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Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

Look East, Young Man

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When I happen to tune into a late-night talk show devoting its hour to the dismal state of American education, the experience is invariably dejá-vu all over again: With depressing regularity a district administrator bemoans test scores. Much less frequently an actual teacher makes an appearance and then the refrain is equally predictable: don’t blame us.

I am not a primary or secondary school teacher fighting in the trenches, but I do see the results. For the past six years I have taught freshman physics at Princeton University and I am here to tell you that everything you have heard is true.

At Princeton we have three introductory physics tracks: 101, the pre-med track for math-phobic biology majors who endure physics solely to pass their MCATS; 103, the calculus-based physics track serving primarily future engineers, a sprinkling of chemists and biologists—and an occasional physics major—all of whom arrive with AP physics under their belts; and 105, the super-deluxe track, a brutal, near-sophomore-level course for the future Navy Seals of physics, adamantine overachievers who come armed with not one, but frequently three years of high school physics. I have taught all of these.

Yes, half the students are Asian, either direct from China or first generation Asian Americans. In 103, the difference between the Asian students and the American students is so marked that they might well constitute distinct populations, and the reason can only be rooted in cultural attitudes: an American student may be failing the course and still think he is getting an “A,” while an Asian student may be getting an “A+” and think she is failing the course. Asians are here to work; Americans are here to ensure that Princeton remains a Division 1 athletic powerhouse. The results are naturally evident, not only on test scores, but in work habits. Asian students’ exams, correct answers or not, tend to be models of clarity, each step written out clearly below the previous. Exams from Americans often more closely resemble Rorschach tests, ink blots left as exercises for interpretation.

If the Asians are the most industrious, the best prepared are the Eastern-Europeans, who come equipped with the vestiges of old Soviet-style education. Those students, passing through a system largely influenced by the mathematician Andrei Kolmogorov, have often attended special math-science schools and have been fire-tested through Olympiads. Few Russian undergraduates are visible in Princeton physics, but our Bulgarians , Romanians and Serbs tend to be so well trained that not long ago I was forced to quip to a colleague, “Anyone whose last name ends in ‘ovich,’ ‘adzich,’ or ‘escu’ should be put in the honors course without discussion.” No exaggeration. Each year a tiny handful of students—four or five—places out of freshman physics altogether via an in-house exam. Last year none of these were American.

The standard retort to such observations is that foreign education rewards discipline, while American education rewards creativity. Believe me, I’d settle for some Yankee discipline, and I’ve seen no lack of creativity on the part of the foreign students. Never forget that the Manhattan Project and the postwar science boom was largely the work of immigrants. The fact that American students have all taken AP physics is virtually irrelevant; they have clearly been taught to pass a standardized test and their knowledge of actual physics generally suffices for three weeks.

The NY Times article “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just so Darn Hard)” (4/11/11) , reporting that 40 percent of potential engineering and science majors switch to other fields, surprised no one at a university physics department. Ensconced in the delusion that college is merely an extension of high school, freshmen frequently slack off for the first weeks of the semester with near-fatal results. High schools would do better not to teach physics at all than arm students with the attitudes they bring us. The expectation of an heroic “last-minute” turn-around is pure Hollywood fantasy.

As for the perpetual debate over math skills, I am not privy to standardized exam scores, but the incoming algebra level in calculus-based 103 has been declining since I arrived at Princeton, and last year—after returning from a sabbatical—it appeared to have glitched downward to the worst I’ve ever seen (something I heard from other institutions as well). “These are the future bridge-builders of America” has been the mournful refrain echoing through the long corridors of the Princeton physics department.

People often ask me, “Can this really be happening at Princeton? Aren’t your students the best of the best?” I’m telling you it can happen at Princeton and is. My chief worry about the 105 minority—who take physics out of genuine interest and who, despite the fact that we regularly pulverize them with our exams, generously reconstitute themselves—is that we are needlessly discouraging potentially excellent physicists. (Some of the 105 dropouts, I’m told, remain bitter for life.) For the over-representation of foreign students in all the courses I am grateful; as long as students from China, India and Eastern Europe see fit to study on these shores, physics in the United States will survive. I am concerned about the situation a generation forward, when Asian and Eastern European universities reach the level of our own and students will no longer be sufficiently dazzled by the prestige of an Ivy League education to make the great trek.

I worry even more about how to teach natural science to a generation of students whose attention span has asymptotically approached zero and whose notion of problem-solving differs so radically from my own that I often feel we are currently witnessing the emergence of a new species. Homework is now done collectively on Facebook—if you can’t solve a problem, a friend in Timbuktu can. More likely, the friend knows a website where the solutions have been posted. It has been a decade since students attempted to integrate. Does that matter in the age of online integrators? To the vast majority of professions no, but surely at some level—perhaps at that of designing efficient integration algorithms for calculators—analytical problem solving skills are necessary to society. They are fast disappearing. Gone.

I also worry that Princeton, and presumably other like universities, are not addressing the current generational shift. About five years ago, a working committee on which I served decided to jettison three weeks of course material in order to concentrate on the remainder. Otherwise we teach physics at Princeton much as it was taught fifty years ago. To this day corridor arguments persist between old-timers who believe we are engaged in a race to the bottom and those who believe that we must adapt or die. I am of two minds. None of us embraces a dumbed-down course, but at the same time it seems to me that the typical faculty response, “Freshman physics hasn’t changed in fifty years, why should we?” is a recipe for slow suicide. Unfortunately the “advanced” methods of professional science educators—each of whom seems to feel he or she is in possession of the magic bullet—leave the majority of active physicists, including myself, cold. I do know that in the long run the students will win, but if winning means teaching the students currently being produced by our high schools, then either high schools must wake up to the demands and to the competition, or universities must be prepared for a drawn-out Pyrrhic victory.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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