Saturday, June 17, 2017

How Explain The Sad State Of Undergrad Physics Lab Teaching In U.S.?

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Physics lab instructors mentored on how to set up and run a quantum optics experiment.

The news as reported in a recent issue of Physics Today (April, p. 26) was shocking to say the least. That is, that the state of undergraduate physics laboratory teaching in the U.S. is one of total disarray and economic disconnection. How bad are things?  Let's list them:

- Much of  the equipment is dilapidated and beyond practical use

- Experiments are not up to date, e.g. many school are still doing the Millikan oil drop experiment and Cavendish gravitational force experiment.  Many others are also decades or centuries old.

- Many schools are so impoverished in equipment they can't offer labs beyond the first year (mostly associated with General Physics courses)

- Funding for maintaining and updating labs is lacking, and note here that maintaining labs is time consuming and often requires knowledge beyond any one person's research experience.

- Faculty get scant credit for investing time in the labs, including jury rigging dilapidated equipment

The preceding betray the extent of an embarrassing problem that currently affects roughly 750 institutions including "elite" schools. In effect, among those schools that offer a physics bachelor's degree "there has been a collapse" in lab courses. This according to Illinois Weleyan University's Gabriel Spalding.

Given that physics is ultimately a practical science as much as theoretical, it was disheartening to read of the state of labs across the country. Given the university labs I've been associated with have all been thoroughly supplied it was difficult to conceive the basis for the downslide (But at the same time, I am referencing my last teach of labs some 25 years ago.)

What happened?

Basically this is really an economic question: how is it the money dried up to support undergrad labs including maintaining equipment? We have to go back to 1985 when the National Science Foundation (NSF)  established the Instrumentation and Laboratory Improvement (ILI)  program.  The ILI made matching grants available for lab equipment across many disciplines.

From 1985-95, according to program records, ILI awards were made to 1185 institutions totaling $158.6 million. The discrete awards varied from as low as $5,000 to $100,000.  Over time, however, the program became more educationally diffuse so initiatives that once focused on equipment alone expanded to broader educational missions. While the latter may well have been worthwhile, they siphoned money away from purchasing new lab equipment and maintaining existing equipment.   The end result was a zero sum game with the laboratory aspect getting the shorter stick over time.

Worse, a competition was set up within institutions pitting instructors needing physics education equipment against those wanting pure research equipment.    The NSF instructions for declaring need for grants  insisted on "being clear of the knowledge generating aspects" of the proposal. Basically, one had to choose between "physics education research" (i.e. money for lab equipment to teach students) or physics research per se needing equipment for specific experiments. As one prof quoted in the piece put it:

"If I want money for equipment, I don't want to do physics education research. If someone wants to do physics education research they don't want to approach an experimental lab the way I go about it."

The result? According to Gabriel Spalding:

'There really is no significant federal money for instructional lab equipment any more".

So we can afford to piss $3.1 b a month down the drain in Afghanistan for a "war" we can never win, while our universities - supposedly training the next generation of physicists -  go begging for lab equipment.

Fortunately, a decade-old professional organization: the Advanced Laboratory Physics Association (ALPhA), has stepped in to help reduce the problems facing undergrad physics lab teaching.  Their efforts have included: conferences, training sessions and other activities. Complementing these efforts, there is the company TeachSpin -created by Jonathan Reichart-  to promote and support undergraduate physics laboratory instruction.   Part of TeachSpin's mission is to disseminate new experiments, such as the one shown on quantum optics in the graphic, for more advanced lab instruction.  This has been enormously valuable in conjunction with ALPha's  'Beyond the First Year' (BFY) college lab conferences to showcase many new lab experiments.

But let's not kid ourselves here. While ALPha's and TeachSpin's efforts and contributions are laudable and important, they will still not be sufficient to sustain undergraduate lab teaching in the long run. For that, greater federal funding is needed, namely a reversion to the original ILI program sponsored by the NSF.

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