Teaching is an Independent Skill

In response to the letter in the May APS News from Kashyap Vasavada titled “Education Courses Don’t Help”: I agree that the balance between hours of education classes and classes in one’s target subject required for a teaching certification needs adjustment. However, in my opinion, education classes do help. Even someone who understands the subject material can’t necessarily teach it effectively. To teach well requires a commitment to the process of enabling learning and development in others, and this trait is not correlated with proficiency in one’s field. However, understanding the principles of effective teaching doesn’t mean you can teach a subject well when you don't understand the material. For me, the balance needs to be addressed because subject matter familiarity is required to teach effectively, but it is not sufficient. Therefore, education classes do (or at least should) help.

Dr. Vasavada was surprised by my statement that “...in most schools, too few students take physics to justify full-time physics teachers.” The reason for this situation is that, although large percentages of students take 1 year of physics (100%?), those same students take 2-4 years of English, history/social sciences, and math. For this reason, the physics teachers often teach one or more of the other sciences the students take. So the issue isn’t the percentage of students who take physics at some point in high school but rather that most students only take physics for one year in high school. I acknowledge that my “not enough students take physics” was a misleading way to  express this point, and I am sorry for any confusion this may have  caused.

One of my outside pursuits for the past 12 years has been coaching youth soccer. I am rather too fond of saying that I encounter nothing in my profession as a university researcher, graduate student and postdoctoral advisor, and K-12 science education outreach presenter, that I don’t see on the soccer field in the interactions of 10-15 players, their parents, and the coaching and refereeing staffs. Of relevance to this discussion, we frequently have coaches who have  played soccer at much higher levels than I ever played (collegiate and even professional) who wish to coach. These players often are frustrated by the certification requirements–they believe that  since they play the game arguably better than the instructors, that they have nothing to learn in the coaching clinics. Many can and do go on to coach well, but many do not–the control parameter in my view being the style and effectiveness of the player's own coaches. Just as we tend to emulate our parents (for better and worse) when rearing our own children, we often tend also to emulate our teachers when teaching–which is why effective mentoring is so important, and can have such a big impact.

In any field of human activity, mastery of the skills of the activity does not necessarily imply mastery-or even competence–in teaching those very skills to others. I have been  teaching some subject continuously since I was 17, when I was first  certified by the Red Cross to teach first aid and CPR. Whether it’s first aid, music, scuba diving, soccer, Sunday school, or even physics, my experiences tell me that this is a universal truth. I hope that the physics community will remember this “truth” when  working to improve the training of physics teachers.

Rick Moyer
San Diego, CA

Make Physics More User-friendly

In response to K. Vasavada’s letter about few students taking high school physics: If high school physics is a voluntary course, the reason few students take it is because the high school mathematically-based physics course is not user-friendly. Besides bad teaching, the texts are generally badly written. Most high school students have to do problems which they cannot readily solve since there is no example. In reality most average and better high school students can solve even difficult physics problems if given an example in the text. Under the erroneous idea that if a student struggles with a problem, he/she is “thinking,” many good and diligent students have been turned off high school and college physics. Unnecessary struggling with a problem is really a waste of time. It is only successful problem-solving that turns novice students positively onto  physics. Principles of educational psychology are not being used in either the teaching of high school or college physics, resulting in low enrollments from high school to college. The students are voting about physics with their feet–not taking physics when it can easily be made more user-friendly.

Stewart E Brekke
Downers Grove, Il

“Mixed Reality” Might Influence Real Life

Alfred Hubler’s “Mixed Reality” state, as described in the May APS News, couples a real physical system, through sensors and actuators, to a running model of the system in a high speed computer. When the two finally get correlated, it leads to some interesting speculations: Digital computing is as good as analog coupling. Such correlation really validates the model, making its stand-alone use more trustworthy. One can study the effects of extending the physical system without having to build it.

But one wonders if the physical system itself is affected in any way. As a thought experiment, if we could couple real weather measurements and actuators (a thought, remember) to a running model of the weather, could we be able to influence the weather through this “Mixed Reality”? Or more specifically, in his coupled pendulum case, is there anything different about the first real pendulum, or its coupling to another “virtual” pendulum?

When it comes to human behavior as part of the feedback, perhaps being coupled to the stock market while it was coupled to a running model, will it really affect outcomes? Or when making one’s life decisions when coupled to one’s image in the model, Second Life? Could such intense “Mixed Reality” be any different from learning by being coupled physically to a superb running model with feedback, as in a flight simulator? Or are we talking about creating the “holodeck” on the Enterprise?
 Henderson Cole
 Danbury, CT 

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Science Writing Intern: Nadia Ramlagan