5.10.13

SPOTTING A SUBPRIME PROVIDER.

Does a university that has so few students enrolling in physics that it is contemplating eliminating its physics department (perhaps offering a few physics classes as part of a laboratory science cluster) deserve to call itself a university?

I'm not making this up.  "College Physics Departments Imploding" is the College Insurrection headline.

It's a reaction to a proposal from the University of Southern Maine, which Inside Higher Education frames in an instructive way.
Citing budget concerns and low numbers of majors, the University of Southern Maine is the latest institution to consider eliminating its physics major.
I confess to not paying too close attention lately, whether this is a trend of three universities or three hundred I cannot tell you.  The suggestions some in higher education offer are also instructive.
Some proponents of the discipline say it’s a shortsighted move, and, like similar initiatives in other states, could contribute to the country’s dearth of qualified candidates for science-related jobs. The value of physics – a “foundational” science – isn’t tied to enrollment alone, they say.

Yet some of those proponents – along with critics – also say anger about department closures should be directed inward. Physicists need to address longstanding concerns about diversity within their ranks and better communicate the value of the discipline to the general public, they say. Better teaching and mentoring also could capture more student interest.

"It’s a mistake,” said Paul Nakroshis, an associate professor of physics at Southern Maine who has been involved in university discussions about cutting physics. Not only is it an essential part of a “comprehensive” university, physics is “excellent training for almost any scientific career because of its breadth. It spreads over many areas of technology, math and science.”

Without a physics major – and the upper-level courses that come with it – quality of study would decline, diminishing the university’s ability to attract talented students and faculty interested in physics and possibly science in general, and that’s bad for everyone, Nakroshis said. “Already in this country there are some pretty grim statistics in terms of how many people think the world is 6,000 years old and about [the validity of] global warming.”

But administrators, who instituted a “rule of five” several years ago to justify the closure of other departments graduating fewer than five majors annually, including Russian and German, say that physics simply isn’t attracting enough students. In a draft “action plan” presented last month, the university told the department – which graduates about three majors annually – to stop admitting new majors immediately; advise current majors on completing their course of study “as quickly as possible;” and to think about reorganizing itself into a new kind of science unit with “at least 20 faculty members" and some different focus by the end of this academic year.

The “necessity” of all physics courses will be assessed by the department and an outside curriculum developer, according to the plan. But lower-level courses will continue to be offered for students who need them to complete other majors, such as engineering. Students interested in majoring in physics can do so at the University of Maine at Orono, the state’s flagship institution, about three hours away.
"A new kind of science unit" with 'at least 20 faculty members'". In 1971, my Milwaukee Hamilton High School yearbook listed nine teachers in the science department.  A chemistry teacher was the department chairman, and there were specialists in astronomy, biology, chemistry, and physics.  Southern Maine's action plan, which envisions keeping the planetarium open, reads like a plan for a high school with somewhat larger enrollment than Milwaukee Hamilton (about 2300 South Siders back in the day).

Let's rewrite that last sentence.  Students interested in receiving a university education can do so at the University of Maine at Orono, the state's flagship institution.  At least until the outside curriculum developers and adminstrators get around to gutting Orono's offerings.

The Southern Maine plan may or may not be a trial balloon, and pushback from local interests might have killed it.  For now.  The Perpetually Aggrieved have something to be aggrieved about.
According to data from the American Physical Society, underrepresented minorities receive about 10 percent of the bachelor's degrees in physics given to U.S. citizens or permanent residents, with women earning about 20 percent of degrees.

The organization has several programs directly address these issues, and the numbers of women and Hispanic Americans in the discipline are on the rise.

But physics also faces another problem, advocates said: people don’t understand it.

Crystal Bailey, education and careers program manager at the society, said physics cuts are part of nationwide trend of "culling" costs in higher education. But “people making these decisions don’t have a sense of what physics departments actually are contributing, both in terms of educating a powerful STEM workforce in really important ways, and the amount of research dollars that that help physics departments, as well as their universities.”
The special pleading of the diversity hustlers and the grant hustlers is to be expected. There is, however, a responsibility for professors to profess.
Carl Wieman, a Nobel Prize-winning professor of physics and education at Stanford University and former associate director of science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said physics departments face more than a public relations problem. Programs with unusually high numbers of majors tend to have faculty with a strong sense of purpose who view attracting and retaining students as a responsibility, he said, pointing to the widely cited SPIN-UP study on which he worked.

"What that study found was the departments and faculty in those highly successful schools felt a clear responsibility to recruit students to major in physics and make sure they were happy and successful after they became majors," he said in an e-mail. "The physics faculty in the comparison schools always saw the number of physics majors as someone else's problem and responsibility."

Professors in popular physics programs also have been shown to use engaging teaching methods that inspire students to continue on to upper-level courses, he said. Despite that, most professors continue to teach “very traditionally.”

Program closures should “signal” to the discipline “that a physics major should be seen as a responsibility, not an entitlement,” Wieman said. “I think the outrage expressed by the physics community when things like this happen, or the dropping of physics programs at schools in Texas due to low enrollment, is misplaced. The concerns should be directed inward, not outward.”
There's no necessary distinction between teaching traditionally and inspiring students. I'm aware of a lot of research and anecdotal evidence to the effect that a good first teacher can get students enthused, and that's probably as true in physics as it is in economics. And the physicists have better toys, and better war stories, to fire students' interest.  But too much Distressed Material in the freshman class can demoralize even the most dedicated and motivated professor.
[Kelly] Mack, [vice-president for undergraduate science education with] the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said physicists need to do a better job of promoting their discipline in a variety of ways. But they also face external challenges, such as students coming out of high school underprepared for the kind of math that physics requires.

Nakroshis also said students are coming out of high school underprepared for physics, given that only about one-third of high school physics teachers have physics backgrounds. Sadly, he said, a planned branch of a feeder program for physics majors to become high school physics teachers in the state would die at Southern Maine as a result of the plan.
But when Ms Mack fears that if it's physics today, it could be mathematics tomorrow, she's indirectly suggesting that the real problem is a dearth of students capable of doing college-level physics, or mathematics, or economics.  The physics faculty at Bowdoin (five professors in a relatively small college) has it right: Challenge your students.

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