Science education

The Minority of the Majority

In the May 2014 issue of Physics Today, an article appeared in which the authors suggested therapeutic intervention for improving physics teaching in college. A picture in the article caught my attention and I wrote the following letter to the editor, which appeared in the December 2014 issue. Here is the letter, which evidently “offended” the authors:

Physics Physicists Wallpaper Physics 31670028 1920 1080 1024x576 9616353The insights by Lauren Aguilar, Greg Walton, and Carl Wieman on how students perceive their classroom experience and on suggested interventions for improving physics teaching are indeed helpful in elementary and perhaps middle schools. By the time students reach high school and college levels, however, it is too late. Many students in my college freshman general-education physics course do not understand the concepts of multiplication and division and often mix them up even in obvious situations. Students with an unacceptably weak background in mathematics can require months of intervention to correct just the arithmetic difficulties—something that should have been done in elementary school and is clearly impossible in a one-semester university physics course.

What struck me most in the article was the caption for figure 1 on page 44. The photo was taken at a physics conference and drew attention to the absence of women and minority groups in the picture.

What was not visible was that an ethnic head count of the audience in that or any other physics-related conference would reveal that it was mainly foreign physicists, second- or third-generation Eastern European Jewish immigrants, and Asian Americans.

So beyond addressing the question of why women and minorities are underrepresented, we have to resolve the issue of the underrepresentation of all non-Jewish, non-Asian Americans.

The current American educational establishment is far more favorable to women and minority groups than was 19th-century Europe, so if Emmy Noether, Marie Curie, and Sofia Kovalevskaya could succeed there and then, any girl or minority should be able to succeed in 21st-century America. In my opinion, the underrepresentation in physics and mathematics is the outcome of the US way of life and its fascination with, and submission to, the youth culture, whose ultimate aspiration is to appear on or . That submission already has had a devastating impact on our undergraduate physics and mathematics.

During the unpopular Vietnam War, when the counterculture of the 1960s associated physics with the military–industrial complex, physics lost any trace of popularity among young people, and its affiliation with the difficult subject of mathematics only stoked its unpopularity. To woo young people, some physics educators came up with a way of making the subject “attractive.” Radical conceptualism conquered undergraduate physics pedagogy, and mathematics, which ever since Galileo was the language of physics, was exiled. Equations gave way to colorful cartoons, and the conceptual “physics for …” courses mushroomed throughout the land.

What a far cry from the wisdom of the Committee of Ten, an 1890s group of educators who wanted to standardize the curriculum in US high schools. They wrote, “Every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues it, no matter what the probable destination of the pupil may be, or at what point his education is to cease.” 1

The 1960s also saw a dramatic increase in the application of psychology and cognitive science in mathematics and physics with the intention of improving teaching. Almost 30 years later, US 12th graders performed miserably in an international assessment of science and mathematics. 2 And almost 50 years later, we are still talking about “psychological insights for improved physics teaching” while the nation receives a failing report card for its 12th-grade performance in mathematics. 3

The ultimate question of how students learn physics and mathematics is this: How much time are they willing—or forced—to spend, at an early age, practicing physics and the mathematics that goes with it? It is puzzling that such an obvious fact has eluded physics and mathematics educators for such a long time. After all, isn’t practice how American students master the game of baseball, the piano, and the skills of speaking, reading, and writing? Isn’t that also how Chinese, Korean, Indian, and Singaporean students master physics and mathematics? And isn’t that the way we train our Physics Olympiad finalists, who by the way, are consistently sons and daughters of the segment of the population represented in the article’s photograph?

I hope we don’t change our PhD programs to accommodate women and minorities—or, more broadly, non-Jewish and non-Asian Americans. Let me finish by paraphrasing Euclid’s famous quip when Egyptian ruler Ptolemy I asked him if there was an easier way to learn geometry than by reading : There is no American road to physics and mathematics.

