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Dave Palmer
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Re: Adressing wrong problem
Dave Palmer   12/6/2011 11:31:27 AM
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I'm disappointed to see a lot of responses along the lines of "It doesn't matter if physics departments get cut because I had a physics instructor my freshman year who wasn't very good," or "It doesn't matter if physics departments get cut because all they do is weird esoteric stuff about string theory which has no practical implications anyway."

This seems to be a very parochial attitude - we don't care about other disciplines except as they effect our own, and we regard anything we don't understand with suspicion.

A lot of the work which is done in physics departments has no immediate practical implications.  What are the practical implications of astrophysics, for example? Does understanding the processes by which galaxies form help me to design better products? Chances are, it doesn't.  But that doesn't mean it's not important.  The advancement of human knowledge is an end in itself.

That being said, a lot of theoretical work which at first appears to have no practical implications may later be found to open up whole new fields of applications which were previously unimagined.  Ever heard of the transistor? The laser? 

As engineers, we don't do a whole lot to advance understanding of the world -- we just take the understanding of the world which other people have come up with, and try to use it to make something useful.  But our understanding of the world doesn't make a lot of sense sometimes, which is why it's so important that somebody is working on the problem of making sense of it.

As far as Michael Grieve's points about getting engineering students involved in actual engineering projects early on in their undergraduate careers, I agree.  But I don't think this implies the dissolution of physics departments is ok -- as hard as it may be for us to see as engineers, physics departments have an importance beyond their usefulness to engineering departments.

Michael Grieves
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Blogger
Re: Adressing wrong problem
Michael Grieves   12/5/2011 11:48:06 PM
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I couldn't agree more. I am against a black box approach to education, but how many differential equations do students have to do before they understand the concept? Especially given that they'll have to use numerical techniques anyway. We should be giving the students the computer tools, teach them the concepts, and get them involved in meaningful projects in their freshmen year. (This makes me very unpoplar with math departments.)

The problem is that I have run across only a handful of professors who are not afraid of getting out of their chosen domain in order to master other domains. We need less professors who "know a lot about a little" and more who "know a lot about a lot". Unfortunately PhD programs and the tenure system give us a lot of the former and not too many of the latter.

So, I don't care if schools don't have "physics programs". I want professors who understand physics along with all the other disciplines a great engineer needs and works with their students to apply that knowledge through engagement on interesting projects.

Charles Murray
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Re: Adressing wrong problem
Charles Murray   12/5/2011 10:48:26 PM
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Michael: I agree that we need to rethink how we educate engineering and physics students. Unfortunately, the accepted method of pushing students through the "silos" is driving a percentage of students away. In some cases, those students may be gifted engineers with a natural sense of curiosity that doesn't get satisfied by a curriculum that is too often long on math and short on context. It may be a great way to find the most determined students, but it's supposed to be an education, not a fraternity hazing.

William K.
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Platinum
Laws ? Of Physics? under attack???
William K.   12/5/2011 7:14:40 PM
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My thinking is that perhaps those folks in Texas found out just what the physics departments were concentrating on. Producing more research doctorates to spend careers chasing after mythical particles and "dark matter" is not going to help our country at all. 

It has been pointed out by others with a good grasp of recent history that it is the financial weasels who are making all of the money because they are not regulated, and that when they were regulated, but industry was less regulated, engineers made more, and so we had more engineers. It seems that quite a few choose careers where the money is. So how about regulating the daylights out of the financial industries, the ones who damaged our countrie's economy so much, and perhaps we will find more students choosing science and engineering, if our government can ever stop hating manufacturing busnisses for a while.

I am not sure about how to raise the overall pay level of engineers, but it would probably be the same sort of things that would bring back the respect we used to have. 

The solution then is not about funding graduate physics departments, it is about making certain that all engineers have a very good background in physics. Not just in their area of study, but in all of the major areas. Of course this would indeed mean some additional courses, but perhaps some of those non-engineering courses could become optional.

Michael Grieves
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Blogger
Re: Adressing wrong problem
Michael Grieves   12/5/2011 5:26:22 PM
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Hey, I didn't claim to be realistic. I unfortunately would tend to agree with you. However, I am not giving up just yet. There are some bright spots in the educational institutions that are part of the SPACE and PACE programs. Even in these institutions, these are pockets of progress and traditionalists abound.

Who knows? Maybe the lack of money will be a good thing and force educational institutions to have to do things differently.

I may not be a realist, but I intend to remain an optimist.

