"Top" University Scientists Do Teach

Thomas J. Devlin

An abridged version appeared in the NYTimes, June 13, 1995

Ten-thousand students were enrolled in courses taught personally by American and Canadian physics professors who worked on the discovery of the top quark announced in March. Night and weekends, via plane flights, computer links and tele-conferencing, faculty at universities across the continent searched for this elementary building block of nature in experiments at Fermilab in Illinois while carrying out a full range of teaching activities at home.

This contradicts the currently fashionable assertion that high level research at universities necessarily results in neglect of undergraduate teaching. Elected officials, writers and TV journalists hopped on this bandwagon to persuade students and parents that they are victimized by universities with strong research programs. A Pennsylvania legislator proposed a law to dictate classroom time for professors. The Philadelphia Inquirer claimed that high tuition charges subsidize research equipment and salaries of non-teaching professors. This echoed a CBS television segment on "60-Minutes," in which Leslie Stahl accused the University of Arizona of this and other abuses. Stahl's verbal accusations had little to do with physics, but background scenes of physics laboratories and apparatus left little doubt that it was among her targets. Arizona's response, largely unnoticed, pointed out, among other CBS distortions and errors, that no tuition is used for research. On the contrary, "80% of the equipment used by undergraduate science students was paid for by research grants."

No hard evidence exists to support media accusations, but scientists are alarmed. In January, speaking to the Universities Research Association, Neal Lane, director of the National Science Foundation warned that we must improve our teaching. All agreed, but several of us urged him to investigate the validity of the media assertions. D. Allan Bromley, presidential science advisor during the Bush administration and president-elect of the American Physical Society, expressed similar thoughts recently at Rutgers. Again, I objected that no evidence of widespread abuse exists. Dr. Bromley wisely pointed out that it does not matter what I think; the issue is the public's perception. I decided to get some data on the subject.

The top-quark discovery identified over 800 scientists from many countries with some claim to excellence in research. I sent questions to all in this group with regular faculty appointments at forty-four U.S. and two Canadian universities. With shameless arm-twisting, I got data about all 123 men and women in this target group. I sought a "snapshot" of their teaching activity when the top-quark was announced. Here are the results:

In nearly identical words, many emphasize that "all lectures [and most recitations] are taught by faculty." Most agree with one who said, "I love teaching, and I think it important to teach physics from a working physicist's viewpoint." "My office hours for [students] are *anytime*." Their typical, self-imposed work week is over sixty hours. "I am proud [of my work on] the Top discovery ... I am proud of my undergraduate and graduate teaching." Three received awards for outstanding undergraduate teaching.

Many devoted a lecture to describing the top-quark work. "Students were excited [by the news reports and by] having a professor directly involved in the research." Sixty percent volunteered information about out-of-class activities essential to education: advising, course development, textbooks, admissions and high-tech upgrades to teaching laboratories and lecture demonstrations.

Several teach "Saturday Morning Physics" to high school students. One is co-founder of the "Teachers Academy ... devoted to bringing access to high-quality science and math teaching to ... every one of the 400,000 children in Chicago's schools." Others taught summer "pre-physics" to disadvantaged students in Philadelphia and Texas. As soon as the "Jupiter Impact" pictures came in, they appeared on the Internet through the efforts of one of these physicists working with the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia's Science Museum. Another collaborated "with the med school to develop new electronics for PET scans."

In the decade leading to the top-quark discovery, hundreds of undergraduates worked on the project part-time or summer in university laboratories. These are apprenticeships, and nobody has invented a better method of education. The best way to learn science is to spend time with scientists doing science.

We are mistaken in portraying the university as a teaching institution. It is a learning institution, and learning must take place at all levels from the newest freshman to the most senior professor. How can one learn from someone whose own learning is a dusty, distant memory? The Canadian author, Robertson Davies, observed that "Intelligent societies have always preserved their wise [men and women] in institutions of one kind or another, where their chief business is to be wise, to conserve the fruits of wisdom and to add to them if they can." In our society, universities serve this function. Through our students we seek to conserve wisdom and to spread its fruits, and in our research we seek to add to them.