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Why Physics is a Repulsive Force

By Kevin D. Katari

FOR prospective physicists and engineers, the first year at Harvard is rarely a pleasant one. The homework is difficult, the teaching is frequently poor, and the drop-out rate from first-year physics is high.

Last year, eighty-four people enrolled in Physics 55a (now 15b) in the fall. However, by spring semester, only fortyeight remained in Physics 55b (now 15c). Many prospective physicists and engineers left for the seemingly more hospitable pastures of other concentrations.

Perhaps even more telling are the numbers of graduating engineers and physicists. Of first-year students arriving at Harvard in 1988, ninety had indicated on their applications their intention to concentrate in engineering sciences. The Harvard class of 1988, however, produced only twenty-six engineers.

Physical sciences tell a similar story. In 1988, one hundred forty-four firstyear students expressed a desire to concentrate in a physical science field. The graduating class that same year, however, produced thirty-one physics concentrators, twenty-five chemistry concentrators, and a mere handful in the other fields in the physical sciences.

At a time when the United States is facing a shortage of science teachers, Harvard should make every attempt to avoid discouraging students from continuing studies in physics and engineering. As it now stands, most incoming students intending to concentrate in engineering and the physical sciences end up with degrees in other fields.

Much of the fault for this high attrition rate lies with the introductory physics courses taken by first year students. These courses, required for engineering and physics concentrators, tend to be mathematically ugly, due to the nature of mechanics and electromagnetism, and unrewarding, owing to the introductory nature of the material. However, by the time that the investment in these introductory courses pays off in more interesting, more advanced courses or even research, many students find themselves in other fields.

If first-year students were made more aware of the interesting research going on in physics and engineering and had some exposure to more advanced topics, they would leave the physics sequence in far smaller numbers.

A student who is inititally attracted to engineering by an interest in a field such as robotics must take mechanics and electromagentism during his or her first year. A year spent taking these difficult courses, without any exposure to students' areas of actual interest, understandably discourages many people.

A SIMILAR problem exists in physics. Students spend the first year working intensely on the fundamentals. However, they are never given a sense of where their studies are leading--a sense of the kinds of problems they will be studying or researching during their senior year.

To remedy this situation, the physics and engineering departments should each institute a tutorial program through which first-year students are acquainted with areas of ongoing research. Students would then be able to see the light at the end of their long tunnel of work.

The program could be instituted as a year-long half-course tutorial in which different professors introduce their respective fields of research to students in an informal, qualitative manner. While students would lack the physics background to fully understand the subject matter, the interest generated by these presentations could provide the spark and motivation to labor through the introductory sequence.

A first-year tutorial would also serve to demystify the departments. Many students do not even step inside Jefferson or Pierce during their first year. To them, physics professors are mysterious people who come to the Science Center to give lectures before fifty to onehundred people and then slink off to some unknown destination at the end of the hour. A tutorial program would make professors seem more approachable and less like a different species.

In a nation that could use a few more physicists and engineers, it seems sad to drive so many students away from fields in which they have expressed an interest. While a tutorial program may not solve all the problems first-year students encounter in introductory physics, it would go a long way towards making the department a kinder, gentler place.

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