EPS Physics for Development Group goes back to school

By . Published on 26 September 2017 in:
News, September 2017, ,

EPS’s primary mission is to “contribute to and promote the advancement of physics, in Europe and in neighbouring countries”, but given the extent to which international collaborations play such an important role in European scientific production—as show up by bibliometric data — it is not entirely outside that mission to look well beyond European borders and help “foster a global research and education system,” taking a phrase from the Second European Report on Science and Technology Indicators. 

In July, addressing the educational part of such a global system, the EPS Physics for Development Group participated in activities with other societal partners at two events. At the OCPA9 conference in Beijing, we participated in a plenary panel discussion on international collaboration in physics education and best practices, joined by representatives of the American and Chinese Physical Societies, and others within the Association of Asia Pacific Physical Societies (AAPPS). This directly followed a meeting in Dublin– organized by the IOP during the GIREP-ICPE-EPEC conference– to discuss similar topics in an African context, with participation of representatives from both the EPS Physics for Development group and its Physics Education Division.

So what did we learn? Assuming there are improvements to be made in physics education, why should we try to fix a system that has produced such notable scientists as Dirac, Einstein and Feynman, to name but a few?

In short: we should embrace “learning by inquiry” in our undergraduate education. Although there are no shortcuts — magic or otherwise — around the crucial task of solving problems with pencil and paper in the education of a professional physicist, the question might be better framed in terms of how we can make positive and efficient use of the time students actually spend in the classroom, at least in the first year undergraduate course. Inquiry-based techniques, which actively engage students in class, can go a long way to improving things. The problem is broader than just a worry for those specialising in physics education. As 2001 Physics Nobel Laureate, and inquiry-based education advocate Carl Wieman puts it: “One of the big challenges is that many students start college interested in majoring in STEM fields only to leave for other disciplines.”  Of course, we all know that it’s tough going as far as majors go, but we could make the classroom a place to reinvigorate interest and curiosity early on. These student-centered programs, in Wieman’s view, teach students to “think like scientists.”  Besides, they have fun and there is nothing wrong with that 3-letter word (12 in Italian but who’s counting…?).

Let’s face it: all of us involved in research need bright and creative students in the pipeline, and these students can generally do anything they want.  Keeping them in physics or other STEM subjects will eventually pay dividends to European research needs and therefore should be the concern of all scientists in both academia and industry. With the increasing internationalisation of science, it is also in our interest to make sure we encourage our colleagues far from Europe to follow suit. 

As a final and related note, EPS will be teaming up with UNESCO and the ICTP in Trieste to run an inquiry-based teacher-training workshop (Active Learning in Optics and Photonics) in Kiev in 23-27 October at the Taras Shevchenko National University.  The President of the Ukrainian Physical Society has accepted an invitation to attend, and we hope to see a few members of the active EPS Young Minds chapters within Ukraine, who are likely to play a role in educating a new generation of physicists there.

Undergraduate physics students at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad actively engaged in an inquiry-based workshop using a European optics kit (Photonics Explorer, Eyest)
Undergraduate physics students at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad actively engaged in an inquiry-based workshop using a European optics kit (Photonics Explorer, Eyest)

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