  1. National Education Association, Committee of Ten on Secondary School Studies, Report of the Committee of Ten on Secondary School Studies: With the Reports of the Conferences Arranged by the Committee, American Book Co (1894), p. 17.
  2. US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Pursuing Excellence: A Study of U.S. Twelfth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement in International Context, NCES 98-049, US Government Printing Office (1998).
  3. National Assessment of Educational Progress, “Are the Nation’s Twelfth-Graders Making Progress in Mathematics and Reading?” https://www.nations

Here is their response to my letter:

Sadri Hassani raises many points without supporting data; we disagree with most of them, and believe that many people would find them offensive. However, there is some truth to his claim that what matters ultimately is, “How much time are they willing—or forced—to spend, at an early age, practicing physics and the mathematics that goes with it?” There is no doubt that mastering complex material takes time. But what motivates a person to invest that time, to struggle through challenges? If a student has a fixed mindset of “I just can’t get physics” or “Maybe people like me don’t belong” then he or she is less likely to invest in the field. The purpose of remedying psychological barriers is to encourage students to invest in physics.

Where will growth in physics come from in the coming decades? The greatest opportunity for growth comes from groups that are underrepresented in the field, like women and minorities.

Our article discussed the barriers to success that well-qualified women and ethnic-minority students encounter in the physics classroom. The research we reviewed suggests that simple and low-cost exercises can make a significant difference in bringing these people into the field.

And here is my response to their response, which appeared as a Comment:

Dr. Aguilar, Dr. Walton, and Dr. Wieman, “Offensive” can describe only a cultural attribute. Slurping a liquid dish, while “offensive” in Western cultures, is a compliment in some Eastern cultures because it implies an appreciation of the culinary skill of the host. Therefore “offensive” does not belong in an objective discussion of a nation’s education that is so heavily at risk. However, if by “offensive” you imply that I “fabricated” my claims, I can address that issue … without being “offended.”
— “an ethnic head count of the audience … reveals that it was mainly foreign physicists, second- or third-generation Eastern European Jewish immigrants, and Asian Americans [FEJA].” Convincing data, like best things in life, are free; they don’t require million-dollar grants to be obtained. Just look at the websites of the physics and mathematics departments of the top universities to see that collectively non-FEJAs constitute less than 20% of the faculty.
— “The current American educational establishment is far more favorable to women and minority groups than was 19th-century Europe.” Do I really need any “data to support” this statement? Emmy Noether had to attend the Universities of Erlangen and Gottingen as a non-matriculated auditor because women were not allowed to attend universities in 1900 Germany!
— “Radical conceptualism conquered undergraduate physics pedagogy …” The emphasis on “concept” by the American physics educators and education researchers – at the cost of neglecting mathematics – need not be proved. A casual look at the session topics at any physics teachers gathering reveals the extraordinary effort of the educators to teach their students only concepts. The derogatory phrase “plug and chug,” so popular among high school teachers, is a proof of the succumbing of the high school and undergraduate physics to radical conceptualism. At the risk of being accused of fabricating facts, I’ll tell you about the level of mathematical ability of my typical physics education majors in their JUNIOR year. I have to emphasize that there are indeed some stellar students in this group (I just finished teaching a junior-level E&M course, in which my best student – and quite possibly one of the top 5 students of my 31-year career – was a physics education major), but they are very few and far between. This group of students are among the most ill-prepared in the class. They routinely equate the square root of a sum to the sum of their square roots; the “identity” x/a+y/b=(x+y)/(a+b) is commonly used; however, 1/a-1/b becomes 1/(a-b); to find the integral of a function from a to b, the “rule” is to substitute (b-a) in the anti-derivative of that function! These are only a few examples that come to my mind. You don’t see these students at Stanford, because your physics courses are populated by FEJAs. However, we, at second and third tier public universities see them constantly. I even have evidence – albeit indirect – of my claim: we get possibly the top quartile of the 74% of the high school students who received an F in math – or the bottom quartile of those who didn’t receive an F – on the National Assessment of Educational Progress report. These “math haters” become the future teachers, who pass to their students their hatred of math and stress “concepts” in their teaching, prompting their students, who are already weak in math, to believe that physics is all concepts … and these are the students ending up in my E&M class. And the cycle continues!
— Do we teach our Physics Olympiad finalists “the old fashioned way?” The type of questions on the tests given to the participants (which are available online) gives you an affirmative clue. Are they consistently the sons AND DAUGHTERS of FEJAs? Go to the link provided in my letter and look at the faces and the last names of the teams of the last ten years!

In your attempt at bringing growth in physics in the coming decades, women and minorities are excellent candidates. But there is a larger population that can contribute even more to that growth: the (non-FEJA) majority of the American population!


Sadri Hassani

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