I keep wondering about a couple of things related to this subject. The first is something Alex's comment made me remember. Trend A: I've been hearing for several years now that older engineers supposedly aren't up to speed on a lot of things, and/or don't want to learn new skills. So companies are hiring younger ones and dumping older ones, a problem not confined to engineering. That's hardly a good reward to look forward to for the young ones.
Trend B: I've also heard that the age imbalance that's causing all the screaming about Social Security supposedly going bankrupt is also about to cause a labor imbalance, and a shortage of trained employees in unspecified career areas. And supposedly there won't be enough youngsters to hire and oldsters will be in big demand. This supposed hiring spree will be aided by the fact that most Baby Boomers can't afford to retire and plan to keep working (probably because we no longer get guaranteed pensions like our parents did, and/or have gotten laid off for being too expensive).
Engineering tudents need a robust education and understanding in physics and math appropriate for their future career. (They don't need string theory and they don't need to solve the 50th slightly different Laplace transform.) This does not imply that there needs to be physics and math departments, whose professors for the most part have no idea of the problems engineers need to solve.
This doesn't mean that physics and math departments will all go away. Universities that excel in theses areas will continue to do research. It does mean that the Dean's concern is misplaced. If a school can't support a physics department, it shouldn't have one. Engineering professors whoud be well enough versed in physics (and math) that their students won't lack for that education.
Before I get too far down the track of criticizing engineering education, I should mention that I've heard some schools are now trying to bring more design and more contextual learning courses into the freshman year. The University of Michigan, University of Texas, Rose-Hulman Institute and Olin College of Engineering come to mind. I'm sure there are many others. I've even heard that MIT is using Lego Mindstorms in a freshman class.
My college physics courses were quite unique, in that the very excellent lecture portion was taught by a doctor of physics, while the labs were run by a graduate student. The lectures were excellent, the labs were stinko.
Engineers don't need the PhD level of classes, but rather an excellent understanding of "what is going on". The physics-Mechanics teacher that was quite awsome was actually teaching Dynamics. It was almost pure math dynamics, and I certainly did learn a bit about kinematics and acceleration. And I am sure he could have derived the acceleration of a quark, but what we did understand was the physics of how it works. And I have not been able to find quarks in any suppliers catalog.
My point with all that is that teaching a very thorough course in basic physics does not require doing research in imaginary particle physics. How the atoms interact in an IC is all part of the more basic physics, with a few chemical laws thrown in. Theacing that requires a very good teacher, not researcher,
> 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.
OK, but how do you provide such physics education without physicists? I don't think you can teach physics part-time; in my opinion, the main benefit of physics that it brings together math, experimental science, and other domains such as chemistry or even biology, and it is a full-time job.
I may have a conflict of interest as a physicist but I believe that it takes one to teach one. I may agree that there is a graduation rate (0.5 physics BA/year? one-tenth? one per year? I don't know) at which a physics department is not filling its purpose, but we do need them, just like we need Washington Redskins in football.
By the way, experimental physicists need to have good engineering sense, or else their instruments would not work reliably; Michelson's instruments, for instance, were a marvel to behold.
What about if companies where given a $40k credit for every H1-B employee they swapped out for a domestically trained engineer. That's of course beyond the political pale for a number of reasons, but I think it would reenergize the employment of stateside-engineers and also might spur kids to try engineering. I think a lot of kids pass up engineering not just because it's tough, but because the perception of good rewards relative the work (risks) just aren't there.
Things have changed when it comes to expectations. My kids have always had considerably less homework than we did as kids. You're right that the importance of education was still strong through the 60s. I see a tipping point in the early 70s. That's when universities started to introduce 100-level classes. They were non-credit classes in English and Math that were designed to bring high school graduates up to an acceptable performance level.
The current recession may drive home the importance of education. The unemployment rate for college graduates is less than 5 percent.
I agree, Rob, I think there's been a big change in the US since we were kids regarding how important education is, or is not. Back in my day, being smart and educated was valued and admired. Even during the turbulent 60s, it was still valued. That's certainly not true today among teenagers. I think much of this problem is due to the fact that more than one sentence on a subject like ancient history or math or science is considered way too deep and detailed.
