Turning Failure into Physics Success Dartmouth Professor Uses Struggling Students to Help Him Develop Better Teaching Methods for Science

Article excerpt

Americans have wrung their hands in recent years over the state of science education in their country, with that bedrock subject -- physics -- a particular concern. Only a relatively few high school students, barely 20 percent, ever get exposed to physics. And when those few move on, they often meet an early Waterloo in college-level introductory physics.

Delo Mook, a physics professor at Dartmouth College, has decided to put this latter phenomena under his microscope, so to speak. He has developed a passion for finding out why students, many of whom study hard and arrive here with strong secondary-school backgrounds, often trip over his course and veer off for some field other than science or engineering.

His method: turn the failing students into consultants who can help him come up with alternative ways of conveying the basic concepts of physics.

"Ten years ago," Professor Mook says, he would have told a failing student: "I did everything I could. Maybe you're just not cut out for this." Now the wispy-haired, round-faced physics professor believes that response is weak, if not dishonest.

He speaks of a "realization, on my part, that in a sense I'd been swindling a lot of students." They come to him, as "customers," and say "teach me physics." He and other professors hand the students textbooks based on an education gained from similar textbooks, Mook says, and "if they don't get it, we fail them."

Some 345,000 students a year in four-year colleges that offer a degree in physics qualify for Mook's definition of a "customer," according to statistics compiled by the American Institute of Physics. Of these, about 30,000 are students at least tentatively aiming at a career in engineering or the physical sciences. Their introductory courses are of the tougher, calculus-based variety taught by Mook.

Such classes are often taught by professors or teaching assistants "interested in teaching, more than in students' learning," observes Patrick Mulvey, a researcher with the Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland. It's common, he says, for half the students who originally enroll in these classes to be gone by midterm. "{Instructors} think they're weeding out, getting the cream of the crop."

The truth ignored by that approach, Mook contends, is that "different people learn in different ways." By working very closely with students on the brink of failing his course, he tries to prepare "a smorgasbord" of ways physics concepts can be grasped, greatly increasing a student's chances of passing. A student's success or failure Mook asserts, should be "a shared responsibility."

Mook's approach was an academic lifesaver for Cathy Harris, a Dartmouth sophomore from Grangeville, Idaho. "I was so cocky when I came here," she says. "I thought anyone could get an A if they really worked hard enough. How wrong I was!"

Ms. Harris was on the verge of dropping out of Mook's course when she came in to talk with him. …