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.
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.
@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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
There's a lot of truth in what you say. Some of us recognized a long time ago that Economics was NOT (and never will be) a true "hard" science. Way back in the begiining of the '60s, as an MIT undergraduate, there was a required course for all majors, Economics 14.01. The lecturer was Paul Samuelson, when he wasn't busy being Kennedy's chief economic advisor. The primary focus was macroeconomic models, particularly his favorite, Keynsian. I got an "F" in this course TWICE because I insisted on pointing out that the entire model worked only if the much-vaunted "multiplier effect" worked only for government expenditures, not private sector spending. This was not only contrary to all common sense, it was also not supported by ANY scientific analysis: it was essentially stated as an axiom! Thus, my recognition of the unscientific nature of at least this particular brand of socio-politco-economics came at age 18!
I have long advocated the necessity for a solid background in Physics and Mathematics for true success in any scientific or engineering field; it's a shame that even our top-rated schools have watered down those requirements in favor of "trendy" "modern" courses instead.
The real problem is that so few of our "best and brightest" are willing to take on the task of studying these difficult and unromantic (and also relatively unprofitable!) subjects. If technical careers could be seen as more rewarding AND interesting, the laws of supply and demand (so conveniently ignored by Prof. Samuelson and his disciples) would attract more of those potential teachers of the fundamentals.
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.
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.
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.
As our economy continues to fail I would think that it should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer that modern mainstream economics is a miserable failure.Mainstream economics poster boy is John Menard Keynes and the resultant School of Keynesian Economics.One of his biggest turnoffs for me was he blamed recessions/depressions on “animal spirits” overtaking those who were in business.If I were to say the reaction between two inductors were caused by something akin to “animal spirits” no one could possibly take me serious.Well then again perhaps someone in government may!The strongly competitive economics is the AustrianSchool who explain econ in terms of human action (see the writings of von Mises).Humans do not respond like atoms or electrons in a perfectly foreseeable way, thus the math of physics cannot be applied.All engineers should be able to understand this.
But Keynesian economics is favored by government as Keynes preached only government could fix problems by injection of money.He did so in 1930 and our government followed his prescription.The Great Depression followed.Oops, not enough spending!!!!Fast forward 80 years.Huge spending programs, yet terrible employment numbers and soon to pass terrible price inflation.We as a society have pushed everyone into universities to get a any type of degree.A lady in Occupy Wall Street complained she had a Masters in Lesbian Studies, yet could not get a job!!! I couldn’t make stuff up like this even if I tried!
I believe engineers and scientists cannot be trained.The “gift” is within us, probably since birth, and it is not blocked by racial, nor economic reasons.Most of us have worked with EEs who really knew their stuff in math and electronics, but who could not come up with a new design or product if their lives depended on it.Educated; yes, intelligent; not very.With others, the vision is clear.
The last thing we need is more politicians, or lawyers making more decisions, such as Congressmen trying to design cars and mandating flush toilets.The free market works while central planning has a very long history of failure.
Why does every college and university in the US need to support a Physics program? The cost of redundancy is exreme, and taxpayers get left holding the bag again, and again, and again. Survival of the fittest is natural, so those with the best programs will survive. This is how the planet has continually improved over the past 14 billion years.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
@Michael Grieves: You seem to be illustrating my point about parochialism. Maybe philistinism would be a better word. Are physics and math departments necessary for effective engineering education?Maybe not. But there are other good reasons to have physics and math departments, which have nothing to do with engineering.
As much as it might be pleasing to us to think so, the world doesn't revolve around us engineers. And believe it or not, it's possible for something to have value beyond its value to engineers.
Do engineers need to learn string theory, look for the Higgs boson, study stellar formation, etc.? Of course not. These things are important, not because they have anything to do with engineering, but because they advance the state of human knowledge. This is a good thing, in and of itself.
You also seem to be taking for granted that the Texas politicians' decision about which schools "can't support physics departments" is well-founded. I'm not sure that relying on the wisdom of politicians is always a good idea.
Will other universities continue to do physics research? Undoubtedly. But I wish I could share your Pangloss-like optimism that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.
You seem to be missing the point. Some of these schools can't afford a physics department. Whether it's politicians deciding or some other group, reality is that there is no money in the checkbook for every school to have a physiscs department.
The issue is whether this will diminish engineering schools. My answer - it shouldn't. Engineering professors should be well-versed and multi-disciplined enough to incorporate an engineer's undertstanding of physics in their programs.
Using examples of string theory or the search for Higgs-Bosum particles only makes my point. Great research for the top schools. It won't make for any better engineers if their school have a physics department searching for the God particle.
You like exotic physics, great. But don't confuse that with producing engineers well-versed in the physics they need to do great engineering. What great phsyics would a second or third tier school do anyway. Answer, not much.
