Monday, December 3, 2012

Charting a New Course in Physics Education

The following is a guest post by four members of the Compass Project: Nathaniel Roth, Punit Gandhi, Gloria Lee, and Joel Corbo.

The first year of college can be especially tough for a student interested in pursuing the physical sciences: Daunting assignments. Competition for grades. Uninspiring lectures. And, perhaps most overwhelming of all, a feeling of isolation in the face of it all.
Finding a supportive community can be crucial in order to persevere in this transition. It’s certainly easier to grasp the difficult ideas presented in lecture and in the homework when discussing them comfortably with friends. More profound, however, is the sense of being welcomed into a group where one can feel some notion of belonging.
The quest for community is harder for students who feel like outsiders at the outset. Gender, race, socioeconomic status, and other factors can act as immediate barriers. When the inevitable struggles with the subject material arise, it can be easier for students to drift away when they feel they never really belonged in the first place.
With these ideas in mind, in 2006 a group of physics graduate students at UC Berkeley saw an opportunity to make their department a more diverse and welcoming place. They launched an ambitious program called the Compass Project designed to foster a more inclusive, creative, and collaborative scientific community, aimed especially at incoming undergraduates in the physical sciences.  Since then, Compass has grown into a vibrant organization that has improved the academic experience for nearly 100 undergraduates and dozens of graduate students. The American Physical Society presented Compass with the 2012 Award for Improving Undergraduate Physics Education.
We have recently been given an opportunity to tell the story of Compass' founding and its subsequent achievements in a Points of View column on Physics Today online (the pre-print can be found here).  Many of the ideas mentioned above are discussed in more detail, along with a host of additional information. We encourage you to read the article to learn more, and we hope that you'll find that our organization's philosophy resonates with your own.