OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Grant to help revitalize college physics

06/04/1997

CORVALLIS, Ore. - College physics majors call it the brick wall - that grim period in their junior year when the tough courses all seem to come at once, pressure mounts and the students start to drop out.

Confronted by the wall, majoring in some completely different field sounds better all the time.

But it doesn't have to be that way, say educators at Oregon State University, and - with an unusually large grant from the National Science Foundation - they're hoping to reshape the way physics is taught in America.

A revised grouping of more modern courses, less rigid structure, more blending of physics disciplines and lots of applied problems are all envisioned in the new approach. Educators are optimistic it will greatly improve the curriculum and student success rate.

The stakes, they say, are high. The United States is depending upon a huge increase in students majoring in advanced sciences to fill positions in high technology and many other professions.

But the number of students who actually are taking and succeeding in these fields is woefully inadequate. Nationwide, the number of undergraduate physics majors is now the lowest in the past three decades.

"To my knowledge, nowhere is the problem any worse than in the study of physics," said Corinne Manogue, an OSU associate professor of physics. "Physics is and always has been perceived as difficult, making calculus look easy by comparison. It's a whole different way of using your brain."

But that very ability to use analytical reasoning to compose and solve abstract problems, Manogue said, makes physics graduates unusually prized by business and industry.

"You'd be surprised where you find people with a physics background," she said. "Many physicists are now working on Wall Street, because they can work with abstract financial models."

The problems in physics education, Manogue said, have been building slowly for decades. In most universities around the nation, physics students first have to take advanced mathematics and then are marched through often-outdated physics regimens in long, time-consuming series of courses.

"We often get students with inadequate math preparation," she said. "Then in a long course sequence they have to get a subject right the first time or they may never see it again."

Sometimes the students are given far more of a certain discipline than they really need, she said. Some new disciplines are barely broached. And sometimes they do poorly on graduate school entrance exams because they weren't exposed to topics until too late in their undergraduate education.

"It's in their junior year that these problems often come to a head," Manogue said. "The very brightest students usually do okay, but some average, perfectly acceptable students drop out or change majors. They get very discouraged, and this failure is pretty hard on their self-esteem."

The solution envisioned by the new OSU approach is to break up the series of physics courses into smaller, less time-consuming and more manageable chunks, where more subjects are covered in the junior year, in somewhat less depth. In later studies more detail and theory will be added.

And it will give far more attention to new physics disciplines - such as lasers and solid state physics - which are now often needed in the high technology industry and may not have even existed 30 years ago.

Such an approach should also be valuable to many other science students at the university, she said, who may need abbreviated training in one aspect of physics but not the year-long approaches that are now common.

To support this effort, the National Science Foundation is providing OSU $450,000 over three years, with the clear hope that the new initiative can be adopted nationally if it proves to be successful. Collaborating on this project with Manogue are Phil Siemens, an OSU professor of physics, and Janet Tate, an associate professor of physics.

"That's an enormous grant for curriculum development," Manogue said. "It shows how serious the National Science Foundation feels the problem is."