PGS Editors: Professor’s soul-searching reinvention of “Physics for Poets” captures the hearts and minds of students

Berkeley physics professor, Richard Muller, speaks out about the need to revolutionize the way physics is taught to non-science students – by respecting students’ intelligence and passion to learn and by being unafraid to crash through the mathematics glass ceiling to “get to the interesting stuff right away.”

Richard Muller’s course at Berkeley is a phenomenon…  “Physics for Future Presidents,” a course on essential topics in physics for students from any disciplinary background, attracts over 1000 students per year at Berkeley alone and has been voted Best Class of Berkeley by its students. You might well wonder: what is the secret to this course’s extraordinary success?  Many schools have introductory-level courses that have been dubbed “physics for poets,” “rocks for jocks,” and other such less-than-inspiring names.

Is “physics for future presidents” some kind of joke, a cheap twist on the same old-same old?  Or, considering the radical leap in enrollment that Berkeley has witnessed since Muller took over this course, is there something revolutionary about Muller’s approach?  What could have won over all of those “poets” and “jocks,” those humanists, those athletes, business, pre-law, political science, and pre-med majors, those non-science majors who normally stay safely insulated from a subject that supposedly doesn’t come naturally to them?

The answer is simple: respect.   As the author writes, “Is science too hard for world leaders to learn?  No, it is just badly taught.”  The onus (indeed, the blame, as some instructors would have it) is not on the student – the “poet” or “jock,” who is supposedly unable to understand physics; the weight of responsibility is on the teacher: right where it should be.  Muller staunchly believes that if he cannot make a fascinating subject interesting, it’s his fault, not his students’.  This insight led him to revolutionize the way he taught physics at Berkeley, and the results are impressive:  “Students recognize the value of what they are learning” he says, “and are naturally motivated to do well.  In every chapter they find material they want to share with their friends, roommates, and parents.”  And share they did.  Word about Muller’s fascinating class spread, and course enrollment quickly rose from 34 students per semester to over 500 students per semester at a university in which physics is not a required course.  To professors teaching conceptual physics at other universities across the country to the more typical class sizes of 30-odd students:  the gauntlet has been thrown.

From Muller’s perspective, a student majoring in a non-science discipline is part of the next generation of our world’s citizens and leaders.  In this science- and technology-driven age, our citizens and leaders need to make smart decisions on a daily basis about energy, climate change, terrorism and counter-terrorism, health, the internet, satellites, remote sensing, ICBMs and ABMs, DVDs and HDTVs, etc.  In other words, economic and political issues increasingly have a strong high tech component.  As Muller cautions the future leaders in his class, “Misjudge the science and make a wrong decision.”  Yet, incredibly, we live in a world in which many of our citizens and leaders have never studied physics and do not understand basic concepts of science and technology.  Muller aims to change that.

He has just published a textbook, entitled Physics and Technology for Future Presidents, to help other professors and teachers adopt his new approach at their own schools and to work as a driving force in reinventing the way physics is taught.  The book handily covers the most interesting and most important topics in contemporary physics and is imbued with the same clarity and verve that characterizes Muller’s lectures.  It is specially designed to attract new students, and to teach them the physics they need to know to be effective world leaders and informed citizens.  Already, his approach is catching on, and new “Physics and Technology for Future Presidents” courses are popping up all over the place – at institutions like Boston College, the University of Chicago, the University of Colorado, and the University of North Carolina, just to name a few, and even in high schools around the country.Everywhere, Muller’s call to revolutionize physics education is inspiring teachers to give themselves a good dose of self-criticism, to thoughtfully evaluate the way in which they teach the next generation – and to embrace the responsibility of change.  Non-science students don’t want to be treated like children and merely entertained.  They don’t want to be sculpted into miniature scientists, nor should they.  “They want a good course, well-taught, that fills them with important information and the ability to use it well,” Muller has observed.  Easier said than done, but given the obvious importance of the task at hand, certainly worth the soul-searching and effort Muller has invested.  And, the rewards have been sweet.

Physics is about how the world works – quite a fundamentally important topic, few would argue – and is naturally inspiring.  Starting from there, what then is the key to unlocking the joy of discovery in your students?  Respect.  Immerse your students in the subject and everything that it is – from the amount of energy produced by a solar cell to quantum teleportation.  Motivation follows.  Then teach.   Teach as if you’re teaching your next president…

Because you never really know, do you?

Learn more about Richard Muller’s new textbook Physics and Technology for Future Presidents.

Watch Muller’s lectures online here:|2009-D-69330&semesterid=2009-D

Read the book’s preface here:

An instructor’s manual is available. See this site for more details:

Video is provided courtesy of UCBerkeleyNewsCenter