.  I can see some ways for this to work , but it all seems complicated once you get to specifics.  In the long run, if this system works, it seems like it could probably equalize educational opportunities all over the country (and world), which I’m all for.  But it seems like in the short and medium term, we end up with a weird system as lab equipment stays in traditional places (and this could easily end up hurting regional education).  Let’s say that 30 or so years in the future, I’m living back in Kentucky and have two children.  For ease of pronoun reference, let’s say I have a daughter, Emma, and a son, Alan [note to self:  work on baby names].  My daughter is interested in cosmology.  You can study astrophysics (and that’s what most cosmologists have a degree in) at Kentucky schools, but there’s not many cosmologists on the faculties (to my knowledge), so Emma ends up applying to out-of-state and private schools that have more opportunities in her area of interest.  My son wants to be a pharmacist, and so wanting to save money for a Pharm.D (and maybe woo a pharmacy professor),  wants to stay in-state and go to the University of Kentucky’s brick and mortar program in chemical engineering (let’s assume state schools still exist).  Since Alan is a Kentucky resident, he should hear back fairly quickly from UK if his application is good, and we find out he gets in and he accepts.  Emma hears back later, and though she gets in to several brick and mortar programs, she doesn’t get admitted to MIT’s.  However, MIT does accept her into their online program which in the future can grant full bachelor’s degrees along with additional lab work.  Let’s say Emma decides to accept that to save money for grad school.

Here’s my question:  What does Emma do for all her lab courses in physics and astronomy?  Do we ship her off to Cambridge every year so she can complete two semesters worth of lab in a few weeks?  If so, then clearly MIT shouldn’t plan on razing all their dorms and facilities.  Or maybe MIT makes senior year be on campus, and Emma does nothing but run around doing labs and a senior thesis after finishing classes? Does Emma do the labs online?  I hope not.  Does she do physical labs somewhere in Kentucky, and MIT approves them for credit?  If so, MIT’s online degree is a lot less standardized than the traditional one if students routinely transfer all but a few lab credits from hundreds of other schools.  Does MIT arrange for her to do labs at a Kentucky school?  MIT or my family will probably need to reimburse the school for the lab fees.  What if these schools don’t have the same labs or equipment because they were designed for their own programs, which are structured differently from MIT’s?

You could say this example is incredibly specialized, and that’s true.  But that’s also the point.  In most of the discussions of online education, no one points out there are actual items on the curriculum that need to be done physically, and instead seem to only defend campuses for vague notions of “peer bonding” and “learning outside the classroom”.  While those things are important, I also find it equally reasonable to just point out there are things we do learn in classrooms that we can’t move online.   And this example still works on more common majors.  Looking up requirements  for chemical engineering at the University of Louisville, UIUC, UVA, and Rice University, I saw a few big differences in how their courses and labs are structured (see note below for details).

You could also argue that a university like MIT doesn’t need to give up it’s brick and mortar facilities because it’s so prestigious, people will always go there.  That’s probably also true.  But the flip side of the whole “online education solves the university bubble” solution is the implication that we just let weaker institutions fade out over time.  And this is where it seem like entire states could end up worse off.  The top 50 colleges and universities in the United States are not even close to being evenly spread around the country.  Hell, you can go up to the top 100 and still manage to miss a lot of states.

Map of campus ministries at top 100 US universities (as ranked by by US News). Source:

So what happens to the others, especially in poorer states with lower ranked universities?  Does Kentucky just quit funding physical facilities in it’s public system because none of our state schools ever made it big?  Probably not, since universities and their facilities are known to have a great positive impact on local economies.  And that’s part of the kicker.  Universities are more than just where people get education; they’re where lots of research that is vital to industry happens.  So unless we start separating these functions and until someone lets 20-year-olds buy nuclear materials for physics lab, I’ll still be rooting for the old-fashioned university campus.

