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Need help on approach to physics education

  1. Jun 1, 2008 #1
    Hi everyone. I need to decide which way to go with my education soon. My interest are mainly maths, physics and computers.

    The thing I could currently see myself work with would be to help create educational software for maths and physics at the level for highschool, collage and university introduction. Something that would offer a whole new teaching medium in addition to the two classics: the books and the teacher with his blackboard. As for my bachelor I'm deciding to go for physics because I must think in terms of Plan B's as well; if I end up having to do only one of the professions for a while, I'd rather work with pure physics than pure computer science/engineering I think.

    I find the art of teaching is interesting in the sense that you need to motivate other people and help them see that math is beautiful and elegant, and that physics is truly interesting and amazing and the challange of making the complicated things as easy to understand as possible. I'd like to teach myself sometime, but I don't see myself as a highschool/collage teacher for the rest of my life either.

    I currently prefer theoretical physics to experimental physics, but it's one of those things that could change in the future if I had the chance to work a little with both.
    When I was little I always wanted to be "an inventor", an idea which was inspired by George Gearloose actually, hehe. But time went by I don't really seen myself as being very practical actually. For example in school physics I always excelled in theoritical calculations but was often much more clueless when it came to the practical experiments (especially with electricity!), though I am improving on this point. And on the other hand I'm rarely satisfied with just knowing how something works, I always want to know why it works as well. So from my viewpoint I could just as well be a scientist or an engineer. But is there more room for an engineer to be creative, generally speaking? Is an engineer's/experimentalist's practical work a good way of keeping sane and not growing weird always thinking purely in terms of math and theoretical concepts?

    So where I stand now I have to decide between physics at a normal university (University of Copenhagen) that educates scientists OR physics at a technical university (Technical University of Denmark) that trains engineers. But is there really a difference in the field of physics whether you go BSc or BEng? And which one will give the broadest spectrum of job types and opportunities? Which one would be most compatible to my wish of combining physics and computer science/engineering (I don't really know the difference between the two) in the way I want to?

    When I look at the content of the two physics bachelors they have a lot in common, but there seem to be more projects and technology subjects at the engineering university and just even more basic science subjects and elective course at the normal university. In addition more focus on report writing at the technical university, more focus on textbook problems/excercises at the normal university.

    A lot of questions, I know, I just need some opinions on some or all of these things and seeing that there are many scientists and engineers on this forum I hope to get some perspectives on each and learn from the experience of others. Any answers is much appreciated! :)
    Last edited: Jun 1, 2008
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 1, 2008 #2
    Well that's not actually new at all. Software based physics activities found their way into the classroom years ago. And the level of technology use in the average classroom has gone way past just blackboard and chalk. Maybe you came from a school that didn't have the budget for that?
  4. Jun 1, 2008 #3
    You mean those little java applets? I'm thinking of something much more ambitious. Intelligent software AI that adaps to the individual pupils level and thinking pattern, more like a totally dynamic/interactive textbook.

    Mastering Physics is great, but it's all about problems and assignments; learning of the actual theory is still done by the textbook.
  5. Jun 1, 2008 #4


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    Actually "physics education" is a sub-field of physics itself. In fact I think if anything it's going to grow as a field over the forseeable future. The different branches are getting more and more specialized, the horizon of human knowledge is continually expanding, so its only natural to reason that we need to explore more efficient ways of desseminating information amongst physicists, engineers, and the general population.

    With respect to the question of theorist/experimentalist - a good undergraduate education needs to incorporate both aspects of the science. You can't be good at one without understanding the other. There's no point in deciding which side of field you want to pursue at least until you get to graduate school.

    With respect to the B.Eng. of B.Sc. - there's advantages to each. Personally, I think that you're more employable at the end of four years (with the bachelor's degree) by going the engineering route. On the other hand, the advantage of going to science route is that you're exposed to some of the more interesting aspects of physics - for example, engineers don't have as much opportunity to take introductory courses in cosmology, general relativity, biophysics, etc. that are part of a general upper year physics cirriculum. Neither is a bad choice in my opinion - considering your interests.
  6. Jun 1, 2008 #5
    It's the teacher's job to be dynamic and adopt to fit his/her students needs. I don't see why software has to play that role.

    Well that's only one software suite, and not necessarily the best. Actually there are classes that have taken an approach that's not textbook based. I see you're on the side of throw the textbook away. I'll never, ever be able to understand that point of view, but you're not alone in that sentiment.

    Anyway so as I was saying, there are programs that have adopted your attitude. A good book that surveys all of the active based learning methods is Knight's Five Easy Lessons, it's worth reading. Right now you only need to read the first few chapters, the rest are example lesson plans which don't immediately concern you.