I agree, for the most part, about Mr. Palmer's view on the value of Physics... This may not be popular, but it's hard not to think of engineering, in general, as being applied (specialized) physics. Electrical engineering could be seen as application of solid state and energy physics, electromagnetism, even to the point of subatomic interactions. Mechanical engineering could be seen as application of the laws of physical mechanics, in addition to more specialized areas such as thermodynamics, thermofluids, and some electrical engineering related to controls and instrumentation. Even chemistry is really the specialized 'macro'-level study of molecular interaction and bonding of electron shells of atoms. Things like 'astrophysics' may seem irrelevant, but when they involve understanding stellar structures, macro-scale application of relativistic and quantum (subatomic) phenomena, and, to some degree, understanding the 'environment' that our little water covered rock is racing around in, the more things are understood, including base forces of nature (in search of the GUT), it does benefit us at various levels... and the engineering to develop methods of observing, inspecting, measuring, controlling, etc. these forces leads to futher engineering development in other fields, similar and not.
Physics, and the core mathematics, actual and theoretical, must be preserved if we want to develop science and engineering disciplines. And the idea that we simplify or limit math, or work more on computer dependence is saddening, as it suggests that we are too lazy, stupid, or not focused enough to develop this knowledge and skill... The processes need to be learned first... Once the processes are learned (such as to the ability to program the computer to perfrom the processes), then I can see allowing computer dependence, but not before this level of learning has been achieved. To lose Physics and Mathematics is not to maintain the status quo, but to let our knowledge base decay...
As far as 'siloing' a knowledge, this can be 'bad', or inefficent as well, as viewed an individual, but when we look at it from a mass learning, the 'silos' (departments) serve a use by 'specialized' training/learning that can be applied in cross-functional curriculums. How the training/learning takes place, however, leaves much to be desired.
Participation in engineering projects can be a two-edged sword. While a few in-class team projects can be beneficial (maybe one or two classes a semester), the 'craze' about a team project in every class is not warranted unless the teams are supported... if the professor and/or TAs are not involved in the teams, monitoring their progress, watching their interactions, and setting up some kind of individual accountability within the team, then the team 'project' may turn out to be nothing more than a lazy professor's method of putting the kindergardners down for a nap while the professor has some in-class 'free time'. I stress individual accountability as important, even in a team project because way too often I've been either the only or one of the only contributing members of a team, which is typical of many teams, both in the classroom and in industry. The difference is that in industry, people develop reputations as people who get by and those that get things done... a team is doomed to fail if it is composed of those just looking to get by; in the classroom members are stuck with each other, whether by choice or not. A real-life project (like an in-school part-time internship/co-op) with an industry partner would be beneficial. Having worked with interns and co-ops, it's a fine balance between having tasks appropriate for their skill/knowledge/dedication level that are beneficial for the company, increase the student's knowledge and skill, and is relevant and interesting to the student. But a long-term (maybe even multi-year) project would be beneficial, especially if there were choices among industry partners, and it could even act as a major foot into the door for full internships/co-ops or employment after graduation.
While I don't agree with Mr. Palmer on the issue of economics (Obama is a 'socialist', or, maybe more accurately, a fascist, and not because of his carrot and stick 'less' taxes than Reagan shell game), I do agree with him about the need to retain and even strengthen physics (and math) departments.
Here is a scary thought. What if the average of 5000 Physics graduates per year is about right?
Even with all of the high-school and college football and basketball programs, only around 300 athletes get drafted into careers each year. Recognizing that aptitude in science and engineering are talents, will building additional departments increase the number of successful graduates? As an analogy, over 100,000 contestants are screened for each season of American Idol and the ultimate results are very mixed. Singers make lots of money and fans obviously want more. Should we increase the number of Music departments to fill the demand?
As a Physics graduate I would love nothing more that to share my love for the discipline with young students. But I don't believe a "No Physicist Left Behind" program would be successful.
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