Just skip over the boring parts

All I want to do, is have some fun
Sheryl Crow

Suppose that you were a piano teacher, and that a new student showed up one day. Suppose this student told you that he has never played piano before, nor any other musical instrument. In fact, he cannot even read music, but has decided that he really wants to learn to play the piano. So, he wants you to teach him; he shall come and practice with you three times a week, an hour each time. Possibly, he may be able to put in a couple extra hours worth of practice on his own, each week, but that is not certain because he has to divide his time among five different things, all equally demanding. His goal is that of playing Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto n. 2 after three months.

I myself am no piano player, but I can imagine what the reaction of the teacher would be. I suspect that (s)he would explain that playing the piano is difficult, which is why only a tiny fraction of the population can do it (an even tinier one can do it well). That if it were possible to learn to play at that level in three months, society would not admire and reward (with esteem and regard, if not always monetarily) those who can. That aside from rare instances of exceptionally gifted individuals, normal folks need a long time just to play anything (let alone Rachmaninoff, or Mozart); that one is talking years, not months, filled with hours and hours of practice, mostly consisting of tedious and repetitive exercise, and that even that is no guarantee of success. That, unfortunately, no substitute for that routine has yet been found, and unless one is willing to go through such a process, it is better to stay away from the piano, or any musical instrument for that matter [0].
If the student insisted, demanding that, as a teacher, you find the way to teach him quickly, maybe by “skipping the most boring and tedious parts” and going directly to playing Rachmaninoff instead, at some point you would probably tell the student to get lost, or perhaps consider purchasing one of those products that are advertised on TV during night hours, in some informercial (as in, “play piano in three months for just $19.95 with our revolutionary video — call now and we shall throw in a piano for free…”).

Similar examples could be made for just about any activity. A gymnastic instructor would tell pretty much the same thing to parents wishing that their child be brought to Olympic level of performance in three months, and even a teacher of English as a second language would express doubts about the likelihood of enabling anyone with no prior knowledge of the language, to speak it flawlessly in three months. I think most reasonable people understand all that quite well.
Apparently, though, some educators believe that a form of “accelerated training” is possible, and even desirable, in physics.
So, I am slated to teach this term an introductory algebra-based (i.e., no calculus) physics course to non-physics majors. This is a fairly standard freshman course, with class meeting three times a week over fourteen weeks. The syllabus includes fundamental concepts such as vectors, basic elements of kinematics and dynamics, as well as oscillations and waves, all at a very elementary level. It is actually similar to the course that I myself took many years ago as an undergraduate, except for the fact that mine was calculus-based, since I was a physics major.
However, as I was going through the course syllabus from last year (this is a course that I have not yet taught at my current institution) I realized that toward the end the course abruptly and somewhat inexplicably “shifts gear”, and goes on to electromagnetic waves (no electricity nor magnetism at all are covered in the course), to end up with no less than an introduction to quantum mechanics. This, I had never seen before.
Apparently this change was introduced a few years ago, i.e., this course has been taught in this way already a few times. Well, I have the feeling that I am going to amend the syllabus, at least in my section…

To anyone who has taken physics at the college level, the question immediately arises: what kind of “introduction” to quantum mechanics can be suitable for someone with at best a rudimentary understanding of basic classical mechanics, no background in electromagnetism, chemistry or the structure of matter, with little or no knowledge of calculus or linear algebra ? Honestly, this is very much in the same league with the piano student wanting to play Rachmaninoff in three months, the difference being that in this case it’s not the student, it’s the university that has set some wildly unrealistic goal.
I am told, however, that the aim of this introduction is merely qualitative, just to give “some basic ideas”, “stimulate curiosity”, “make students want to know more”… Hmm… Okay…
Well, I suppose I could wave my hands (being Italian I have no trouble doing that), explain in words something about the uncertainty principle, say one thing or two about interference and diffraction by making an analogy with waves, and that is about it. I am not sure what exactly students can get out of this exercise — little or nothing, I suspect, especially since it’s not going to be in the final exam. It may actually be counter-productive, and I shall get to this in a moment.

