PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Jason Engbrecht

F21 Class of 2004 Statement

Jason Engbrecht is Assistant Professor of Physics at St. Olaf College.

Of the four opportunities to discuss I would like to address the following: “that the increasingly interdisciplinary manner in which science is practiced is reflected in the environment in which science is learned.” From the standpoint of a faculty member in a physics department I am of course the most interested in the role of physics in interdisciplinary research and teaching. Although recent years have seen an increase in the attention paid to interdisciplinary research, physics has a long history of interacting with and benefiting from other disciplines. The modern model of the atom is the result of outstanding collaborations between physicists and chemists at the beginning of the 20th century. Around the same time Marie Curie was performing the first X-rays and since that time almost all of the visualization techniques of modern medicine, X-ray, MRI, PET, and sonography have stemmed from fundamental physics research. Surprisingly, however, in spite of the wealth of examples both historic and modern, current physics curricula rarely highlights these connections. Indeed, I have found it difficult to find substantive discussions of the role of physics in biology and chemistry in any of the introductory or advanced undergraduate textbooks I have looked in. This disconnect between modern research and physics curricula is the reason why I am motivated to address this area.

My vision of success with this opportunity would be an interdisciplinary physics curriculum that maintains the strength of the current standard but additionally highlights the connections physics shares with biology and chemistry. The forms of implementing this would vary depending upon the needs of a particular course or activity. For example, in an introductory course for non-physics majors (but still predominately science majors) the focus would be on applications of physics within chemistry and biology such as the idea of energy conservation. This idea is central to any physics course. These same ideas play a critical role in both chemistry and biology. The terminology and presentation, however, are often so different that students seeing these ideas separately and for the first time have a difficult time drawing the connections. In a course for upper level physics majors the form of implementation might consist of drawing attention to careers in physics that also encompass a great deal of chemistry and biology, such as biophysics, environmental physics, or material science. Currently, it is quite common for physics majors to get through their entire undergraduate career with virtually no exposure to these fields that fall outside of the core curriculum.

There are many challenges to implementing these ideas, but the most critical might simply be inertia. With the exception of the technology used, the core of the curriculum for young physicists is essentially identical to the training I received ten years ago and not much different than that of a colleague who started his career over 40 years ago! Things have been the same for so long it often simply never occurs to us that there might be a better way. It is because of this that organizations such as PKAL are so critical. It is vital that we as professionals continuously reexamine not only how we are teaching, but indeed what we are teaching. Another fundamental challenge is the limited training of the majority of physics faculty. Most physics faculty (including myself) have followed a very traditional physics educational path which unfortunately can require very little exposure to the disciplines of biology and chemistry. A lack of expertise combined with a dearth of examples within standard curricular materials demand a time requirement that is foreboding to even the most motivated of faculty.

We are beginning to address these challenges in the physics department here at St. Olaf. Starting with a program to develop curricular materials for our introductory physics courses for non-majors that will incorporate examples from biology and chemistry into the course, which I will be heading up. This project was funded by a grant from HHMI and includes a teaching time-release for three faculty, one each from physics, chemistry, and biology. The inclusion of a chemistry and biology professor in the development of curriculum for a physics course was included specifically to address the lack of expertise on these subjects within the physics department. These courses are a good place to start for a number of reasons. First, the students in these courses are largely chemistry or biology majors and therefore this material should serve to further their interest in the course. Second, these courses are taught by the majority of the faculty in the physics department and should expose the largest possible number of faculty to the ideas being developed. This will hopefully encourage development in other courses that they teach.

Interdisciplinary study is critical to both the physics research and education of the future. I feel strongly that this movement will play a key role in keeping our physics department vital in the years ahead and as such I look forward to meeting this opportunity as well as the others that are the focus of PKAL. A membership in the PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century would be extremely valuable for me in order facilitate discussions with other like minded faculty.