Angie and I just got back from presenting a talk and poster at the Winter Meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers in Jacksonville, Florida. We presented the handsome poster you see below and a talk entitled “Teaching Physics Though Modeling the Physics Research Community” with the following abstract:
In this talk, we will discuss The Compass Project, a program we created at the University of California, Berkeley, five years ago to support physics students from all backgrounds. Drawing on physics education research, we had two major goals in creating a two-week summer program for incoming freshman: building community and helping students develop productive beliefs about what physics is and how to learn it. This presentation will focus on a newly developed semester-long course that follows the summer program. One focus of both the summer program and the course is developing the students capacity to see the world through physics models; students also hone their ability to communicate and collaborate productively with their peers. We will discuss some of the successes and challenges of introducing college freshman to our model of a physics research community.
Pretty snazzy, huh?
It was wonderful to get feedback about the work we are doing at Cal – particularly to hear what sorts of things other physics educators and education researchers wanted to know in order to judge how effective we are as a program. Most of what people asked about made a lot of sense to us and are things that we are already planning to do (given enough time and resources, of course ). Some wanted to hear more about how we impact our students epistemology about physics and the scientific endevour generally. Others were curious to see some kind of data whether Compass students are more nuanced physics problem solvers than comparable peers at Cal. Of course the most frequent question was regarding “the numbers” i.e. the numbers of our students that ultimately graduate with a degree in a physical science major. This is a crucial question that we also want to know the answer to, but Angie and I would always push back a bit when this topic came up. One of Compass’ main goals is certainly to increase the representation of traditionally underrepresented students as well as increase the number of students who value true diversity in the sciences (whether they themselves come from an under-represented group or not). But I don’t think success can only be measured by whether or not students decide to join a physical science major. The reasons why they do or don’t become a major seem as important as their ultimate decision. Does the Compass student who decides to study slavic literature do so because she discovered a greater passion for it or because she feels like she is not particularly welcome as a woman in science? The two are certainly not mutually exclusive, but I raise it to point out a simple fact that is rarely mentioned: the sciences – particularly physics – are pushing students away in droves. Most student that don’t major in the physical sciences are absolutely miserable in their physics classes. Physics class was a traumatizing experience for many of these students. And after all who wants to major in trauma, especially if you are receiving all kinds of messages that you don’t belong. The same goes for many people who decide to be physics majors, but often they have the resources (both personal and social) to continue on despite the difficulties. This is one the things that UT Austin has found and are trying to address with their new campaign “Is the why keeping up at night?”, and it is something we have heard from a number institutions.
The distinction is important to me because it seems that Compass is concerned with creating a small physics community that does not discriminate against its students (actively or passively) with the aim of changing the culture within physics and the relationship between the larger physics community and society as a whole. I know how lofty this must sound, but I would argue that if we are concerned about “diversifying physics” this is really what it about at its heart: changing the culture of physics to welcome students of all backgrounds: wherever they are from, whatever experiences they have had, whether or not they might be the next Einstein or Feynman- or even a physicist at all for that matter. If a Compass student decides not to formally pursue a degree in the physical sciences but loves and values the way physics views the world this is a huge success in my book and not one that is not so easily seen in “the numbers.”
In addition to getting feedback on our own work, it was wonderful to meet some new people and hear about physics education work happening around the country. As always it was great to hear about all the work happening at Florida International University’s Physics Education group including Eric Brewe’s work on using tools from sociology to watch student communities form in formal and informal academic settings, Renee Goertzen’s research on understanding student’s sense of community, David Brooks examination of a more significant model for experimentation in the classroom with ISLE, and Yuhfen Lin’s look at how graduate physics program and how they do and do not prepare students to become physicists (I’ll refer you to Joel’s earlier post for more on that). Although we didn’t make it to his talk, we did get a chance to speak with Mel Sabella and his colleague Kim Coble from Chicago State University about their work. One of the more interesting talks we did manage to attend was by Prof. Sacha Kopp of UT Austin and John Rice (of Common Sense Communication) about their use of PR strategies to help recruit more students to the physics major at UT Austin. According to their numbers, they have tripled the number of majors there in only a few years although he did not get into the breakdown of who is represented among those new graduates. Although I am more than a bit skeptical about using focus groups and other methods from PR in improving education, and they did one thing that was thrilling: They talked to students – lots of them, and not only the die-hard physics majors. They talked to the students who “wouldn’t touch physics with a ten foot pole if they were stranded on a desert island and learning it was the only way they could get off” (their words). Now it shouldn’t require a the support of a PR firm for us to systematically listen to our students, but apparently in some cases it does. That act alone has kicked off some interesting changes there. including new seminars to help freshman connect their intro physics classes with all of exciting research being done at UT Austin.