When I was an undergraduate I spent my time in the physics lounge, typing assignments in teX, playing Angband and Nethack on the Unix terminals, and getting advice on how to succeed in science from the older students. These days I no longer use teX or play Angband, but some of the advice I received from the older students has stayed with me. I was told that the best way to succeed and learn science was to get a job in a research lab as soon as possible. I still believe that this is the best way to teach science to students: to help them develop the skills that are necessary for successful research careers. This has not changed in the decade since I graduated, but the job and research markets have changed a lot since then.
The job market is increasingly focused on people with specific skill sets, and graduate research/post-graduate research is becoming more and more competitive due to lack of and uncertainty of funding. Undergraduate education needs to focus more on practical skills and experiences that will enable the students to find jobs right out of college, as well as allow them to be useful in a laboratory setting upon entering graduate school. This needs to be coupled with experiences working in groups and working with people who come from different educational backgrounds. What is valued in the job market and in research today, in addition to traditional physics skills, are people who can work between disciplines, explain their work regardless of their audience’s backgrounds, solve general, unknown problems, and overcome the failures that are unavoidable in any research environment. All of this can be accomplished through practical skill classes with students working on long-term research projects
Laboratory Education is the Best Education:
As an undergraduate I began working in a laboratory my sophomore year. A new professor arrived in the department and about a week after he arrived, I marched into his office and asked for a job. This was quite a surprise to him and, fortunately he accepted my offer. This led to three years of lab work that begin with electronics, plumbing, and construction and evolved into research experiment design, paper writing, a March meeting presentation, and an undergraduate honors thesis. It allowed me not only to just spend a year working in a laboratory doing simple construction tasks, but also to develop several projects and to try my hand at actually doing scientific research. I feel that this prolonged period of research on a single topic was perhaps just as important to my growth as a scientist as any of the classes I took as an undergraduate or graduate student.
There exists a disconnect between what makes a successful undergraduate and what makes a successful graduate student/researcher. In order to prepare students for graduate school and industry, they have to be exposed to more long-term and challenging problems whose difficulty grows in step with the student’s skills. These problems need to combine theory and experiment and allow the student the chance to carry out the entire research process from proposal, to solution, to presentation. They must learn and be encouraged to be self-motivated and independent, to develop the drive to succeed on their own and the skills necessary to do so. They need to be familiar and experienced with the whole process of science, including the writing and presenting of results.
In order to produce students who are useful in science and industry upon graduation, I would like to set up a long-term, integrated undergraduate research program. This research process would be codified and integrated into the curriculum through the offering of specific research courses allowing students to provide graduate schools and potential employers official records of what they are capable of doing. My plan would be to encourage undergraduates to take introductory classes in electronics and programming during their freshman year, along with the traditional introductory physics classes. Depending on interest and class sizes, I would offer classes aimed at scientific programming and construction skills (machine shop, scientific programming, automation techniques/electronics, etc.). This would enable the students to work in a laboratory their first summer by giving them basic practical skills and provide them the opportunity to develop a long-term research project, which would teach them valuable practical laboratory skills, along with allowing them to get a feel for what research actually entails. This project should be designed to evolve with the students’ skills and interests and it should be able to provide financial support for the student.
Physics Education Generalized:
The emphasis in undergraduate education has traditionally been on solving equations and learning the theoretical framework of classical and modern physics. Unfortunately, these classes often act as hurdles that students must jump over, while being of little practical use. I have seen many graduate students, some of whom were the top performers in their undergraduate classes, flounder when faced with laboratory research. In order to succeed they can no longer rely on math tricks or analytical solutions, but instead need programming, construction, project/time management and creative problem solving and modeling skills. In teaching physics to both majors and non-majors, the emphasis should be placed not on physics as a system of solving specific problems, but on physics as a method of modeling the complex processes of the world around us. In shifting the emphasis to problem solving/modeling in general, the students can learn a broad skill set, one I have often seen lacking in graduate students. Classes aimed at developing modeling skills can help make the physics classes more accessible to other majors and demonstrate physics’ usefulness outside its traditional boundaries by including non-traditional physics topics, such as biophysics, ecological systems, industrial control systems and population dynamics.
Physicists Working with Others:
In combination with learning problem solving/modeling, practical research skills and writing, physics majors would benefit from the opportunity to participate in interdisciplinary projects. There is a “king of the sciences” attitude among many physicists that I have seen cause them to undertake projects in other fields without appreciating the body of work and experience that already exists there. In this day and age, there is an emphasis on interdisciplinary problems and approaches, both in academia and in industry. In order to be successful, future physicists will need to be able to work with other fields, to understand their jargon and to respect all of the members of their research teams. Providing projects in which students in different fields can work together will help foster this necessary respect and provide the ability to understand other disciplines. My research proposal contains many such projects and I believe that working with other departments is crucial in providing these interdisciplinary opportunities for students.
I think the interaction of physics students and other science, engineering, or even art students, will be productive both in terms of results and in terms of the undergraduates personal development as researchers. This Bauhaus model of combining different disciplines in projects and classes also serves to give the students a broader view of research and to expose them to other fields that they might find more interesting as a career choice after graduation. It is part of our duty as scientists and teachers to expand student's horizons whenever possible and provide them the opportunities for new academic experiences, giving them the knowledge needed to decide their own future course.
The job market wants people who can work as a team, and research projects, more often than not, involve sharing equipment and resources with other groups/disciplines. Those that find themselves successful in academia and industry, often end up in charge of a team of researchers. The days of the lone scientist are gone, if they ever were really there in the first place, and students should be put into situations where they must collaborate with other physics majors, as well as with students from differing disciplines. Practically this can take the form of group projects, seminars with other departments, and long-term interdisciplinary research projects involving cooperation between multiple students.
Failure as Part of the Experience:
Students also need to be helped to develop the confidence necessary to deal with failure. What often distinguishes the successful scientist is his or her ability to keep hammering on a problem until it is solved. Teaching in an environment where failure is acceptable and even encouraged as long as an effort is made, is important to the students’ development. However, this must be tempered with the fact that at the end of the day results are all that matters in research and industry. If you work hard and are wrong, you are still wrong. I think that young students must be encouraged to try and fail. Practically this can take the form of redoing homework or tests, or working in a laboratory for credit and having their work judged not on success, but on effort. As the students progress in their education, more emphasis can be placed on correct answers, while giving them the opportunity to try again on their own time.
By practically educating students, using physics as a modeling language, teaching students presenting and writing skills, and providing long-term research projects, we can develop an educational program that creates skilled and well-rounded physicists who can compete and excel in the modern world. By providing a research inspired and practical program for undergraduates that allows them to gain familiarity with research early on, we can provide the students with the knowledge they need in order to choose a major and to foster in them the drive and confidence necessary to succeed not only in that major, but in life as well.