Connecting the Dots: Physics, the CSD Undergraduate Curriculum, and beyond

The other day the OU chapter of the National Student Speech-Language Association held a potluck lunch for faculty and students to have a chance to interact.  The students bring in all the food, often around some kind of semester-varying theme, and all faculty need to do is show up.  My understanding is that these sessions are designed for students to have a chance to talk with faculty outside of class and to have a chance for more conversation than larger sections or busy schedules might typically allow. I enjoy attending these each semester.  In addition to some good food it is a chance to meet some new students and to talk more with others I already know.  Our topics range all over.

As is frequently the case, the topic of classes came up.  Students attending the potluck are generally from first through senior year and there is knowledge and opinion to be shared spanning these levels of achievement through the curriculum.  A favorite topic is that of Physics.  A couple of years ago, when planning for our transition from quarters to semesters, the CSD faculty at OU decided to require two semesters of Physics for all of our undergraduate majors.  One of the reasons we picked two semesters had to do with the fact that acoustics wasn’t covered in Physics until the second semester and that was a key area we wanted our students to understand more about.  We also thought the fundamentals of Physics were important as they underlie so much of hearing and speech science.  We talked about enhancing the math and science rigor of our curriculum to help students to be more competitive in graduate school.  The faculty could see the connections.  What about the students?

Generally the comments I hear about Physics are related to questions about the relevance of the courses and frustration over difficulty with the material.  On one level, perhaps if the material were not all that difficult to master, there would be less frustration.  If the frustration feeds into existing questions about the relevance perhaps the agitation around this topic would not be quite so intense.  As it is, I often hear considerable angst around Physics in CSD.  In some cases students do report feeling proud of mastering a difficult topic.  Others continue to struggle and discuss it as something to “get through” much like a root canal.

I have addressed student concerns in multiple ways over the past few semesters.  Sometimes I just try to listen.  Other times I try to explain the rationale related to the fundamentals.  I have even tried explored the importance of a broad education.  When talking with students at the potluck, I related on one level, tried a new approach, and then was struck by a fundamental question in the process.

In relating, I brought up a story about a Physics class that I took as an undergraduate student.  My undergraduate degree is in Music.  I was not required to take a lab course in Physics as OU CSD majors are.  Rather, I took a course in the Physics of Music offered through the Physics department by an adjunct instructor.  I went into the course with a bad attitude from two distinct sources.  First, I had heard the course was not a good one.  Second, I resented being “forced” to take a course in general.  I never got past these two issues and allowed them to poison every possible issue that came up in the class while ignoring any potential stimulating topics or avenues for learning.  This was a departure from my usual learning style (at least ever since High School), but never one I had thought about too deeply.  Just as an example, the class was taught in a large auditorium and the instructor would set up elaborate demonstrations in the front.  I sat near the back and could rarely see the demonstrations.  Start fuming now– this is ridiculous…what a waste of my time…where is the relevance…and so on.  I remembered feeling the way students told me they were feeling.  I remembered not feeling good at all about a topic.  I also remembered, that the material was in fact, difficult for me.  Unlike other concepts, I couldn’t immediately “get it.”  I didn’t look inward.  I just defensively blamed the process or even the instructor.  That is not to say that the methods couldn’t have been improved, but there was an interplay of difficulty, readiness and attitude. I recall there was a demonstration on Helmholtz resonators, that in retrospect actually illustrated the concept pretty well.  I just didn’t appreciate it until I understood the underlying material better in a course on Acoustics that I took in picking up prerequisites for my CSD Master’s.  I know I felt a sense of empowerment and purpose when pursuing my Master’s degree.  I embraced difficult material with a confidence that I could learn it and that I wanted to learn all I possibly could for my new found career path.  Unfortunately the Physics of Music course still remains in a haze of mixed regret, but mostly frustration.  I can recognize now that I didn’t bring a healthy attitude to the course, but that didn’t really change my learning outcomes at the time.

