In physics departments, a lot of the students we teach are not going to be physics majors. They are going to be engineers, chemists, computer scientists, biologists, and doctors. Everybody (that is, all physicists) agrees that physics is good for all future scientists since physics is the basis of all other sciences—at least that’s the way it seems to physicists.
He added that they wanted to take my course, despite the fact that they were biology majors and therefore it wasn’t of much relevance for them.
Well! Despite the fact that I had thought carefully about what might be useful for biologists in their future careers, and focused on developing deep scientific thinking skills, it suddenly became clear that I had failed in an important part of my goal. I had managed to teach some good knowledge and good thinking skills, but I had not made the connection for my students to the role of that knowledge or those skills in their future careers as biologists or medical professionals. The occasional problem I had included with a biological or medical context did not suffice.
…I therefore propose we who are delivering service courses for other scientists—and I mean mathematicians, chemists, and computer scientists as well as physicists—ought to measure our success not just by the scientific knowledge and skills that our students demonstrate, but by their perception of their value to themselves as future professionals. We can tell ourselves, “Well, they’ll see later how useful all this is,” and they might, but that is really wishful thinking on our part. If our students see that what we provide is valuable now, they will maintain and build on what they have learned in our classes. Otherwise, it is likely that what we have taught will fade and our efforts will have been largely in vain.
I wish our faculty who taught service courses thought about their classes this way. All too often I hear from students that they don’t remember anything from the required science classes, and that the faculty who taught those courses did not care whether they learned anything or not—both students and faculty were just going through the motions without any real teaching or learning taking place.
I’ve never taught a large service course for students outside my department (though my department has changed, I’ve always focused on courses that were very directly related to the major, even when teaching lower-division courses like Applied Discrete Math). So I can’t speak from experience about teaching students who see no point to learning the content of the course—it must be tough.
About the closest I’ve come is in teaching tech writing, which I instituted as a requirement for computer engineering majors back in 1987. That course was not one students enjoyed much (there was a huge amount of writing, and a corresponding huge grading load), and many saw it as well outside their area of competence (and for some, it was). But even the tech writing course was carefully tailored for relevance to the engineers taking it. Every assignment I created was intended to develop skills that they could use as engineers and as students.
I’ve had people come up to me and tell me that they took the course from me 20 years ago (I rarely remember them), and that it was one of the most valuable courses they had in college—which is gratifying to hear, since few of them wanted to take it when they were students.
It is possible to make courses that seem outside the students’ interest relevant, but it takes some serious effort. I think I managed to do that with the Applied Circuits for Bioengineers course that I prototyped last Winter and will be teaching again this coming Spring. None of the students in the course were interested in bioelectronics—they had all put off the required circuits course as long as they could, because they were not interested in the material and had heard horror stories about how dry and difficult the EE course was. By the end of the quarter, several of them were excited about what they could do with electronics, and wishing they had been able to take the course much earlier—they might have chosen bioelectronics instead of biomolecular engineering as their concentration. The standard circuits course had squelched almost all interest in bioelectronics—only about 1 out of 20 or 30 bioengineering students had been choosing the bioelectronics concentration, and he was going on to do radio electronics for an MS degree, thanks to a particularly good lab instructor in EE.
It is never enough, even in a course for majors, to design the course around “they’ll need this later”. It is far better to make them want to know it now, for things that they can do now. For the Applied Circuits course, I concentrated ton the students doing design and construction in the labs, with just enough theory to do the design. This is a big contrast to the traditional circuits course, which is all theory and math which EE students will use “later”—totally useless if the students then never take another EE course.
This year I hope to replace the requirement for the EE circuits course in the bioengineering major with a requirement for the applied circuits course. Those who want to do bioelectronics will still have to take the EE circuits course, but they’ll go into it knowing half the material, and knowing what the theory is for, which should move the bioengineers from the bottom of the circuits course to the top.
I wish I had the capability to replace the chemistry and physics courses also, but I’m not aware of tenure-track faculty in either department who are interested in changing what and how they teach for students outside their own major. Note that for the circuits course I could not get the EE department to teach the course that was needed—I had to teach myself circuits and design the course myself (which took me about 6 months full time). And I was a lot closer to knowing circuits (from my experience in teaching digital logic and VLSI design) than I am to knowing chemistry (which the least serviceable service course that we require of bioengineers).
One thing that chemists and physicists could do to make their courses more useful and interesting to engineering students is to put design into the labs. Engineers want to make things, not just study them. Far too many of the freshman science labs are cookbook labs, where the students are just taught to follow carefully written instructions to make a series of measurements to get an answer to a question that they weren’t interested in to begin with. What a waste of precious lab space and time.