Alexander Wolfe
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Re: Adressing wrong problem
Alexander Wolfe   12/5/2011 5:09:49 PM
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Your comment was a breath of fresh air, Michael. I do wonder, though, how realistic it is. The real, albeit possibly hidden, purpose of a college department is to perpetuate itself, and so breaking down the siloes is probably a non starter. This doesn't even mention who would teach "physics in another wrapper" courses. My own contention, borne of painful experience, is that many (most?) physics teachers on the college level are not very good teachers at all. I vividly recall as a freshman being told to read the textbook, while the professor amused his own intellect by lecturing to himself. I've often wondered whether the experiences of others in engineering school wasn't all that different.

Michael Grieves
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Blogger
Adressing wrong problem
Michael Grieves   12/5/2011 4:49:21 PM
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Ignoring the issue that these posts confuse the discussion of economics as one of discipline, Ii.e., Keynesian versus monetarists, rather than economics as "having no money," the Dean unfortunately approaches this issue in a traditional fashion.

The issue should be whether students are educated in physics and not whether there is a physics department. My contention is that if we want to have more students in the technical disciplines, we need to rethink and revamp how we educate them. Today, we bore the heck out of them in the traditional silos of math, physics, thermodynamics, and wonder why students drop out of the area. If we are going to produce more engineers, we need to get them involved in interesting and useful projects that will grab their imagination early on. The problem is that colleges and universities are far more siloed than industry. As a result, we see articles like this that are concerned about the loss of the department rather than trying to address how we need to integrate physics into engineering programs.

There are some bright spots occurring. General Motors has had their PLM PACE (pacepartners.org) program for 10 years now that gets students involved with meaningful projects that, oh by the way, teach them to understand and apply mathematics, physics, etc. There are now 52 educational institutions worldwide that are part of this. I have worked with NASA to create the PLM SPACE (Strategic Partners for the Advancement of Collaborative Engineering) Education program, which will partner up NASA centers with educational institutions to get students in the college and even high school level to address interesting projects.

If we really want to get more students interested and involved in STEM, we need to rethink our engineering and technical education, not worry about individual departments.


Rob Spiegel
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Blogger
Re: Reverse Take
Rob Spiegel   12/5/2011 1:20:55 PM
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Good point, Ratsky, about the best and brightest not being attracted to studying difficult and unromantic subjects. Some of the older, more unattractive jobs, though, are becoming more attractive. The software proliferation in the automation world is beginning to attract young engineers. New developments is software are making plant automation much more attractive.

JCG
User Rank
Gold
Re: Keeping international students
JCG   12/5/2011 1:10:07 PM
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I may have a unique, or at least different outlook on this topic.  Upon graduating from high school, I wanted to get a degree in physics, ultimately with the goal of getting a PhD in Astrophysics or Cosmology hoping to teach and do research, but, due to financial considerations, I did not attend the private schools that accepted me, but went to a public university in the middle of the state, known for its engineering curriculum, but also located in possibly the most economically depressed county in the state.

While I've been interested in and better understood the theories, my math was not stellar so I did better in the applied lab classes than the theoretical mathematics.  The department and I had a parting of ways... I was a junior taking junior-level theory courses but had taken the first semester-senior lab.  My grades had suffered, but, on my part, I was disillusioned about pursuing physics on many levels, including politics of academia, limited curriculum/study, employment opportunities (and salary), teaching aptitude (or lack thereof), unreasonable competition/in-fighting in the department and between departments, and the cost of a degree.

Politics of Academia... like almost everywhere else, academia is full of politics, and my limited experience has suggested that its far worse than in the private sector.  Favoritism, intellectual theft, pseudo-science, publication and grant fiascos were a little of what I was privy to.  It didn't seem to matter how smart you were or what you knew, but who you knew, studied under, and what your GPA was.

Limited curriculum... like other departments, the physics departments are 'known' for particular fields of study.  Our department's three areas were cloud physics, subatomic research (particle spin), and solid state.  Most of our equipment was old and custom (we still had a short particle accelator/decelerator that had been built by our university chancellor 25 years earlier).

