Monday, February 20, 2012

Scientific Reasoning Abilities of Nonscience Majors in Physics-Based Courses

One of the things that I've tried to advocate is physics education to students at all level. The primary reason for this is NOT to get more students majoring in physics. I think that the most valuable aspect of a physics education/classes is the problem-solving/analytical ability that a student can acquire. This skill transcends the physics class itself, and is useful for the student in all aspect of life. It is certainly useful in how we gain knowledge and how we analyze something to be valid. This is the reason why, in my suggestion to revamp undergraduate physics labs, I gave several exercises in which the students discover for themselves what causes what, and how two different parameters are correlated and connected.

The importance of a physics education can't be overly-stressed, especially based on this new paper (free access) that analyzed a student's analytical ability. The authors of this paper studied the scientific reasoning ability of non-STEM students when compared to STEM students. The latter, obviously, tend to have a higher scientific reasoning ability because of their inclination towards science/math/engineering topics. However, it is still surprising to see the disparity between the scientific reasoning ability between the two groups that was measured in this study.

That students in STEM majors demonstrate stronger scientific reasoning ability is not surprising, since most students typically choose their major based on their strengths. However, such a dramatic difference in reasoning ability between STEM and non-STEM students may contribute to disparities in effectiveness of reformed physics pedagogies. What works in calculus-based physics courses with natural and physical science students may not work in the general education, conceptual physics course.
The authors earlier in the paper stated why a physics course is important for these non-STEM students, besides the fact that these are the larger population of the student body:

Since most students enrolled in conceptual physics or astronomy will never take another formal science course, our student learning objectives should incorporate broader reasoning skills. Scientific reasoning and metacognitive development are often required for effective decision making and problem solving far outside the typical scientific context Furthermore, it has been shown that gains in physics content knowledge are strongly correlated to scientific reasoning . In particular, reasoning and metacognition development are essential for problem solving, understanding and applying abstract concepts, and shifting between multiple representations.
Considering that these are the same people that will enter the general population and also decide who they will elect and what they wish to fund, one can already see that without any kind of skill to think things through, we could be in serious problem (if we aren't already). One can now start to understand why the public in general can't tell the difference between anecdotal evidence versus scientific evidence, on why many still believe in superstition/astrology/other pseudosciences, etc.

It wasn't clear from the paper if they show any improvement in the students' scientific reasoning ability after they have taken such an intro physics class. They stated some discussion on "normalized gain", but I wish they would just present clearly a "before and after" comparison of the same test.

The ability to think things analytically should be the main aim of any education. It is the foundation of a civilized population. A physics course, if done properly,  could be the most important class these students took, without them knowing it.



Garrett Curley said...

I would love to believe that simply taking introductory courses in physics could help one's analytical abilities. However, having gone through the various levels of physics education (bachelors, masters and Ph.D.) in two countries (Ireland and France), I am, in hindsight, disappointed by the actual teaching of analytical skills on those courses. Although I implicitly learned how to be analytical, it was never truly explicitly taught to me or my classmates. I think it was always simply assumed by our lecturers that we would acquire those skills automatically. I unfortunately have to admit that it wasn't until after my Ph.D. that I truly began to learn about the scientific method when I began to be exposed to the works of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and others.
So my point is, yes, physics courses can help improve analytical skills but I think those courses need to explicitly teach those skills and not just assume that exposure to Newton's laws will accomplish the task.
Nice blog by the way ;)

Joey Dumont said...

I have to agree with you, Garrett. I am presently going through an undergraduate degree in physics and, while some teachers have stressed the importance of doing problems on our own, few of them have actually pointed out the need to develop our analytical skills.

On a personal note, however, I always though a physics degree forced you to learn how to learn; that is, forced you to do so many exercises that some capacity for abstraction is forced into you, in a way.

Thanks for the link, Zz.