Sunday, October 26, 2008

UC Riverside Event Aimed To Boost Physics Careers

The University of California-Riverside had what appears to be a fun physics event on Saturday aimed to boost interest in physics.

"The hidden agenda is to recruit people to think about physical science or engineering careers," said UC Riverside physics professor Harry Tom, chairman of the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

He said too many people see physics as a lofty, theoretical subject instead of one that can help them understand how the world works and serve as a gateway to good jobs in high-tech fields.

I have a slightly different take on this. I've done many events which introduced various aspects of physics to the general public and students, and my intentions were very seldom on getting them to major or have a career in physics (that would have been a bonus). Rather, the main intention when I do something like this is

1. Introduce the subject
2. Show how physicists, and scientists in general, tackle a problem or a complicated task/issue
3. Show how physics is highly relevant to our everyday lives
4. Describe how the skill in tackling a physics problem can actually be quite valuable in dealing with other aspect of our life.

The study of physics in school should not be geared towards getting people to major or have a career in physics. Most of us who had to take electives in social science, humanities, literature, etc. didn't take it because we intended to be experts or have a career in those fields. Rather, we take it because it may be an important aspect of a general education to be able to function in society. A physics class should be viewed that way. It should be an integral aspect of learning and living in today's modern society. A physics course, if taught properly, introduce a student on ways to deal with a difficult and new problem, on how to think things through systematically and logically, on how to figure out the main principle or concept involved, and how to translate those concepts into ways that can make the problem solvable. A physics course teaches the students to think things through rationally! These are skills that are not exclusively used only in physics, but everywhere. Someone having such skills would never except some superficial answer from politicians on their economic or political policy, for example.

So the importance of these events to the public and to young students should go beyond just getting them interested in physics to consider a career in it.


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