I was curious as well, and so I did some research on my own. I understand from colleagues at other institutions, that this nonsense is actually not rare at all; rather, similar stuff goes on in freshman physics courses across the continent. But what is its purpose ? The motivation that I have heard rehashed most frequently, is that physics enrollment is in decline, and one of the reasons is the perceived staleness of this discipline. By insisting with teaching introductory physics based on the “traditional” material (i.e., classical mechanics), departments may convey to students the idea that “physics is always the same”, that nothing has happened since Newton, that there is nothing new or jaw-dropping about it (nothing could be further from the truth). Contrast that with biology, a discipline perceived to be experiencing a true renaissance, with new ideas being developed and its frontiers pushed forward every day [1]. “We need to skip over some of the boring things”, “Students want to hear the exciting stuff” is what I hear time and again from colleagues (including, and perhaps mostly senior ones).

I hate discussing the “entertainment value of education” (and quantum mechanics is not exactly new either). Moreover, arguments such as the ones above are typically self-serving, i.e., not motivated by the desire to offer students what is best for them, but by that of beefing up enrollment in physics programs, in order to get evil program-slashing university administrators off our back.
Still, I sort of see where people advocating such a change are coming from. It would not be a good thing, if physics as a subject were to stop capturing the imagination and interest of at least a portion of any entering freshman class. Naturally, it would not be a good thing if any of the major scientific disciplines fell into oblivion, but physics is particularly important, given its fundamental, propaedeutic role.
However, I do not believe that offering accelerated, crash courses in quantum mechanics, “skipping over the boring stuff”, is the way to go. Nothing good can come from trying to instill a sense of awe in the mind of anyone who is not equipped to appreciate the subtlest and deepest parts of any intellectual endeavor.

One may sensibly argue that even the appreciation for Mozart or Beethoven is not the same among a) those who have studied and practiced music and b) casual listeners, and yet anyone can appreciate a good concert. But this reasoning does not extend to science, which is why most concert goers are not themselves musicians, whereas people choosing to attend a science lecture are typically science educated. Simply skimming over the surface of complex subjects, using qualitative, hand-waving and necessarily inaccurate arguments and analogies in order to illustrate concepts whose developments took decades, often achieves the undesirable goal of confusing and misleading.
In the case of quantum mechanics, I can easily imagine students going away with the impression that it is largely a qualitative statement. They will have no appreciation whatsoever for the power and beauty of the mathematical formalism that underlies it, capable of providing astonishingly accurate predictions for essentially all phenomena that occur at the atomic and molecular level. The may actually be attracted to it for the wrong reasons, only to get burned later on, overwhelmed by mathematical complications, the day they should decide to take more advanced courses expecting them to be taught just like the “introduction”.

Honestly, what kind of a piano teacher, on the first lesson, would place a Mozart score in front of a student who has never played piano and has no knowledge of music, and ask him to try and play anyway… never mind what actually comes out, what is important is to have fun, doing the scales is boring
It is an unfortunate fact of life that practically everything worthwhile requires time, dedication, and yes, a lot of tedious work. There is no avoiding that, and to give anyone the impression that it is possible, means doing a disservice to the person and to society at large. It is particularly serious if universities indulge in such a behavior.

Notes
[0] Of course, the reaction of individual teachers may vary. Some may even feel insulted by the suggestion that a form of art to which they devoted their lives may be mastered by anyone in a matter of few months.
[1] Make no mistake: all of this is absolutely true. It is also true that biology itself has been undergoing a substantial evolution, leading it to adopt many of the methods and ideas of physics.

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2 Responses to “Just skip over the boring parts”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I don’t understand why they would introduce quantum on a qualitative level. It will leave the impression that it’s all handwavy (especially if you’re doing it) and weird. ;-) j/k

    What would make sense, IMO, is if they talked about things like astrophysics (black holes, worm holes, all the really cool, bizarre stuff), particle physics (or both and why the earth is going to be swallowed by small black holes produced at CERN) & string theory, nanotech, or other things that are a bit more conducive to qualitative explanations and reflect some of the stuff they may be hearing about in the news. This would be a lot more fun than just learning kinematics but may give them some knowledge about things they may hear about in the news…so it could potentially seem useful.

    Just as an FYI, I taught myself how to play mareserinitatis Says:

    Doh! That was me.

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