My Wish List For University Science Education

Wish List (via Wikimedia Commons)

This is a list of things that I would like to see happen in science education at University level.

1 More teaching to arts students. And make it challenging in concept, but not in mathematics. Mathematics is just one language used, and professional practitioners of science have to be able to handle it. For non-technical people, understanding some basic science connected with the world around them, will help them make more aware of the possibilities, the scope and the risks and drawbacks associated with science and technology. An important part of the syllabus would be on the scientific method, and how science actually works. It is important that people can understand why the medical and scientific communities are overwhelming proponents of vaccinations, as a topical example. People need to understand. That can be taught without recourse to complex mathematics.

2 More innovative science courses taught specifically with certain programs in mind. I used to teach a Physics course for students taking a Batchelor of Information Technology degree. They were either aspiring web designers or computer networking specialist. These people don’t need a general course on physics where we go through the traditional route of Newtonian mechanics in great detail, they need to know about how to solve problems in physics using computer code, to understand the physics of colour, and how fibre-optic communications work, to name a few connections to their chosen field. One year I radically changed the syllabus and got them to program computer simulations of physics problems using the Python programming language. The results were very promising, but the next year I was moved to teaching a completely different course and was not able to follow up with an improved version. That is one of the problems with contract teaching. There is no continuity, and it is difficult to plan forward for more than four months. Plus you are not on any syllabus design committees, so you can tell others about your design ideas, initiatives and practical experience.

3 Teaching science in collaboration with social science (and other) departments. For instance, I would love to teach a collaborative course with Women and Gender Studies departments about on the lack of females in physics and engineering courses, compared with other cultures. The conversations would be so worthwhile, intellectually stimulating, and everyone would benefit. I would certainly learn a lot. Another course would be science and journalism. We urgently need well trained scientists who can talk to the media, and journalists who understand how science works.

4 Time to get over the traditional science curriculum and push into new frontiers. For example, a typical conservative physics syllabus has a first term class of mechanics and thermodynamics, a second term class of electromagnetism and wave motion and reserves “modern” physics until the second year. Modern physics is a misnomer — it means early twentieth century! Well, this is okay, except that many of today’s technologies depend utterly on quantum theory. Is knowledge of how an electric motor works really necessary, before tackling the basics of why semiconductors are useful? I am skeptical. Physics instructors are some of the most conservative and slow to adapt groups in education. Just look at introductory textbooks. The chapter order is almost always exactly the same. They know that if an author goes for an innovative pedagogical approach, then sales will suffer. I hope that the trend towards more open source textbooks will allow a much more innovative approach in tackling important concepts in teaching physics. Some of the more innovative textbooks that I’ve seen in the last few years have been on physics oriented towards life scientists. The focus has clearly been on the concepts most needed by biologists and other similar disciplines, rather than the things physicists think everyone ought to know.

5 A gradual introduction and use of distance based and on-line teaching. We know that good completion rates for on-line courses tend to come from people already having a degree. This means that we should start training our undergraduates in online learning techniques early on, but making sure that they also have the skills a traditional degree in any discipline ought to provide: critical thinking, analysis, numeracy and literacy. In my first year classes, I have online testing and I also record my lectures for review purposes. I think that is probably sufficient for first years, already being bombarded by all sorts of new requirements when they make the leap from high school to university.

So that’s my list of things that I’d like to see done. They are also things I’ve been thinking about for a decade on how to implement. Unfortunately, I’ve never been in a position where I had sufficient authority to be able to implement any of them to the scale which I would like. That is one of the great frustrations of being on four month contracts. I have no long term and predictable future, and I have no influence on how things get taught, even though it has been a focus of my thinking, my research if you will for ten years.