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Declining Enrolment in Physics: Some Remedies, Vaze College Model

Prof. K G Bhole, Ex. Vice Principal, Head, Department of Physics, V. G. Vaze College, Mumbai 400 081

Prof. S. P. Bhave, Physics Department, V. G. Vaze College, Mumbai 400 081

The article appeared in Singapore times dated 19th Sept. 2009 raised the issue of declining number of students offering Physics at undergraduate level. It says, we have 80 percent of +2 level science students offering science and mathematics and they score more than 70 percent in these subjects. But they do not offer physics subject at undergraduate level. The number is steadily decreasing at undergraduate level. The picture in India and outside is not different.

India in the last 60 years has developed a very large system of education and has created a vast body of highly skilled academic people equipped with scientific and technological capabilities. Though large, our educational system is neither quite relevant nor very effective. India’s educational ethos needs major reforms in the context of changes that are sweeping the globe. Restructuring of our educational institutions, changing the teaching methodology and revamping of the contents of the curricula are what are needed to produce the desired outcome. There is a universal call what is seen about the steady decline of the enrolment of students for science courses. It is expected that teaching of science must inculcate scientific temperament. It must also develop the capacity to utilize scientific knowledge for the solution of man’s problem. It must aim at establishing proper relationship between science and society. Increased emphasis will have to be placed on the skills and employability. This means, increased attention to transferable skills. The balance between education and training, the academic and the vocational is to be maintained. Knowledge is ever expanding; our degree programmes will have to be selective, emphasizing learning skills at the expense of the content and requiring the subject specialist to reflect on new modes and methods of learning. The quality of higher education needs to be raised to a great level.

Relevance of physics teaching:

Physics helps in understanding nature and natural phenomena, Geophysical situations, atmosphere, stellar interior materials, diverse forms of energy etc. Applications of many physical phenomena into engineering situations make physics a practically important subject. We should see to it that teaching physics creates a scientific out-look; generates scientific temperament and develops an appreciation for modern technological gadgets. It should also be emphasized that the role of physics in biotechnology, astrophysics, atomic energy, communication, medicine is evident in the discussion of the topics. A conceptually oriented physics curriculum would bring out synergy of physics. Still it is observed that there is continuous decrease in enrollment for physics. Most of the students find physics difficult to comprehend. Something must be done soon to increase the enrolment for physics, or it will have serious consequences for our nation's economic development in all technology-related sectors, as well as other equally serious consequences for the nation's capabilities in key areas such as defense and education.

What can be done to reverse the trend? Suggested ways:

a) One of the solutions cited by experts to change the scenario is the collaborative effort that will probably be successful to develop good laboratories and experimental projects and related demonstrations. Some of the colleges should come together and form a cluster to develop such facilities. This will be very productive and can lead to qualitative and quantitative improvement.

More and more demonstration experiments are to be included in order to increase the interest in physics. The demonstration experiments should increase curiosity about the subject and motivate for better understanding of the subject. It should provoke the students’ mind to learn more about the concepts and problem solving ability. This of course needs considerable practice, skill and involvement of the demonstrator.

b) The other way can be not to do a lab inside when it can be done outside. Physics in kitchen, physics in sports, and physics of music can be some of the popular topics for this. Seeing physics students working and enjoying their time outside is great advertisement to the younger non-physics students.

c) The third idea to popularize physics is to start a physics bulletin questions. Just display a short and semi-cryptic physics statement or question in the daily bulletin. The students can be asked to answer it. If so, the student has the opportunity to shine as he or she explains the question or statement. The bulletin plants a seed of interest.

d) Some colleges can throw open their laboratories during a week so that the students who are really interested, can visit the laboratory, carry out the experiments under the guidance of the experts. This will certainly improve the interest about the subject.

e) Today's physicists are employed across a broad spectrum of careers because their education and training can be applied in academia and industry, and even in financial services. Besides our need for scientists and engineers with a strong background in physics, we also need teachers to inspire our kids to understand and enjoy physics. We may be successful in bringing in contemporary topics and advanced technology in curriculum, still the success will be decided by how the contents are taught rather what is taught. This ultimately requires full and wholehearted involvement of physics teachers.

f) The crucial age group to target is the 10- to 14-year-olds. Improving the teaching of science at the upper primary and lower secondary levels is the key to ensure they continue with physics. We know kids are excited about computer games. So, for example, they could be challenged to learn physics through computer games, advancing to the highest levels in games by learning about various topics in science and physics. Then we can expect the competitive spirit of our kids to drive their learning.

g) It is also recommended that the every physics department should target an annual increase of up to 15 students enrolled at the undergraduate level. This should be increased every year until the department has an annual enrolment of about 120 undergraduates, up from an average of 60 in the last few years.

h) A greater effort should also be made to emphasize the career prospects in a number of new industries. For example, the push towards developing a clean energy sector here in terms of using solar or nuclear energy will open up many new prospects.

i) Acquaint parents with course in physics: Dinner table method or dinner with a family: Extra credit to be given to a student if he/she demonstrates any physics concept at home/ outside. The audience must write a report about what they have learnt. This helps the student to learn the material better and parents hear what is going on in school in physics.

At the dinner, talk about how you enter into physics teaching? Talk much about physics.

j) There are always a number of bright youngsters driven by the creative rather than the materialistic urge. We need them to know of the challenges to creativity posed by a discipline like physics.

As anyone who teaches physics knows, physics is a whole lot of fun. The problem has always been to convince the masses that physics is not only fun but also comprehensible.

