Dr. Neal F. Lane


Banquet Address

International Conference on Undergraduate Physics Education

University of Maryland

August 2, 1996

Undergraduate Physics Education:
Boundary Conditions and Boundless Opportunities

Thanks Bernie. Good evening. It is always a pleasure to be part of an AAPT event and to be in a room full of physicists at any time. Tonight, it is an added pleasure to be part of an event as seminal and pathbreaking as this one.

Whether you have come from across the sea or across the street, let me extend my warmest greetings and welcome to all of you, and greetings on behalf of the National Science Foundation.

You can probably imagine that NSF has more than a passing interest in this event. We take great pride in the contribution we've made, in cooperation with many colleges and universities, to the reform of undergraduate education in physics and other fields of science and engineering. I'll say more about NSF's role later in my talk.

My interest in being here tonight is both personal and professional. I have devoted many years of my life to teaching undergraduate physics--sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Like all of you, I'm sure, I've encountered the full range of physics students--from the ones who should have been teaching me to the ones who became petrified at the mere mention of the word physics.

I'll recall one student in particular. I was teaching a course in physics for non-science majors. We called it Concepts in Physics. One of the end-of-the-semester requirements was for students to make a brief oral presentation. The students were proceeding through--one had just finished and the next had just walked around the lab bench, when I looked down at my clipboard to jot down a few notes. When I looked up, the student had disappeared.

I looked at the class and said, 'what happened to him?' They all looked rather shaken and said that they thought he had fainted, having disappeared behind the lecture table. Sure enough, he was flat on his back behind the lab bench. We revived him with some water, and needless to say, I agreed to postpone his presentation. I might have given him a passing grade on the spot if he had said he was just acting out a presentation on the physics of falling bodies.

I certainly hope that none of you will have a similar reaction to my speech this evening. Given that we have just finished dinner, I have no plans to say anything that might cause heartburn. I nevertheless do hope my ideas add some additional spice and food for thought to your deliberations.

You know from your program that my talk is entitled "Undergraduate Physics Education: Boundary Conditions and Boundless Opportunities." I intend to discuss how thinking creatively about the boundary conditions for undergraduate physics can lead to new opportunities for physicists, for physics majors, for science and engineering in general, and, most importantly, for this nation, indeed all nations.

We all know about boundary conditions. In the broadest sense, they are limits and conditions we place on theories and mathematical models to conform to initial observations and physical realities. They keep us honest by making certain our theories don't accidentally exceed the speed of light or go below absolute zero. (As physicists, we know these things only happen on Star Trek.)

A different notion of boundary conditions applies to our work in physics education. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the greatest strength of the reform movement in undergraduate physics is that it pushes boundaries, exceeds limits, and rethinks many long-held and often strongly-held beliefs and traditions.

For example, not long ago, most of us assumed the initial conditions for our students was the tabula rasa, the blank slate. We acted as though these bright, eager young people brought no pre-conceptions to our classrooms. They were simply eager for us to pour physics into their heads, and what we taught would stay with them forever. Or so we thought.

Then we learned that this boundary condition was far from realistic.

These and other findings prompted us to begin rethinking the basic tenets of physics education, and they helped to launch the reform movement that this conference promises to accelerate.

A number of people have said to me that this conference represents a maturation of the quiet revolution that has taken place in undergraduate physics. It might be more appropriate to describe it as some combination of a revolution, a palace coup, and an orderly changing of the guard.

Best of all, it has been accomplished in the traditions of physics itself. It began at the grass roots in a few departments, with new insights into fundamental theories and basic questions. That was followed by experimentation with new approaches, which are now being replicated and the results verified through rigorous testing and evaluation. Through it all, Federal support agencies like NSF were able to spot the promise in the work to nurture it as it coalesced and matured.

In many ways, this revolution resembles a classic example of what the late Thomas Kuhn termed a paradigm shift. Kuhn wrote, "after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world." Clearly, that same sense of a radically altered world-view applies to the new thinking about physics education.

There is nevertheless one key difference in my view that greatly affects our future efforts. When a paradigm shift occurs in science, as with the Copernican revolution or the arrival of quantum mechanics, the weight of evidence produces new consensus in the community--though I'll defer to the historians before I comment on how quickly that consensus emerges.

In the teaching of science, however, lasting change and enduring progress requires more than just the weight of the evidence. It requires the kind of cultural change that can occur only through a mixture of careful research and study, networking, leading by example, and evangelism--activities that might just summarize the goals of this conference.

We also know we must take several specific additional steps if we are to achieve lasting change. Many of these steps are already on your agenda--such as working more closely with other disciplines and viewing the undergraduate physics degree as more than just a passport to graduate school. I want to mention two other steps that deserve our attention, and both fall into the category of un-boundary conditions that I mentioned earlier.

The first is what we might best call an institutional un-boundary condition. Three weeks ago, NSF's Division of Undergraduate Education hosted a conference on revitalizing undergraduate education in all fields of science, mathematics, engineering, and technology.

I know a number of you were in attendance, as were science and engineering faculty, students, and administrators from all disciplines and all types of institutions. The conference was the capstone for a year-long review of NSF's role in undergraduate education led by Mel George of St. Olaf College.

One clear recommendation emerging from both the conference and the review is that reform on an institution-wide scale is desirable and necessary. This means reaching all students and adopting inquiry-based approaches to learning in all science and engineering fields.

We have already made a great start toward this ambitious goal. Other fields, notably mathematics--calculus in particular--and chemistry, have undergone revolutions similar to those in physics. That makes this an ideal time to build links that cross the curriculum.

The need for this is underscored by the second un-boundary condition that deserves our attention. In fact, this is more than just a boundary we have to overcome, but a chasm we have to cross, a gulf we have to bridge, and a long-standing division we need to bring to an end. I am speaking of the boundary that separates not just physics but all research fields from the greater society.