    If you're serious about this, the best approach would be to go to a school that has a physics education research group, such as Maryland. Go for a normal B.S. in Physics, but then after that go for a Masters or Doctorate in Education in Physics. As Choppy pointed out, it's a big field now. And there are research groups specialized in physics education, and you should learn and collaborate with them to see how it's done.
  7. Jun 1, 2008 #6
    Indeed. I can see how making science documentary films could be pretty fun as well!

    BTW I don't hope you misunderstood the thread title, in that context I meant help with my own education help on how getting into the field of physics education because I'm not 100% sure that's what I want to do yet, it's just a good option:)

    You're probably right about the theory/experimental thing.. I just didn't think of it as there were equal opportunity and build-in equal prioritation of each in the B.Eng and B.Sc. physics.

    The differences and advantages you mention of the two paths actually sounds pretty reasonable from what I've been able to gather. It is so much a balance between studying something you find interesting and studying something that will have you get a good job in the end. It's actually a really hard part for me :/

    I think you're quite overinterpretting my statements. I never wanted to get rid of the book and replace it with computer programs. I've never thought of it as other than a complimentary medium in addition to the traditional. And in fact I hate having a physics course while not having a really good written text book as the backbone to support me. But I just think that it would be awesome to really take advantage of the computer's ability to simlulate 3D space on a 2D monitor to visualize advanced concepts in mathmetics and physics with something a lot more sophisticated than web based applets.

    It's funny that you mention Randall D. Knight because I quite frankly think that his "Physics for Scientists and Engineers" is really among the best science books I have ever read (not finished yet, but I'm working on it!). Granted he does drag it out a bit sometimes, but I'd rather have a book too thorough than a book too short and hasty; you can always glimpse through passages if you're sure that you got the idea, however you cannot with your imagination fill in segments of a textbook that is heavily concentrated. Several of my friends didn't like it, but I love the way he writes, the examples and approach to the whole thing. Now we just need those teaching concepts taken to the next level for more advanced stuff and more calculus and advanced mathematics. This is the only point where I really find the book a bit lacking, it's the absence of more advanced calculus. But it's already more than 1300 pages, so the idea for Knight would be to write a "sequal" and take the whole thing to the next level.

    Anyway I have also considered reading "Five Easy Lessons" but think it may be a bit too early for that. I'm not even sure that educational software is what I'm gonna do, I just have some general ideas on how to do it and the subject of effective teaching intrigues me =)
    It's just something I could see myself doing right now, but who knows, a lot of things can changes in the future..
    Last edited: Jun 1, 2008
  8. Jun 1, 2008 #7


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    On a further note there's also the field of scientific and technological journalism that might be worth looking into. I had a friend in undergrad who pursued this route, although I lost touch with her. Personally I think we need way more scientific journalists in the world (and less "entertainment" journalists).

    You're not alone. A lot of people struggle with this decision. I had another friend who really wanted to study physics, but his father wouldn't let him as he (the father) didn't believe physics was a practical degree. (Insert any opinions you may have of parental interference here.) My friend ended up take engineering physics. There was enough overlap that we had quite a few courses together. I took physics and went on to graduate studies in medical physics (and have not had any issues with finding employment).
  9. Jun 1, 2008 #8
    Ok, I understand. There is alot of software out there that's not java applet based, but as far as 3d based ones go specifically I only have personal experience with a program of particles in a box that demonstrated the ideal gas law and the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution.

    Cool! I want to study that book, but I don't want to pay for it. I thought I found it as a superbargain, but it turned out to be just one volume-- the thermodynamics one. I have his student workbook and will be using it for worksheets, and after I study the thermo volume that I bought for a dime (literally a dime!) if I like it I'll get the full thing.
  10. Jun 1, 2008 #9
    We used the book for our AP Physics C class and I really liked it. The workbooks began to get tedious to do though.
  11. Jun 2, 2008 #10
    Scientific journalism would probably be interesting as well.. I wonder if it would matter whether you'd have physics or engineering physics if you went that route?

    Yeah I never did/do the workbooks either. There are solutions for roughly half the problems in the book and lots of examples (thank god) so I don't really feel it's needed.

    Anyway still not close to make a decision. I feel like it's the most important decision in my life, I just wish I could do both and travel back in time to pick the best overall =)
  12. Jun 2, 2008 #11
    Yeah I think I won't overdue them, just use them for warm up exercises, I could also use them for quizzes. I have to be careful next year to not go into worksheet overload-- I have like four different books of worksheets now! And I probably will get more at the conference I'm going to this summer.
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