Friday, June 13, 2008

The Compass Project @ UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley physics graduate student Joel Corbo has a guest post at Cosmic Variance, where he talks about the attitude within his department that discourages grad students from pursuing an interest in teaching. Not surprisingly, this ends up negatively affecting the undergraduates who want to pursue a physics major. Corbo believes the atmosphere can end up diminishing their "passion for physics" in several ways:

  1. Because they don’t have the skills necessary to problem-solve, model-build, and generally think like physicists, these students actually don’t know how to effectively learn physics as it is typically presented in a large lecture-based class. This doesn’t mean that these students are stupid, or somehow not worth teaching. It simply means that there are things they need to be taught other than “the material” in order to help them become better learners. Unfortunately, many of them come away feeling like they don’t have what it takes to be physicists (as though there is some intrinsic “physicsness” that they are lacking) and so they leave the field.
  2. The typical introductory physics sequence, at least at Berkeley, is very isolating for potential physics majors. The vast majority of people in those classes are engineering students who are there because their departments require that they take physics; they have largely no interest in physics for its own sake. This makes it very difficult for potential physics majors to identify each other — they are like needles in an apathetic haystack. [. . . ] However, an important part of the excitement of physics is the collaboration with peers, the shared goal of building knowledge through interaction and discussion and asking “What if”. Without that, it’s incredibly difficult to paint physics as an interesting field, to really sell the idea of being physicists to these students beyond the level that NOVA can, and so they leave the field.
  3. The problems of interaction and perceived lack of “physicsness” are magnified for a certain set of students: women and underrepresented minorities. [. . .] For this discussion, the important point to note is that in addition to the issues that their well-represented peers also face, they have to face majoring in a field where they don’t see people like themselves. They arrive at the seemingly logical but erroneous conclusion that success in physics is unattainable unless you are a white male, and so they leave the field.
Realizing those problems, he and three other grad students and created a program called The Compass Project. The Compass Project "supports diversity [especially women and minorities] in the physical sciences by bringing together undergraduate and graduate students through exceptional teaching and learning experiences." They run a two-week intensive summer program for incoming freshmen which both introduces them to the campus, and allows them to work closely with graduate students and professors to "learn what 'doing science' really means." Year-round the Compass Project offers mentoring, office hours and lectures aimed at undergraduates.

So, how can you help support this fantastic program? As I alluded to earlier, Compass was founded quite recently (our second summer program is happening this August!), and is entirely run by physics grad students. Right now, the main problem that Compass is facing at Berkeley is a lack of financial support (apparently times are tough in Sacramento as well as in DC), so we are trying to get the word out about our existence and the good work we are trying to do. So, if you think our program is worth supporting, spread the word! Tell your friends in important places about us, let us know if you are interested in hearing more or helping out, and, if you are able, donate some money to Compass. Every bit of help we can get is vital to keep this program going.

And if you happen to be a grad student at some school, and you happen to feel frustrated about these issues too, don’t despair. Consider starting a program similar to Compass at your school (and by all means, tell us about it). You’d be surprised how many good things your frustration can create.

(read the whole post)

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Anonymous said...

Important post for teaching physics. What we must stress is focusing on principles. See the new book on "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better".

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I once persuaded my friend not to go into teaching, but then afterward I have second-guessed my action. That is because I think many teachers and professors can't teach, and she might be a great contribution to the education community. I did not feel too bad, however, because teaching was not her first choice.

Peggy K said...

Teaching is a difficult profession, so I agree that it's not necessarily a career that people should pursue unless they truly want to teach. However, there are opportunities for teaching outside of a regular teaching job. I hope your friend finds an opportunity to teach to see if it's something she would really want to do.