Issue No. 05 - September/October (2008 vol. 10)
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MCSE.2008.110
Norman Chonacky , Yale University
Do you know about the US National Science Digital Library (NSDL)? You should, no matter what your field or occupation within science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. Why? Because sometime this autumn, a new resource—UCOMP (under development at www.ucomp.org), dedicated to computation in physics—will join the NSDL ( http://nsdl.org/about) digital collection.
Computation in Physics: CiSE's Involvement
As you know, CiSE is copublished by the American Institute of Physics in collaboration with the IEEE Computer Society. Over the past three years especially, we've been working to raise the visibility of computation in physics and to engage the physics education community in examining how computation is, could, and should be used in undergraduate education.
This examination started near the beginning of my term as editor in chief (disclosure: I am an experimental physicist). I realized that the investment of the undergraduate teaching community, once deeply involved in our predecessor publication— Computers in Physics—had waned. I wondered if the original excitement that the advent of personal computers had stirred had not borne broad-based fruit because it turned out to deserve only a niche in the canon of undergraduate physics.
In the autumn of 2005, I started researching this question and found a study by the AIP 's Statistical Research Center: Rachel Ivie and Katie Stowe's The Early Careers of Physics Bachelors (AIP publication no. R-433, Aug. 2002). It surveyed graduates who went to the workplace directly after graduation and asked, among other things, how their current work responsibilities compared to their undergraduate preparation. Two areas where the gaps were widest were in preparation for using and programming scientific software. Clearly, computation in the workplace wasn't a niche activity.
Spurred by these findings, CiSE became a leader and built a community of physics faculty interested in understanding the nature and possible causes of these gaps. From a series of broad-based investigations—community consultations and data gathering—a reasonably coherent picture of the current state of, and prospective needs for, computation in undergraduate physics gradually emerged.
Along the way, there were several signal significant events. The first was a national survey on the current status and uses of computation in undergraduate physics curricula. This process led to the publication of a CiSE special issue on "Computing in Undergraduate Physics Education" (Sept./Oct. 2006).
The second event was the formation of an informal partnership— the Partnership for Integration of Computation into Undergraduate Physics. PICUP coalesced around the Shodor Education Foundation ( www.shodor.org) and was supported by several other organizations including the NSDL, the Supercomputing 2007 Education Committee, and the TeraGrid Project. This culminated in a visioning workshop on computation in undergraduate physics held at the Argonne National Laboratory in May 2007.
The third event was an analysis of the entire body of work from the previous two years. In April 2008, the American Journal of Physics published a special issue on the theme "Computing in Undergraduate Physics." This issue included an article entitled "Integrating Computation into the Undergraduate Curriculum: A Vision and Guidelines for Future Developments" (vol. 76, no. 4, pp. 327–333) that David Winch and I wrote to analyze and summarize those two years of work.
The last event, now unfolding, is the creation of UCOMP, a new resource for the NSDL based in its Physics and Astronomy Pathway collection called ComPA DRE (Community Physics and Astronomy Digital Resources for Education; www.compadre.org). Among other things, this resource will support the integration of computation by hosting services and aggregates of information that need to have a permanent home if sustained pursuit of this goal is to succeed. CiSE is supporting the effort to establish UCOMP as part of our continuing service to the science and engineering education community.
You might well ask: fine for physics and astronomy, but how do these developments affect me (and my work in other sciences, applied mathematics, or engineering)? A foundational belief of CiSE, codified in our statements of Mission and Scope ( www.computer.org/portal/pages/cise/content/handbook.xml), is that computation is a fundamental linkage among all such areas.
Just one glance at any research in the areas of nanotechnology, biotechnology, or global climate warming remediation should convince you not only that computation is central to such research and development but also that physics holds a central place in the foundational sciences supporting each of these engineering efforts. Like it or not, we need to update the content of physics at the undergraduate level with computation. We also need to raise the profile of physics in undergraduate education as it relates to other sciences and engineering by better connecting physics to modern R&D perspectives. CiSE is committed to supporting efforts to achieve these objectives.