So, ok.  Now I found an experience on which I could related to students.  On the other hand, I also recalled a contextualization of Physics and its origins after reading Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle a couple of years ago.  This is still historical fiction, but the fiction part of it had to do more with the elements and characters Stephenson injected into the existing timeline.  I have always liked Stephenson’s writing and this series was no exception.  In particular I enjoyed listening to this cycle as an audiobook which gave it a genuine theatrical feel that truly engaged me with the characters, setting and action.  What I shared with the students was what I found to be a compelling part of Physics: the historical perspective.  Newton was a young man with an intense interest in understanding the world.  He grew up in a time when around Europe others were “awakening” in a sense to possibilities for understanding the natural world through science.  As they observed the world, they developed ways to understand their observations through Mathematics.  When Newton reached the limit of his current Mathematics in being able to describe events, he invented (omit sidebar discussion of Leibniz) Calculus to work with his observations of light and prisms and to expound on planetary motion and gravity.  The fundamental idea that such concepts could be explained through mathematics meant an incredible power in my opinion.  I tried to convey the sense of unfathomable wonder that in a time when science came into conflict with tradition or when the prevailing idea was that there were many mysteries that could just not be known that brave and inquisitive figures could learn and even discover underlying forces in the universe.  To me this was awesome (in the awe inspiring sense and not the more modern context).  I may have reached one or two people with my passionate plea (which in my memory was far more eloquent than I have laid out here).  One person did remark, “well when you put it that way…”

So now here is the thread… Physics may be more about empowerment.  It may be about the individual student who, like Newton, grabs the observable world and says there is a way to understand and describe what is happening and that way is within my grasp.  Envision here the student with outstretched arm, pushing through the haze of obscurity to achieve the same kind of blazing enlightenment characterized by Newton and his contemporaries… Stunning, right? Except for the previous part I wrote about how difficult the material can be, how the material can be difficult to directly relate to CSD, and how the “word on the street” is that the class is something to be dreaded or at the very least viewed negatively.

What I tried to reconcile then was, how did I go from a student who resented my Physics class to one who saw the nobility of the enterprise?  Was it just age and experience?  If that were the case, then I would have have to go with a “you’ll appreciate it when you’re older” argument that I am extremely reluctant to espouse.  I have no doubt that the connections were easier to see once I had mastered or at least better understand concepts across domains and then had time and a chance to integrate them over time.  Still, if such integration is possible, then why would age be the important factor?  On my bookshelf the evening following the potluck, my attention was drawn to a collection of poems.  There were young poets like Dylan Thomas who had incredibly mature insights.  Age did not appear to limit them in discussing fundamental existential questions.  Granted, we aren’t all Dylan Thomas, but we are all human.

I remember about 20 years ago, my dad introduced me to an incredible documentary series called Connections where James Burke explored interdisciplinary links to history that crossed boundaries between content in history, science and other fields and wove them into a web of interest where seemingly disparate innovations and events could be seen as inextricably entwined.  As I listened, I enjoyed the way pieces were literally put into place.  The scattered concepts I had learned in various units, tests, game shows moments, overheard discussions came into a kind of focus even if for fleeting moments.  I have dreams of creating such a course or even curriculum someday.  I know such interdisciplinary talk has been proposed in curriculum planning in the past.  I’ve always been interested in it.  I always wanted to do more of it.  I just haven’t done it yet.  Maybe it’s time for me to connect the dots.  Am I the one who does the connecting though?  If I do the connecting where is the learning?

In Language Development, I learned about the utility and certainly the reality of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.  There is a balance to strike between what a student can do independently, what a student is ready to learn with some assistance, and what might be too far of a stretch where assistance becomes completion by someone else.  I use the example of my son learning to draw triangles.  He could recognize a triangle.  He could not independently draw a triangle.  He could however draw one when I put three dots on the paper that suggested the shape.  ZPD.

Conclusion… It is not up to me to connect the dots, but I can do a better job in suggesting the framework of them.

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