@Michael: We seem to be talking past each other. Maybe the issue to you is whether or not this will diminish engineering education. Okay. My point is that there ought to be other considerations besides whether or not this will diminish engineering education. Clearly we disagree about this.
We were not "talking past each other." You were making an unsupported charge of parochialism in a pseudo-superior manner by term dropping. The thrust of the Dean's article was that engineering schools would be dimished by colleges dropping their physics departments. My position (and a number of other posts) basically disagree with that position. I further think the Dean's position is indicative of the siloing in education of professors who should know a lot about a lot but instead know a lot about a little. My further position is that colleges need to rethink how we educate students. We can teach physics without having physics department.
So, on to your point about there being other considerations about whether institutions should have physics departments. There are. It's called economics. Some institutions can't afford departments. Does that mean they can't afford physics education. No. it means they can't afford the cost of having a department which would entail supporting professors spending a chunk of their time doing "research" and writing papers. At these level of institutions (third tier and below and maybe even second tier), the research is at best on the fringes of advancing physics and more often is simply to allow the professor to obtain tenure.
The Dean takes the traditional approach of supporting physics departments in institutions that can't afford them instead of thinking about how his engineering department should integrate phsyics (and math) into core engineering. You confuse physics departments in institutions who can't afford them with the advancement of physics and accuse those of not buying into that of "parochialism." You are wrong on both accounts.
@Michael Grieves: Dean Orsak's article contains exactly one sentence about the role of physics departments in supporting other departments (including -- but not limited to -- engineering departments), and exactly one sentence regarding potential effects on his university's engineering program. Maybe you think the "thrust" of his article was the effect that cutting physics departments will have on engineering schools -- rather than the effect it will have on the U.S. in general. Clearly we disagree about this.
At any rate, both of us have repeated our respective points enough times that I think our positions should be very clear to anyone reading this. If you want to continue this discussion by e-mail, you can reach me at dpalmer01 at gmail dot com.
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 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.
> 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.
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.
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.
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).
Good point on Trend B, Ann. This has been a challenge for the plants and their vendors. Boomers were about to retire and take their knowledge with them in 2008. The automation industry was quite concerned. Then the economy took a dive and dragged 401Ks down with it. So many boomer postponed their retirement, the problem went away, at least temporarily. I would imagine depressed demand also took the pressure off.
It's not a matter of skill set Ann. It's another aspect of the economics of the title of the article. I'm moving into that older engineer realm. I'm more than happy to learn new skills; I like learning. But I expect to be paid for my skills and experience, and there lies the rub. Companies don't want to pay for that experience. Hiring young inexperienced engineers is less expensive in that mindset.
TJ, I couldn't agree with you more. I don't for a minute believe that most older engineers don't have or won't acquire the skillset--I've known too many of them personally--nor do I believe that young, untrained, inexperienced people in any discipline can do as well as or better than senior staff. I was simply reporting the hype I've heard, and it's clearly an argument for saving money.
And Rob, it's good to know that the problem did not happen in A&C, but it's also good to know that at least some companies recognize what a problem losing their institutional knowledge can cause.
One of the things that happening in automation and control regarding senior staff is that plants are automating some of the processes that used to be in the heads of senior staff. The younger staff doesn't know when the plant doesn't sound right. Now automated diagnostics and prognostics do the detecting.
One of the best anecdotes I've heard comes fron a process plant. Not sure what type. It was one of those plants that runs 24/7. Turns out the last engineer who knew how to shut down the plant retired. A vendor had to come in and program the automation system to shut down the plant -- when needed for certain maintenance work (usually just once a year).
At the end of the day, only the software knew how to shut down the plant.
Now plants are trying to capture basic knowledge such as this in the software before the boomer retires.
Rob, I just hope that instructions for such important functions as shutting down the plant are caught and recorded before all those people retire. OTOH, if all that information winds up in software, instead of inside people's heads, I hope it's backed up multiple times.
Yes, I was quite surprised by that story. I've spoken to engineers who say many of these process plants have planned shutdowns about once a year, often between Christmas and New Year's for planned maintenance and updates. So it's a relatively rare occurrence. And there is a series of steps involved in the shutdown. Now, apparently many plants are programming the shutdown process to make sure it is done correctly
Ann: I for one would not be thrilled if Trend B impacts Trend A. I'd really prefer that Social Security be available for awhile. In answer to your question, though, I don't think Trend B will affect Trend A until it becomes abundantly clear to Baby Boomers that they have little or no retirement income.
Chuck, I was wondering more about the employer end of things--meaning when are they going to start hiring older, more knowledgeable workers? And especially in engineering? According to Trend B, they're supposed to be figuring out pretty soon now that they need to do so. From what Rob said, it looks like this awareness hit automation already but my question is, has it hit any other engineering disciplines?
To Alex's point, I completely agree with Barrett. I adored science as a kid, and I received an excellent education in it. It was fun and the teachers made it fun. This whole approach seems to have vanished from schools. But math was not at all fun until 9th-grade algebra, and that was because of an exceptionally gifted teacher.
