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Re: Recruiting Science / Physics Students

Billy T wrote:
.... "Science is for nerds and certainly won’t pay as
well as Wall Street or legal firms" – is their view. Changing this
attitude may be more important than better instruction in science
classes. Some may consider this only a self-serving objective of
science teachers, but I think that everyone needs substantial
understanding of the world they live in.

Some thoughts:

I think this is an important discussion. Nobody has any
business teaching any course (science or otherwise) unless
they can explain why the topic is important.

It appers there are a couple different tangentially-related
topics being mixed together. It might help to untangle them:
a) recruiting science/physics *majors*, or
b) teaching some science to the great mass of non-majors.

The job/pay issue is relevant for topic (a) but not (b).
Meanwhile arguing that "everyone needs substantial understanding"
addresses topic (b).

Majoring in physics is hard work. It's not for everybody.
For example, most physicists need a pretty good understanding
of statistics:
-- QM is all about probability.
-- Monte Carlo methods were invented by physicists and are
used all over the place in nuclear physics, condensed-matter
physics, etc.
-- Design-of-Experiment.
-- etc.

But a statistician does not need to know quantum mechanics!

That's just one example. I've seen physics grad students
struggling to solve problems in analog electronics, group
theory, machine-shop metalworking, computer architecture,
office politics and management, partial differential equations,
etc. --- all so they could get on with their physics projects.
Some people thrive on this sort of challenge; most people don't.

Recruting is super-important, but we don't want to recruit
everyone to be physics majors.


Touching on the pay/jobs issue briefly: Yes it's true that
some ambulance-chasers make a huge amount of money, but
most don't. And at best it's not a very nice lifestyle;
even lawyers look down on these guys. It's a rat race,
which means that even if you win, you're still a rat.

And touching on the coolness issue: Yes, it's cool to be
a sports hero or a movie star ... but there are very, very
few job openings for such, so any given student has a
very, very small chance _a priori_ of having such a career.

Another coolness factor has to do with role models. Most
kids have never met a scientist and have little or no
idea what scientists do on a day-to-day basis. Most
Hollywood portrayals of scientists are, shall we say,
unsympathetic: from Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Frankenstein to
Dr. No and Dr. Evil. But there are useful exceptions,
which may be useful as "recruiting tools":
-- _The Story of Louis Pasteur_ is a very nice flick.
(It's not available on DVD yet AFAICT, which is annoying.)
-- The _Apollo 13_ film is a real crowd-pleaser, is mostly
accurate, and correctly portrays engineers (notably Gene
Krantz and his crew) as among the heros of the piece.
-- The miniseries _From the Earth to the Moon_ is nice
in that it tells a lot about the contributions of
behind-the-scenes folks : lots of heros who weren't
-- There is a similar charm to _October Sky_ : the hero
is definitely not a superhero, just a student/engineer/
person struggling with real-life problems.
-- There are also Willow and Giles (cohorts of _Buffy_)
who are the fashion-challenged geeky student and the
stuffy librarian, but still very sympathetic characters.
-- And then there is Hermione: swotty, not particularly
pretty (at least in the books), and not at all a
people-person ... but still an important character, a good
person, a good friend, and a good team member. A recurring
theme in the books is that studying pays off. Also note
that Hermione's alter ego, Jo, grew up to be the wealthiest
woman in Britain.