What is our university for? What this physics professor cares about most.

Last week, a colleague told me in no uncertain terms what he thinks our primary teaching mission is here at FSU – to educate well-informed citizens.  Don’t I agree that this is even more important than preparing students for careers in science and engineering?

Well, no.

The world that my students are entering is so much more challenging than the world in which I grew up (just to set the time scale here – I graduated from high school in 1978).  When I graduated from college, everybody with a bachelor’s degree had it made.  Most who didn’t attend college but who were willing to work hard were able to thrive in manufacturing jobs, a variety of other businesses or even government work.  Discipline was required, but beyond that being good at math or science or computing wasn’t really that important to success.  Engineering, science and computing were very lucrative even then, but people in other fields almost always did just fine.

That has all changed.  While those at the top of the economic pile have prospered, the incomes of the other 90% of Americans have continued to decline, even while the nation’s economy has continued to grow (Monday’s New York Times piece by Steven Rattner provides some numbers on this).  There are still considerable opportunities available for students who prepare themselves for careers in the most mathematically intense fields (engineering, computing, physical sciences), but students who graduate with bachelors’ degrees in many other fields end up working in roles that don’t even require a college education.  Students who train to be lawyers and architects can still succeed as long as they come out of professional or graduate school right at the top of their cohorts, but for others the rewards for all of that extra education can be elusive.

Because the world has changed, today’s students must have much different educational expectations than those in my generation did.  And those of us who are educating them must have different expectations as well.  It is no longer OK for us to think of engineering, computing and physical sciences as careers that make sense only for the 5% of students who can navigate algebra, trigonometry, calculus and the fundamentals of physics with a minimum of fuss.  We have to figure out ways to make these fields accessible to the entire top third of our new generation of students.  That doesn’t mean lowering the bar.  Instead, that means finding new instructional strategies that help the entire top third of students clear that very high bar – the same one that only 5% of the students could clear before.

Helping the top third of students achieve in math, science, engineering and computing at this very high level means we have to do two things.  First, we have to dramatically change the way we teach at the university level.  Fortunately, we have all of this figured out – we know exactly what to do.  Unfortunately, most faculty at the college level are sticking to the traditional ways of teaching that serve only the top 5% well.  Second, we have to convince students, parents and the K-12 system that students should arrive at college with the high school math and science courses needed to prepare them properly for majoring in engineering, computing and physical sciences.

These challenges are even more imposing if we consider the two-thirds of students who are not white males.  Only 20% of the bachelors’ degrees in Florida and the nation in the engineering, computing and physical science fields are awarded to women.  African-American students are also severely underrepresented among bachelors’ degrees grads in these fields.  Everything we do should keep these frustrating truths in mind.  

As far as I’m concerned, anything that redirects even a joule of energy from the effort to open careers in engineering, computing and the physical sciences to broader populations is a failure of stewardship.

And this is why I’m still fuming over the impact FSU’s new liberal studies competencies will have on the first and most popular of our studio physics courses.  You can tell I’m still fuming because this is the second post I’ve written on the subject in less than a week.  We will probably have to remove an activity or two from our present very successful course to make room for a lesson or two on scientific controversy.  That will mean our struggling students – the ones from the lower half of the top third – will have one less opportunity to learn enough to clear the physics bar that’s required for future engineers, computer scientists or physical scientists.

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