Earlier this summer, we received some startling news to suggest that this divide is more troubling than we imagined. You may have seen or read about the results of NSF's latest survey on public science literacy. Dave Barry took a lighthearted look at the results in a column that ran in the Washington Post a couple of Sundays ago.

Other journalists took a more serious look at the results. The New York Times article ran under the headline, "Americans Flunk Science." The Los Angeles Times was inspired to draft an editorial entitled, "America's Failing Grade in Science."

When we examine the survey results, it's not clear whether we should laugh or cry. Over 2,000 U.S. adults were surveyed, and on average they could correctly answer only 5 out of 10 questions about scientific knowledge. Fifty percent correct usually does not yield a passing grade, and this is no time for grading on the curve.

These poor scores, unfortunately, are not limited to the U.S. population. On a similar test conducted in 20 different nations, it was found that residents of all major industrialized nations have a weak understanding of scientific and environmental concepts. Maybe that's why there is no olympic gold medal for scientific literacy.

Even more disturbing news, and news more relevant to this gathering, was related to a part of the survey that has generated few headlines. The survey for the first time asked people to describe in their own words what it means to study something scientifically. It's not a trivial question, and the surveyors were flexible in their interpretations of the responses--giving lots of partial credit, so to speak.

Even with this flexibility, the results made me sit up and take notice.

I should add that this particular survey has thus far been conducted only in the U.S. We hope to conduct international comparisons in the near future.

What do the results mean? Consider that nearly every day, newspapers run articles about new drug therapies, medical procedures, and about the risks associated with everything from pesticides to power lines. Based on this survey, it appears that only a small fraction of adults understand scientific inquiry well enough to assess whether the findings presented in the media have any basis in science.

In his new book, The Demon Haunted World, the eminent astronomer and author Carl Sagan suggests that this lack of understanding portends a disturbing future. He writes:

"Finding the occasional straw of truth awash in a great ocean of confusion and bamboozle requires vigilance, dedication, and courage. But if we don't practice these tough habits of thought...we risk becoming a nation of suckers, a world of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan who saunters along."

In my view, there is only one way to keep us from becoming the gullible world Sagan describes, and it begins with what all of you have already accomplished. We now know that how we teach matters substantially more than how much we teach.

Your research into how students learn and how misconceptions can be corrected has identified one way these problems can be addressed. You should know that I will always work with you to convince your colleagues of the truths you are finding, so that the teaching of physics everywhere can be informed by your insights and findings.

You may already know that NSF is committed to inquiry-based learning in mathematics and science at all levels--from kindergarten through graduate school. The NSF Strategic Plan includes this under the rubric of the integration of research and education.

In simple terms, this means learning by doing, getting your hands dirty, experiencing the excitement of the discovery process, and bringing something of the culture and practice of research into the classroom. As part of this, NSF is also committed to fostering a wider interest within the scientific community into research on the teaching and learning of science.

We have already established a number of programs that promote the integration of research and education. For a number of years, we have supported programs--such as Research Experiences for Undergraduates and Research in Undergraduate Institutions--that give students the chance to make research an integral part of their undergraduate education.

In recent years, we've expanded this part of our portfolio. The CAREER program is aimed at young faculty, and we support a number of programs at the disciplinary and departmental level. We have also established a new activity, Recognition Awards for the Integration of Research and Education, that focuses specifically on research universities. The Institution-wide reform program based in our Division of Undergraduate Education has also emerged as a vital part of our overall efforts.

This is all meant to add momentum to what has become a national movement. We have already seen very prominent members of the physics research community--including at least two Nobel laureates--devote the latter parts of their careers to improving science education. Elected officials have also increased their interest. Both the Congress and state legislatures have sharpened their focus on the balance between teaching and research in higher education.

While some may see this increased attention and awareness as a mixed blessing, our work can ensure that it is a force entirely for the good. We can continue to focus the research community's attention on education issues. And, we can continue to provide evidence--based on rigorous research--to show how different educational delivery modes can spur real learning of physics.

In this way, our collective efforts to spark change in undergraduate physics go hand-in-hand with bridging that long-standing divide between science and society.

To close, I want to stress that achieving this simultaneous solution is in our interest as physicists and in the interest of our respective nations.

Some of you may have heard me talk about this being a time of contradictions for science. There is a definite mismatch between opportunities for exciting research and the outlook for funding and public support.

We have never witnessed a more exciting era for discovery and progress across the spectrum of research and education:

This level of excitement is seen across the spectrum of science and engineering. We've learned that the Earth's core spins on its own and a bit faster. We are unlocking the secrets of the genetic code of plants and animals. And, fields as diverse as human cognition and supercomputing are coalescing around new insights into how both humans and artificial systems process information.

The funding outlook stands in stark contrast to this atmosphere of discovery and progress. The U.S. Federal budget is under tight constraints, and public funds for research are stagnant in many other nations as well. Japan is a notable exception to this trend--and a wise one in my opinion.

This raises difficult questions about our ability to continue extending the frontiers of science and engineering, address pressing social and environmental concerns, give our workforces the technological expertise needed to boost productivity, and spark the technological innovations and advances that drive economic growth.

This is why your work and the example set by this conference mean so much to all the nations represented here. We can all continue to explore and embrace new approaches for the teaching and learning of physics, and in doing so, reach out across that gulf dividing our community and the greater community.

By working together across national boundaries, sharing our insights, and learning from each other, we can help each other rethink boundary conditions and adopt new un-boundary conditions. In this way, our combined efforts can help pave the way to boundless opportunities for all of us and for all nations.

Thanks again to the AAPT and all of you for inviting me to join you this evening.