|Conference of Physics Teachers Promotes Computation-Based Instruction
August 12, 2007
Contact: Bill Giduz
There’s a great deal of concern about the dwindling number of American college students pursuing careers in science.
Many educators trace the problem to outdated pedagogy, and promote computer-based “inquiry based learning” as a better means of engaging students. A recent gathering of sixty physics educators at Davidson highlighted the challenge, and the lead role of Davidson professors in the reform effort in their discipline.
In an invited talk, Robert Swendsen of Carnegie-Mellon University acknowledged that the conference was overwhelmingly a gathering of converts. “No one in this room needs motivation to change the curriculum, but people outside do!” he said.
|Mario Belloni confers with a colleague at the AAPT gathering.|
Swendsen avowed, however, that many teachers still think of physics from the 1920s as “modern physics.” “We’re still preparing students to solve old physics problems, and we have to change,” he said. “Computation will be the basis of scientific progress in the 21st century.”
Toufic Hakim, the executive officer of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), which cosponsored the Davidson meeting on “Computational Physics for Upper Level Courses” with the National Science Foundation, said professors who don’t employ computational instruction in courses are not just short-changing their students. Hakim cautioned that they may also imperil the future of physics. He said, “We’ve hit an all-time high now with a million students taking physics in high school, but only 5,000 of those end up graduating with a physics major in college, and just 2,000 of those end up in graduate and Ph.D. physics programs. Our education efforts are obviously failing. We face a crisis as a community in teacher preparation and retention.”
The conference included invited talks, organized discussions, and poster sessions. Participants ranged from those with little or no experience with computation in the curriculum, to those who are deeply involved with employing it in courses.
Participants contend that the 11,000 high school and college physics teachers nationwide aren’t adopting interactive teaching quickly enough. Rubin Landau of Oregon State University said simply, “Modifications in the undergraduate physics curriculum are necessary to maintain the long-term relevance of physics.”
The main reason that teachers neglect computational material is their discomfort with computers and programming. Swendsen said, “Professors have been very negative toward computers, adopting the attitude that you use a computer only if you’re not very good in math…”
He said that attitude should become less prevalent as older generations of teachers are replaced with those that grew up with computers. But he and others at the conference are intent on accelerating the process, and developed an array of recommendations at the conference that included introducing computation in early physics courses, incorporating it into capstone research projects, and helping students learn programming languages.
The conference represents another step in a fifteen-year effort by Davidson’s Brown Professor of Physics Wolfgang Christian and his colleague, Associate Professor Mario Belloni, to promote computational physics as the most effective way to help students understand the unseeable world of waves, particles, and forces.
The two Davidson physicists have nurtured that ambition through careful management of a strategy of curriculum development, publication, educational outreach, and education research. They have created and promoted interactive computational exercises at almost all levels of physics secondary and higher education. These virtual experiments challenge students to measure variables and interpret results, rather than calculating results from a formula. Both have been awarded a Distinguished Service Award from the American Association of Physics Teachers for their service.
They also pioneered the recently developed “Open Source Physics Project” for simulations of upper level concepts like quantum mechanics, classical mechanics, and electromagnetism. By coding in the popular and relatively simple, cross-platform, Java language, the project encourages educators and students to modify existing simulations and develop new ones. The simulations are being compiled in growing digital libraries accessible to anyone.
|Wolfgang Christian on the front row of an AAPT conference session.|
The work at Davidson has been supported by four separate grants from the National Science Foundation totaling nearly $1.5 million, and has resulted in publication of several books of instruction and computational exercises in several languages.
Norman Chonacky, editor of “Computing in Science and Engineering” magazine, said at the recent conference that computational physics engages students avidly, and leads them to a more thorough understanding of the discipline that physicists consider “the basis of all science.” In its study of the smallest particles and elemental forces, Chonacky said an understanding of physics provides the building block for biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy and other sciences.
Chonacky also pointed out that “The fact of the matter is that most people educated in physics don’t end up doing physics. People with physics Ph.D.s end up in many other fields where they need to understand computational problem-solving, so there’s a disconnect between what our students learn, and what is demanded of them in the workplace.”
Francisco Esquembre from the University of Murcia in Spain, agreed that “learning to program a computer is becoming an important part of the capabilities expected from every science or engineering graduate.”
Chonacky praised Christian and Belloni for their tireless efforts to lead physics into the modern age of instruction. “Curricular innovation always includes inventors, early adopters, willing followers, and ‘kickers and screamers,’” he said. “Davidson has been not only an inventor of computational physics techniques, but has also had the unusual good grace and social responsibility to generate enthusiasm in teachers and turn them into early adopters.”
But the road to universal acceptance is long, and Christian and Belloni are not resting.
Christian is co-editing an issue of the American Journal of Physics for next spring that focuses on computation in physics education. Since it is read by almost all high school and college physics instructors, the issue should help spread the word to non-practitioners.
He and Belloni will be also be presenting computational physics at the national physics meeting in Baltimore, and Christian is co-chairing a Gordon Research Conference next June that will bring together 100 computational physicists.
The two men deflect praise for their personal efforts, and insist that the key to success is building up a large community of scientists who will employ computational physics and develop it through their own input to its curriculum. Christian concluded, “The whole idea is involving people from throughout the world in the development of the project so no one person dominates, but everyone contributes and gets credit.”
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,700 students. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine.
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Posted By: Bill Giduz