Undergraduate physics education:

Recent research on student learning in higher education has highlighted importance that a) students’ perceptions of the nature of learning and understanding of the discipline, and b) their approaches to the study of the discipline, have profound effect on the quantity of student learning outcomes, and in particular, qualitative learning outcomes.

The five concepts of learning identified by Saljo are

  1. A quantitative increase in knowledge;
  2. Memorizing
  3. The acquisition of facts, methods, etc. which can be retained and used when necessary;
  4. The abstraction of meaning;
  5. An interpretive process aimed at understanding reality.

Much of the research in physics has look closely at the relationship between approach and outcome but has not looked at students’ broader perceptions of physics. There is a great enthusiasm about the potential of the computer for enhancing student learning in physics. However, one should be cautious as success in computer task does not necessarily indicate development of skill that can be transferred to other environment.

The design of the theory part of curriculum in physics has been a subject of debate. Some questions in this context being asked are:

i) Is the curriculum of the theory is concept oriented? Or is it like conventional derivations?

ii) Does the curriculum reflect the current state of physics?

Whether physics subject is offered as terminal programme or up to postgraduate level? How far the undergraduate programme meets the requirements of both the categories of students?

iii) Whether the curriculum has a bias towards technology?

All these questions needs to be thoroughly discussed and analyzed in order to make the theory curriculum more relevant.

Laboratory curriculum and laboratory training:

i) It helps students to acquire skills to make precise measurements.

ii) It familiarizes the student with special apparatus.

We all know that good training in the laboratory work is of paramount importance for science, engineering and technology manpower. Since students learn science first and study engineering and technology later, the base lies in science. Hence, it is the primary responsibility of all those who teach science, to impart adequate and effective practical training in physics. Lower quality training in physics practical at all levels has been always a subject of concern for a long time. It has been discussed in many workshops and debated a lot. A very few attempts with limited success have been made by the bodies like IAPT, HBCSE etc., to improve the laboratory techniques. Some of these efforts are still on.

The laboratory programme is to be in tune with the curriculum in theory. Every practical should be evaluated not by the final answer but by the additional concepts identified and the explanation given for them. More stress is to be given on understanding the concepts, error analysis, and modifications in the experiment. The experiment should be concept driven.

There should be no fear in the mind of a student about any apparatus or equipment to be handled. The students should be asked to prepare for the experiment, the teacher should encourage student to carry out the experiment independently. Guidance should be given only when student needs it. Throwing the laboratories open to students probably may improve interest in physics experimentation. The colleges should allow the high school students to visit and use their laboratory, institutions of higher learning and research should invite undergraduate students to visit and use their laboratories. This scheme will certainly make tremendous impact on the minds of young learners and motivate them to go for physics as major.

Case study: Vaze College, Mulund, Mumbai

The department of physics at Vaze College has only six degree college faculty, but each one is having specialization and interest in different branches of physics. They are available to students practically throughout the day. After thorough deliberations, we started following activities and this could increase the enrolment for physics subject upto satisfactory level.

1) Department organizes a preparatory course in physics every year during the month of April. It includes theory as well as practical. All the contribution by the faculty is voluntary. Only registration charges such as Rs.50 are collected from the participants and spent for Xeroxing. Students from other colleges are also allowed to participate. In April, most of the staff is comparatively free and students are also free after their annual examinations.

2) The feedback from the previous batches indicated that students do their regular practical in pair while individual students find it difficult to carry out experiment during practical examination. Hence practical at TY level is performed by individual student. This improves their confidence.

3) Once the experiment is completed and readings are ready, the students are allowed to use computers for data analysis and data representation (graphs)

4) The students admitted at FYBSc level are depressed and very poor in the subject. They have their own problems. Hence mentorship for FYBSc students was started from last year. Parent-teacher and students meet at least once in a year. Considerable change in performance was observed at second term examination.

5) These measures effected this year with more number of students for physics than for chemistry.

6) Weekly meeting of the department staff is held every Friday (along with non-teaching staff if needed) to discuss the problems and the solutions to those problems.

7) Manual/journal writing and code of conduct for use of apparatus.

8) Departmental library with good collection of books of physics and allied readings are made available to students and faculty. It is free of charge and managed by students under the supervision of teachers.

9) Alumni: Every term, at least one guidance lecture or interaction with past students is organized.

10) The term end examination results are analyzed for the feedback.

11) Improvement in journal/ record book writing.

12) Rough journal maintenance

13) Demonstration kits

14) Bulletin board: questions to raise interest in physics are posted under ‘Think Tank”

15) Project to individual students: one of the student selected ‘Physics and Society’ as project

last year. They get reimbursement of the expenses for the project submitted.

16) Referring students to TIFR, BARC, IISc for various events.

17) Visits to research institutions, Nehru science centre, Mumbai.

18) Feedback session – at the beginning of the term and at the end of the term. This helps to get the information about the deficiencies in teaching and learning and then the corrective measures can be taken up in future.

19) Motivating students for IAPT and other examinations.

The additional activities planned in future are:

i) Networking of institutions for mutual benefits, video conferencing.

ii) Visits to institutes like IUCAA and Pune university, TIFR etc.

iii) Extension of mentorship for SY/TY students

iv) Screening of educational films.

v) Feedback report about the lacunae in syllabus recently launched by University of Mumbai will be submitted to board of Physics, University of Mumbai.

It has been rightly said that not gold but men can make a nation great and strong. We must make sincere efforts to increase enrolment in physics. Change in our attitude, going beyond our call of duty, improved teaching methodology and the availability of effective curriculum will take us out from ‘the winter of despair’ to ‘the spring of hope’.”

Ref: i) IAPT Bulletins

ii) Physics Education by Reddy