Note on the different chemical engineering curriculums:  All the schools are ABET-accredited for the bachelor of science in chemical engineering.  But ABET accreditation covers an entire curriculum and just says we expect at least these minimums.  Schools can still play a lot with how they met those requirements.  UVA seems to make their ChemEs take more chemistry classes and more labs from the chemistry department.  Rice has more on hydraulic equipment, we think because of an older focus on oil.  And now Rice has their ChemEs do a lot of computer modeling.

Title IX is more than just sports

So in theory, I’ve claimed this blog will look at science and society, not just scientific advances.  And now I’ll finally make that true.  While staying at a hotel out of town earlier this week, I read the free newspaper of choice at hotels all over the country:  USA today.  What caught my eye was an op-ed with the headline “Girls don’t need Obama’s help with math”, written by Kirsten Powers, one of Fox News Channel’s liberal commentators.

Powers is responding to a recent effort by the Obama administration to use Title IX to ensure equal opportunities for both male and female students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.  One major part of her argument is “The End of Men” thesis.  While I’m definitely sympathetic to the idea that our education system seems to be failing a large population of boys (and as a male, my concern isn’t entirely unselfish), that doesn’t mean that the way our culture perceives STEM education and fields can’t also harm girls at the same time.

Powers cites several statistics about women earning degrees, but I’m not sure this all translates to women entering STEM careers.  Let’s break it down.

  • “women rule in biology with nearly 60% of all bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorates awarded to women”:  Okay, that actually probably speaks well for biology education (I tend to think gender ratios in the 60:40 ballpark are pretty reasonable).  But what becomes of all these women trained in biology?  Lots of biology undergrads end up going into medicine, which isn’t bad, but also is not as male-dominated a profession as science and engineering.  Biology doctorates are likely to become professors (look at Table 3).  If they’re becoming professors, though, academia isn’t known for being the most hospitable field for women.  For example, one study has suggested women win fewer science awards than would be expected based on how many doctorates they hold.  And the tenure track is notorious for making it hard to start a family.
  • “40% of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the physical sciences and math go to women”  This statistic actually is higher than I would have expected.  But again, what do these students do after school?  I don’t have official numbers for the trends, but I remember lots of my friends from college.  Of the five girls in my physics class, one decided to go into consulting and the other went to med school.  Out of the eight guys, only one of us wasn’t planning on doing technical work or going to graduate school in physics or engineering.  Of the four female chemistry majors I knew, two of them were pre-meds and one decided to become a teacher.
  • “72 % of [psychology] degrees go to women” Okay, there’s probably something pulling men away from studying psych, but that’s not equivalent to overcoming older prejudices that push women away from science and engineering.  Also, having known lots of psych majors of both genders in college, I would be willing to hazard a guess that male psych students don’t feel pressure due to their gender.
  • Just throwing out “bachelor’s degree” without description can be kind of misleading.  At some schools, students in science and engineering majors can choose between a Bachelor of Science (BS) and a Bachelor of Arts (BA).  If a school makes that distinction, one of these degrees will involve more technical coursework and lab work than the other.  (Typically a BS will be the technical one, but my understanding is that can vary)  People who get the less technical degree may be preparing more for medicine, law, or other careers besides science/engineering.
  • It also seems like something must be going on for women to represent only 18% of engineering and computer science bachelor’s degrees given the above stats.  Engineering, the E in STEM, isn’t something completely unrelated to math or science.  It’s applying science with design thinking to solve problems.  For women to represent such a large portion of pure science students while having a much smaller presence in the application of these sciences would seem to suggest that something more than academics is at play.

What does it all mean?  I’m not entirely sure.  I don’t think many US colleges are blocking women from studying STEM fields, and so in some sense, I probably agree with the central idea of Powers’ argument.  It seems to be a bigger cultural problem.  Does that require government intervention at the college level?  Maybe not.  But considering some of the uncertainty in how women transition from being STEM students to being STEM professionals, I’m not sure I’m ready to discount the idea of this program.  I would also say it seems naive to think we can have such a culture and not expect it to affect the behavior of some individual officials at the college level, such as an older professor who may discourage women from declaring a major in his department.  As we hear more stories of brogramming or just outright sexism in the tech industry, maybe it’s worth checking to see if that comes from the universities producing these workers.