Guest Post: Joel Corbo on Graduate School and Teaching

By Sean Carroll | June 12, 2008 10:35 am

Today’s episode of lazy-bloggers-solicit-guests-to-fill-in features Joel Corbo, a graduate student in physics at Berkeley. Joel and friends were disappointed by some features of the graduate-school experience, and (unusually) decided to actually do something about it — they founded the Compass Project, which supports excellence in science education, especially for women and minorities.

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My name is Joel Corbo, I’m a physics Ph.D. student, and I’m a little frustrated.

My trajectory through the US educational system has been a great one. I have parents who care deeply about me and my future and who believe in the value of a strong education. Because they cared, I went to an elementary school that laid a good foundation and allowed me to attend a high school that was more academically rigorous than many colleges (both of these schools were private, although the latter was also free). I also majored in physics at MIT.

My story may sound typical, at least in certain circles, but there are a few more details to add to the story. My dad is a recent immigrant without a high school education who worked as a maintenance man in the NYC Housing Projects, and my mom is the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants and a lucky survivor of the NYC public school system. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college. Statistically speaking, I shouldn’t have succeeded — but I did.

Looking back at my education, it’s obvious to me that a huge factor contributing to my success was the presence of people in my life who believed in me and supported me: my parents, my teachers, and my peers. Even at MIT, which is primarily recognized for the quality of its research (and rightly so), I found a physics department that openly cared about undergraduate education, where teaching was valued and done well and which fostered a community of undergrads who learned from and supported each other.

So, why the frustration? My relatively rosy view of physics education was shaken up not long after starting grad school at UC Berkeley (By the way, I don’t want to single out Berkeley as particularly flawed, as I’m sure its problems are shared by virtually every physics department in the US to one extent or another. However, I can only write about what I know and this is where I am). Back in the cocoon of the MIT undergrad experience, I came to believe that physics was awesome for two main reasons: (1) because it answers deep, fundamental questions about how the world works and (2) because it is a community driven, collaborative exercise that thrives on the effective sharing of knowledge among its practitioners. In my mind, grad school would build upon these dual pillars of awesomeness and help me become (1) a great researcher and (2) a great teacher.

The jury is still out on the great researcher thing, but it turns out that, in principle, grad school has precisely zero to do with becoming a good teacher. Oh, you can TA a class here and there, as long as that doesn’t get in the way of what grad school is “really” all about. The unfortunate thing is that the lack of value assigned to teaching seems very systemic, to the point of being embedded in the culture; perhaps this attitude appears to benefit physics in the short-term by weeding out all but the most “serious” students, but in the long run it does nothing but damage.

The damage done to grad students is fairly obvious. First of all, if they are not provided with encouragement and avenues to become better teachers, then they won’t improve their teaching skills as well as they could have. If you happen to believe that an essential part of being a physicist is the ability to pass physics on to future generations of students, to inspire them to follow in the footsteps of their intellectual ancestors, then it is hard to justify allowing people to graduate with PhDs who have not demonstrated the ability to do just that. Of course, this happens all the time.

Secondly, there are always some grad students, including me, who have a deep interest in teaching (I remember deciding in high school that the only way to know if I really understood something was to try teaching it to someone else — so I can genuinely say that education has been on my mind for a long time). When people with such a passion are met with disinterest or even disdain by the people they want to emulate (successful physicists), the blow to their motivation can be severe. After all, who wants to stick around when their interests and talents aren’t valued or supported? I’ve heard it implied (and sometimes even said outright) that such students aren’t “serious enough” about physics and therefore aren’t worth keeping around, but without a crystal ball, who can really say which student will end up making important contributions to the field?

Let’s put the grad students aside for now (didn’t we just talk about that?), and spend some time looking at how undergrads are damaged by this attitude. Teaching is the single most fundamental service an academic department provides to undergraduates, and if, on average, a department is not interested in teaching well, the implication is that it’s not interested in serving undergrads in any way. But serving undergrads is vital to the survival of an academic discipline, because some of those undergrads are that discipline’s future experts. As I stated above, I was fortunate enough to attend schools that did serve their students well, but I can talk about the opposite through my observations as a TA.

Many students arrive at their undergraduate institution with a substantial number of long-held academic “bad habits”, especially in the sciences. High school has managed to convince many students that physics is a dogmatic, memorization-centered subject. As a result, they don’t have the skills necessary to solve real physics problems, because all that they have learned to do is to pattern-match and to plug-and-chug. Still, popular science books and NOVA specials have kept them interested enough that many intend to pursue the physical sciences as undergrads. Once they get to college, however, their passion for physics is quickly squelched by a number of factors:

  1. Because they don’t have the skills necessary to problem-solve, model-build, and generally think like physicists, these students actually don’t know how to effectively learn physics as it is typically presented in a large lecture-based class. This doesn’t mean that these students are stupid, or somehow not worth teaching. It simply means that there are things they need to be taught other than “the material” in order to help them become better learners. Unfortunately, many of them come away feeling like they don’t have what it takes to be physicists (as though there is some intrinsic “physicsness” that they are lacking) and so they leave the field.
  2. The typical introductory physics sequence, at least at Berkeley, is very isolating for potential physics majors. The vast majority of people in those classes are engineering students who are there because their departments require that they take physics; they have largely no interest in physics for its own sake. This makes it very difficult for potential physics majors to identify each other — they are like needles in an apathetic haystack. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that even the physics department cannot identify these potential majors. So, these students end up isolated from the department, from upperclassmen physics majors, and from each other – that is to say, from the physics community – for the three semesters it takes them to get through introductory physics. However, an important part of the excitement of physics is the collaboration with peers, the shared goal of building knowledge through interaction and discussion and asking “What if”. Without that, it’s incredibly difficult to paint physics as an interesting field, to really sell the idea of being physicists to these students beyond the level that NOVA can, and so they leave the field.
  3. The problems of interaction and perceived lack of “physicsness” are magnified for a certain set of students: women and underrepresented minorities. At this point, so much has been said about the lack of women and minorities in all levels of physics due to the “leaky pipeline” that I don’t have much to add to the subject. For this discussion, the important point to note is that in addition to the issues that their well-represented peers also face, they have to face majoring in a field where they don’t see people like themselves. They arrive at the seemingly logical but erroneous conclusion that success in physics is unattainable unless you are a white male, and so they leave the field.

So, here are three of many reasons why undergrads might leave the field of physics – notice that none of these reasons have anything to do with these students’ ability to be good physicists. If the physics community wants to recruit the best minds into its ranks, it stands to reason that these impediments must be removed, but not enough people seem interested in doing so. Hence, my frustration.

[More below the fold…]

Well, kiddo: you’re frustrated, and it even sounds like your frustrations are reasonable (at least to me, since you and I are the same person). What good is that going to do? Were I alone in my frustration, probably nothing. However, it turns out that I wasn’t alone: there were other grad students around me who were also frustrated, and for similar reasons. Three of them found each other, and decided to do something about the problems that they saw: they started to work on creating a program called The Compass Project during the summer of 2006, and I joined the project a year later.

So, what is Compass? At its core, The Compass Project is a program whose goal is to address all of these problems, both on the undergraduate and graduate level, with the ultimate aim of strengthening the physical sciences at Berkeley (I admit, we are a little bit ambitious). Central to our work is a two-week summer program for incoming Berkeley freshmen who are interested in the physical sciences (targeted at women and underrepresented minorities). The summer program addresses many of the issues I outlined above:

  1. By bringing together a set of 15-20 incoming freshmen for an intense two-week education experience, Compass starts the process of forming the network of peer interaction and support that doesn’t form during the intro physics sequence.
  2. Compass’s teaching methodology focuses very heavily on collaborative learning and group work. The Compass instructors (who are all grad students – more on this later), act more as guides helping the students answer a realistic physical question (for our pilot year, the question was “What do earthquakes tell us about the interior of the Earth?”), rather than an authoritarian source of all knowledge. We focus on building problem-solving and model-building skills in our students, which are skills not explicitly address in traditional physics classes.
  3. Compass introduces these students to the physics department very quickly. Through interaction with the Compass grad students, the Compass undergrads learn that physicists are real people, with real problems and real struggles, just like them. They get the message that they are valued members of the physics community as soon as they arrive on campus, and many of them choose to self-identify as physics majors before their first semester is done. We hope that as Compass grows, this sense of ownership will lead future Compass students to act as nuclei in their intro classes around which potential majors who were not in Compass can aggregate.
  4. The curriculum for the summer program is developed and implemented entirely by grad students. This means that Compass provides a tremendous opportunity for grad students involved in the program to hone their teaching skills in ways that simply aren’t possible without that level of freedom and control. Additionally, Compass provides a space where a passion for teaching is actually valued and encouraged, and therefore serves as a seed for the creation of a community of grad students. For many (including me!), the friendships formed through that community are invaluable for actually making it through grad school.

As though the summer program didn’t already keep us all busy, Compass also has several components that extend throughout the academic year, with the goal of supporting the Compass undergrads throughout their academic careers. Among those are (1) a mentorship program that pairs each Compass undergrad with a grad student to help them navigate the challenges of college, (2) a set of office hours, staffed by grad students and upperclassmen, to provide Compass students with academic help, (3) a lecture series where physics faculty describe their research at an undergrad level (this has been well-attended by Compass and non-Compass undergrads alike), and (4) pure social activities. So, yes, our goals are ambitious, but so are our methods for achieving those goals.

So, how can you help support this fantastic program? As I alluded to earlier, Compass was founded quite recently (our second summer program is happening this August!), and is entirely run by physics grad students. Right now, the main problem that Compass is facing at Berkeley is a lack of financial support (apparently times are tough in Sacramento as well as in DC), so we are trying to get the word out about our existence and the good work we are trying to do. So, if you think our program is worth supporting, spread the word! Tell your friends in important places about us, let us know if you are interested in hearing more or helping out, and, if you are able, donate some money to Compass. Every bit of help we can get is vital to keep this program going.

And if you happen to be a grad student at some school, and you happen to feel frustrated about these issues too, don’t despair. Consider starting a program similar to Compass at your school (and by all means, tell us about it). You’d be surprised how many good things your frustration can create.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Guest Post
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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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