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Thoughts from the AAPT winter meeting

Posted by Melissa on January 5, 2014

As someone whose job includes both teaching and research, I’ve always found it valuable to attend both research-oriented conferences and teaching-oriented conferences. Reading the literature on physics education just isn’t the same as having conversations and making personal connections with others who are enthusiastic and dedicated teachers or PER scholars. I’ve just returned from a day at the AAPT winter meeting (it was 100 ºF colder in Minneapolis than it had been in Orlando!) , where I had the chance to hear a report and discussion of the progress of the AAPT undergraduate curriculum task force.  I’m part of the subcommittee developing lab guidelines to support this work, and with an upcoming review of our department, the topic was timely. A couple of items that lingered with me from the discussion:

  • When talking about the undergraduate curriculum, physicists often talk in terms of courses. Instead, we need to be articulating the skills and concepts that we want a physics student to learn. Focusing on skills and concepts, instead of course accounting, provides departments more flexibility and room for creativity in the curriculum. However, it also requires more careful coordination between the members of a department because everyone has to agree that particular skills will get covered in particular courses.  The corollary to this point is that spiraling in the curriculum is generally a strength, but only when the spiraling  is well done, not providing too much redundancy or leaving too many gaps.
  • Computation needs to be more fully integrated into the core curriculum. The importance of computation in physics is growing, but few departments have computational methods infused throughout the curriculum. Personally, I’d love to see more connection between all three elements — theory, experiment, and computation — in courses. At Carleton, this can be difficult because the faculty members who are most comfortable teaching computation are often not particularly comfortable teaching labs beyond the first year and vice versa. We need to find better ways to collaborate and support each other as colleagues if we want to fully integrate theory, experiment, and computation.  (I know our neighbor to the north, the University of St Thomas, has made a concerted effort at this integration.)
  • Physicists need to think about what skills and content we can stop teaching, or at least move out of the core, to make more room for new skills and contemporary topics.
  • Engineering, biology, and computer science are much better about including original research or design projects in the first course in the major. Students can (and do) do amazing projects in physics classes, but often that only occurs when students get to the intermediate and advanced classes.

I’d be interested to hear what others are doing to address these topics.


One Response to “Thoughts from the AAPT winter meeting”

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist said

    I really like all four of these points. I much prefer talking about learning outcomes than courses, though it’s sometimes hard in my department. I think we do a pretty good job with the expt/theory/comp trilogy, but I know we can do better. I’m also really trying to think of ways we could do design/projects much earlier in the curriculum. My First Year Seminar that some physics majors take gives us an opportunity to do that, but why limit it to just the people who take that? Do you feel your design labs are helping out in this vein?

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