I am more than just a lab rat: The place of studio physics in FSU’s STEM education ecosystem

A few years ago, I was a research subject in a study of FSU’s studio physics program and how those of us teaching in the program interact with our colleagues at the department and university levels.  It was a fine opportunity for the four of us teaching in the program at the time to reflect on what we were doing and to get some outside perspective.  And it was surreal to see the paper reporting on the study published in a section of the Physical Review, the same family of journals where I have been publishing articles about nuclear physics for more than 30 years.

There were aspects of the study that were even entertaining.  When we collectively discussed the selection of pseudonyms for the studio physics instructors, I suggested Curly, Larry and Moe, since there were (at least when the study began) only three of us and all were male.  I suggested that I be Moe, since I am the lead idiot.  The science education doctoral student leading the study didn’t particularly like my idea, but when a fourth physics professor joined the studio physics program it ruined the idea, anyway.

Of course, the significance of the pseudonyms that were finally selected for us (Albert, Isaac, Max and Robert) was lost on me until a few months ago, when a colleague in the studio physics program said something like, “Paul, Albert is Einstein.  You’ve heard of him?  How about Isaac Newton?  Max Planck?”  OK, but what about Robert?  “It’s Robert Schrieffer, Paul!”  Oh yeah.  Bob, who shared a Nobel Prize for the theoretical breakthrough that explained conventional superconductivity, was Chief Scientist at FSU’s National High Magnetic Field Laboratory for years.

Underpinning the study was the assumption – shared by both the lead researcher and those of us teaching in the studio physics program – that our work as instructors was not incidental to the process of improving access to science and engineering careers.  In fact, we believed (and still do) that we are at least as important as any other person at FSU in this process.  Furthermore, as campus pioneers in improving science instruction we might be the most important people to FSU’s effort, even if it seems like we are making only incremental progress and we are constantly running into resistance on many fronts.

Which is why I find it both puzzling and frustrating that most initiatives to improve access to science and engineering careers on our campus simply bypass our studio physics effort.  Want to increase STEM bachelor’s degree attainment for students from disadvantaged backgrounds?  An established advising and mentoring program for such students at FSU was recently awarded a multi-million dollar grant to do just that.  These students are probably more likely to succeed in their basic science courses if they take these courses in SCALE-UP classes like our studio physics courses.  We didn’t hear a word about the grant until the press release, and as far as we can tell the students presently in this program are not being steered into the studio versions of the physics courses.

Many teacher education professionals would probably disagree with this assertion, but I think the most important thing a pre-service teacher of science can do is take science courses in inquiry-driven learning environments like our studio physics classes.  Yet students in our local science and math teacher education program are routinely allowed to take their basic physics in the traditional lecture classes.  Nobody is willing to deliver this very difficult message to an aspiring science teacher who has taken all of her or his science courses in middle and high school in lecture environments and who therefore believes that lecturing is the best way to teach science:  Your beliefs about teaching have to change or you will not be allowed to earn a teaching degree at FSU.

And then there are the frequent group discussions on campus – to which we are never invited – about how to proceed with scholarship about STEM education at FSU.  Want to improve the climate for minority and women students in engineering and the physical sciences?  So do we – let’s talk about what needs doing.  I have a well-earned reputation for not being a team player, but my studio physics colleagues are great to work with.  Talk with them.

As the Physical Review report on our studio physics program noted, we have gotten remarkable support from our department leadership and Dean.  What’s missing is support from those who should be our natural allies – those who are building their careers and their programs around improving access to science and engineering majors.  We would all be better off if we could just decide to be teammates for a change.

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