Employment opportunities & salary... Unless you have a graduate degree, a B.S. in Physics doesn't have as many opportunities outside of academia / government. The places everyone wanted to go, special, high-profile research facilities, JPL, NASA, observatories, prestigious universities, etc. were all so competitive that there was little or no chance of being able to get in. Private sector options were VERY limited... there's a joke that a physics major can do anything an engineer can, but only half as efficiently... In physics, we focus on starting from base principles and mathematically deriving answers through natural and mathematical laws... engineers learn the empirical equations, shortcuts, which make getting answers more efficient.  With a B.S. in Physics, chances are that they'd either be involved in research, mathematics / statistics, and/or business (such as derivatives).  Which brings us to the salary... at the time (mid-'90s) the average Physic B.S. had an average salaray of $20-26k, while a engineer (ME or EE) may make $35-40k.

Teacher Aptitude (or lack thereof)... Many teachers seemed to be pre-occupied with their research and publishing, and acted as it teaching was a necessary 'evil', although there were a few that I thought were rather good at teaching.  Many professors and (G)TAs had English as a second language and couldn't carry on a conversation... I'd estimate of the science and engineering majors, 20%-30% were foreign nationals (most who would return home after graduation), and a MUCH higher percentage for the professors and graduate TAs. I also received grief from teachers going from Physics to Engineering.  There were no shortage of incompetent teachers, usually with tenure, and a shortage of great, enthusiastic professors who are usually the first cut or hired off by better paying schools.

Unreasonable competition/in-fighting... Although Physics was actually one of the better departments about in-fighting, it still had its rivalries.  The worst in-fighting I saw was actually in the College of Engineering... Departments across campus were little feudal kingdoms, and things such as equipment and facilities were only shared begrudgenly. I had heard rumor about a professional society offering $250-400k for development of a focused program... two departments were logical candidates, but the majority of the professional society members on campus were in one department, and the award was to go to them... but the other department heard about it and fought to offer their own version... which ended up around 180 credit hours for an undergraduate degree.  The offer was rejected, but they objected so much that neither department received the award.

Finally, there's the big elephant in the room... the cost of education... University, and even private primary and secondary school costs are growing at an unprecedented rate, with little or no restriction/control.  Even state colleges, land-grant, are getting priced ridiculously so that one can only afford to go if they receive scholarships, they (or more likely, their parents) are wealthy, or their education is paid for by foreign governments (we had engineering and science students from across the globe, primarily the far east... China, Japan, Taiwan, India, Pakistan, etc.).  It's getting so that even military service (GI Bill and signing bonus) are not enough to pay for college, even while working while studying.  Part of this, I believe, is due to the proliferation of student loans and Pell grants... no reason for the university to control costs if more money is simply thrown at it, especially guaranteed by the government.  I loved how the student loans were set up so that 8% off the top went to the issuing financial institution for 'handling/processing fees', then, of the remaining 92% of the loan total, you'd receive only half at the begining of the semester, and the second half after mid-terms... meaning that the financial institutions got another two months of interest off half your loan amount.

Admittedly, my experience may be unique, but I don't think the problems observed are.  A major cultural change, not only in our society, but in our academia, needs to take place before there's any real hope of change.  By apologizing and downplaying American 'exceptionalism', and apologizing to the international community for our acheivements and contributions does not bode well for our future. 

Dave Palmer
User Rank
Platinum
Economic models
Dave Palmer   12/5/2011 12:15:31 PM
I don't intend to defend the economic theories of Keynes or Samuelson.  But the economic theories which have been pursued in the U.S. since at least the early 1980s have been those of Milton Friedman and his disciples (such as Alan Greenspan), which are based on a complete rejection of Keynesianism.  There was a minor swing back towards Keynes in the last year of the Bush Administration and the first year of the Obama Administration, but it didn't last very long.

Over the past 30 years, the trend has unquestionably been away from the welfare state and towards free market-ism.  Just consider the fact that Nixon, a Republican President, enacted price and wage controls, and proposed a guaranteed national income.  Can you imagine Obama even suggesting either of these things? No - and, in fact, when he proposes returning income tax rates to levels which are lower than they were under Reagan, he's accused of being a "socialist."

That being said, I also think that public policy has never really been wedded to any particular economic theory; the economic theories have been flags of convenience.  For example, politicians who claim to be against intervention in the free market tend not to have a problem with intervention on behalf of their campaign donors, and budget hawks tend not to have a problem with government spending as long as it goes into the defense bucket.  Politicians who are actually consistent in their principles, like Ron Paul, are extremely few and far between.

In reality, we haven't followed either textbook Keynesianism or textbook Friedmanism.  What we've actually followed is a form of crony capitalism in which government intervenes when it benefits their campaign donors - and stays out of the free market when it's in the interest of their campaign donors to do so. This is what has gotten us into so much trouble.

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