Employers, my guess, will tend toward younger engineers, and not just because entry-level salaries may be lower. In plants, management is aware that older workers are resistant to a lot of new technology, including software advances, connectivity that goes outside the plant, wireless networks, integrated safety, and cloud computing. The young engineer is comfy with these advances.
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,
I thought it would be of interest to readers of this piece to check out an interview I did a year ago with former Intel chairman Craig Barrett, who has a strong and ongoing interest in STEM. See "Innovation Mandate: An Interview with Craig Barrett." Here's the most important quote: "We do on average a terrible job of educating our young people in mathematics and science. That in itself is almost an automatic filter against those young people going to college and majoring in mathematics and science. It's not so much a culture problem, but it's a K-through-12 problem, which then impacts all of our young people."
@Alexander Wolfe: Thanks for sharing the interview with Craig Barrett. I strongly agree with him that a big part of our problem is at the K-12 level, and I agree that we should try to bring our K-12 education system up to the level of other developed countries. However, I don't quite see how judging our educational performance based on international standards -- in itself -- will accomplish anything. It's one thing to say that we ought to meet international standards. Ok, good. But how do we get there? As all engineers know, quantifying a problem is different from solving it.
Barrett is also right when he says that "the 30% of the kids in the U.S. who don't even graduate from high school are boat anchors around the economy's neck." We have a tremendous amount of potential talent which is going to waste at all levels. As a country, we simply can't afford this. Maybe we could afford it when, as Barrett says, the U.S. was "the only game in town." We aren't the only game in town anymore, and we need to make sure that all of our students have the opportunity to realize their full potential.
Dave, that's an interesting point about how we do, or don't, compare ourselves with what other developed countries accomplish. We didn't bother to make those comparisons when the US was the 800-lb. gorilla in the room, but those days seem to be passing. And I agree with you about the huge waste in potential talent. Much of this is going on in the less fortunate classes and among blue-collar workers, or grown children of ex-blue collar workers.
Dean Orsak closes with the observation that Sputnik catalyzed a whole generation to get going on science and math. The problem today is that there's no such singular issue to sway public opinion, yet a thousand tiny Sputniks are out there undercutting the U.S.'s able to maintain its position. We need to get going on STEM. Here's an interview I did over at InformationWeek with former Intel chairman Craig Barrett on STEM.
Alex, that's an interesting point about many Sputniks instead of just one. Not only did the one Sputnik sway public opinion and galvanize US education efforts, its singularity made the whole issue easy to understand for many people, as well as making it easy to believe we could "win". I think the fact that now there are many Sputniks makes it harder to identify the issue--which is basically the same--harder to sway public opinion, and harder to galvanize education efforts.
Good point, Ann. Sputnik was easy for the masses to support, especially given the way American politicians were characterizing it. Given the fear of nuclear war at the time, many Americans believed that Russian spacecrafts would be flying overhead, flinging hydrogen bombs down on us from on high. Lyndon Johnson famously said, "I do not believe that this generation of Americans is willing to go to bed each night by the light of a Communist moon." For pure sense of national mission, it's tough to match that.
where I mentioned the shift in the mid-70s to smaller Japanese cars, which seemed to me like an '"evolutionary" process at the time. But I was thinking of mileage and small size, not lousy engineering--I didn't realize that was going on at the time. That would obviously add a big impetus to the shift!
Most automotive engineers will admit that vehicle reliability was poor in the '70s. Even the staunchest apologists will admit that the reliability of cars in North America climbed when American automakers realized they were in a dogfight in the late 1980s. That's another way of saying, "We could have made better cars, but we didn't start doing it until we were forced to."
Chuck, that's really interesting. What was car reliability being so poorly engineered back then and apparently, only in that decade? I've heard that residential construction in that decade was poorly engineered and shoddily made. What was going on during the 1970s to encourage or demand such lousy quality in both fields?
"Oddly, science and engineering play an extraordinarily important role in this state."
Maybe I am uninitiated on the possible meanings of this statement, and prefer not to criticize a well-written article that I personally believe _needs_ to be written again and again. As a native Texan who has always seen technological enterprise as a dominant force, I ask... oddly? Substantiate.
Excellent post Geoffrey. I could not agree with you more. I'm amazed at how our country has "folded" relative to promoting STEM subjects AND addressing the great need for early involvement of middle school and certainly high school students. We no longer have a national vision or national goal the manned space program provided. We get absolutely no help from the "fed" whose participants are too busy trying to get reelected. In the long run, our country will be the losers.
If you are graduating fewer than five students a year average (less than 25 in five years) just what kind of resources are available to the students? What are the quality of laboratories etc? What is the quality of the professor(s)? Are these "me too" programs? Maybe there really should only be 300 good schools with the rest being shut down. Let's look at the quality of these programs.
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