Occasionally, someone will ask what it’s like to be involved in a teaching reform effort at a research university, as I have been for the last decade. The answer to that question was published a few years ago in Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research by three science education researchers at Florida State University. If you’re genuinely interested in what it’s like, give the paper, which is linked here (enderle), a read. It’s written for an audience of education researchers, so it’s a serious slog. But if you really want to know what it’s like to push teaching reform at a major research university, it’s worth the effort.
The paper follows the efforts of three senior faculty members with the pseudonyms Albert, Isaac and Robert (I suggested “Curly, Larry and Moe”, but my suggestion was summarily dismissed by the lead researcher) at “a large, public research university in the southeast United States” which is unnamed, but which was, let’s say, convenient for the FSU-based researchers to study. I can say no more than that about the institution and faculty members studied without violating the premise of anonymity of the research subjects.
The subject is of particular importance now because the teaching reform effort based in FSU’s Physics Department has reached a crossroads. There has been incremental progress in my home department, but we have now run into facility limitations. The plan to build a new science teaching building at FSU has been placed on the back burner in favor of shiny new facilities for commercial research and the College of Business. There is still a widely-held belief on campus that the best way to advance the science and engineering pipeline at FSU is to build more 500-student lecture halls. At the level of state policy-makers, it is believed that online education will entirely replace face-to-face instruction within a decade, and the priorities are to force down the cost of a bachelor’s degree and to use universities primarily as centers for commercial development.
It is a challenging time for Curly, Larry and Moe (uh – Albert, Isaac and Robert) and the few colleagues who have joined them in the studio physics program since the Physical Review paper was published.