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Laws of Physics Under Attack by Economics

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Rob Spiegel
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How do we meet the need for physics now?
Rob Spiegel   12/2/2011 8:31:04 AM
Nice post, Geoffrey.

Your comments make me wonder how we're filling the need for physics now, with just 4,000 to 5,000 annual graduates. Is this a discipline that is covered by immigrants and green-card visitors?

If so, I would imagine the current anti-immigration mood in the country will further complicate our ability to grow a sustainable number of physics teachers, professors and programs.

Dave Palmer
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Pay it forward
Dave Palmer   12/2/2011 10:34:23 AM
A better title for this article might be "Laws of Physics Under Attack by Political Science." The economics of supporting STEM education are clear.

Since the early 2000s, the majority of physics PhD's granted by U.S. universities have been to students who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents.  This is true even despite an overall decline in the number of international students in the post-September 11, 2001 era.

The majority of engineering PhD's granted by U.S. universities also go to students who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents.  Arguably, however, this has to do with the fact that engineers who are citizens or permanent residents can get jobs in industry with a bachellor's or master's degree, and only rarely stick around to get doctorates.  International students have a harder time getting jobs in industry - many employers don't want to go through the paperwork and bureaucratic hassles required to sponsor a visa - so they tend to stay in academia and get doctorates, do post-doctoral research, etc.

Personally, I'm glad that so many international students come to the U.S. to study.  Having classmates from many different countries made my educational experience better.

That being said, there are a lot of potentially talented kids in the U.S. who aren't getting the chance to develop their abilities.  We like to believe that anyone can be successful in the U.S. with hard work, creativity, and talent.  That statement is probably more true in the U.S. than it is in just about any other country - but there are still a lot of kids who have the cards stacked against them.

The fact is that many students, especially low-income and minority students, receive a sub-standard primary and secondary education which doesn't prepare them well for college.  And as this article points out, for those who do manage to make it to college, the community colleges and universities which serve low-income and minority students are often the first to face budget cuts.  This is the reality we live in.

The causes of this are complex, but the consequences are clear: an erosion of scientific and engineering talent, with troubling implications for economic growth and national security.

I would encourage any and all engineering professionals who are concerned about this to get involved in tutoring and mentoring programs.  If you don't have time to tutor students every week, volunteer to give a career day presentation, judge a science fair, or speak to a science class.  All of us are very fortunate to have benefited from an engineering education.  Now is the time to pay it forward.

Rob Spiegel
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Keeping international students
Rob Spiegel   12/2/2011 1:04:49 PM
There are some many problems to solve in our education system that would drive up the number of students on physics, that the quickest road to more Ph.D.s in the field might be Tom Friedman's suggestion. Take each science diploma earned by an international student and stable a green card to it.

This is especially important at a time when an increasing percentage of our bright international students are returning home with their degrees rather than making a life in the United States.

Dave Palmer
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Re: Keeping international students
Dave Palmer   12/2/2011 2:51:06 PM
@Rob Spiegel: Giving permanent resident status to international students who complete an advanced degree in the U.S. would certainly be a short term solution to increase the supply of science and engineering talent available to private industry in the U.S.  However, I suspect it would have a dirsuptive effect on university research.

Right now, many academic departments rely heavily on an essentially captive labor force of international students and postdocs to provide teaching assistants, research assistants, etc.  Many of these students would not be doing this work -- which is poorly paid, underappreciated, and often demands superhuman hours -- if they had the opportunity to work in private industry.

Of course, it could be argued that maybe universities ought to pay graduate research and teaching assistants at rates which are more competitive with private industry.  This is probably true, but seems that it would require major changes to the ways universities do things.

In any case, relying on developing countries to provide us with a science and engineering workforce is only a short term solution at best.  At some point, we need to train our own people.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Keeping international students
Rob Spiegel   12/2/2011 2:58:54 PM
I agree completely, Dave. But I'm concerned about our ability to change our education system to produce students who are both capable and motivated to succeed in hard science. We've looked at everything to improve our education system -- more spending per student, cracking the teacher unions so we can improve teachers, uniforms, standardized testing, and on and on. 

I no longer think there's a key. I'm coming to think it's the culture, not the education system -- or, difficulties in the education system can't be corrected until there are changes in the culture.

By drawing on international students, we're drawing on the results of cultures that are more focused on the importance of education excellence. 

Yes, short term indeed. But it's something.

Charles Murray
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No silver lining
Charles Murray   12/2/2011 3:54:07 PM
The silver lining to this dark cloud would be if the state looked at the paltry number of graduates and said: "Let's re-direct the funds to the elementary and high school levels in an effort to spur interest in physics among younger students, so we can later drive up the number of collegians who want to get undergrad degrees in physics. Then we can expand the college physics programs when we see more genuine interest in the subject." Somehow, though, I doubt this is happening.

Alexander Wolfe
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Reverse Take
Alexander Wolfe   12/4/2011 6:01:58 PM
In one sense, it's really economics that's under attack by physics. Economics is supposed to be a hard science, yet it can't make a correct risk-reward assessment vis a vis the dollars versus cutting STEM-related programs. So how hard of a science can it really be? These economist might as well be anthropologists; not to denegrate that latter, which as far as I can tell have made more positive contributions to the world in the past decade that those vaunted economics, who before the got around to cutting these STEM programs had a big hand in wrecking the U.S. economy.

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Absalom   12/5/2011 10:11:08 AM
There is nothing illogical or wrong with immigrants who bring motivation, knowledge and the skills we need.

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Re: Keeping international students
RadioGuy   12/5/2011 10:20:13 AM
This may be a short term benefit to the US, but is likely to have bad long term consequences to the countries of origin of the students. Returning graduates are needed for the economic development of poorer countries and are also valuable on seeding the leadership of these countries with young adults who have seen the benefits of an open, democratic society. That is portent for US, too.

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Re: Pay it forward
jelectron   12/5/2011 10:25:04 AM
You are totally right, I am a volunteer at local public school and caused a huge interest into science and engineering since we built a solar powered water fall, a noise meter for classrooms, and now building a wind turbine 3 phase electrical generator..I work with 4 to 8 grade kids, I can tell you, we can make a huge difference and I am doing it.

My self I am not from the US, but I have to pay back to it since I love this country, we need more American kids into STEM, many of them just dream of been a football player, lawyer, hip hop star or to work at mcdonals, also is part culture as mentioned too.

The money is not the problem, there is everything in some schools but no one knows or is afraid to use, I this specific school I was amazed to see an entire cnc wood workshop machinery hidden in storage, new!!!, no ones know how to operate..so here I am, I know part of it and we are working to get that out and create some handy kids...

We all know the lack of good skilled tech workers, I mean one that handles electrical, instrumentation, control, electro-mecanical and more..how will we create those if not many encourage their students into.

Clearly the country needs the highly technical skilled workforce, as well engineers, but also great teachers..who of us wants our kids to be teachers?? none...but we want the best teachers...


Unfortunately for many people, this is a mix of things including hate against immigrants, instead of taking advantage... many say we educate them here then they go abroad to manufacture and sell chinese goods to the US, but, are your Ipads or Ipods made in the US? why not? you know the answer to it...it is all about productivity, do we have it here? train those thousands into tech jobs and will see...but are they willing to go into tech complexities?

At the end, we all need to contribute to this cause, please, volunteer, go to career days, you can change the future for good of many kids, families and this country...

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