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We must not forget to teach the fundamentals

MichelleLOyen's picture

An interesting blog discussion on the disappearance of fundamentals from teaching in Universities was brought to my attention.  It serves as an interesting reminder that we who are educators in the University system must be ever vigilent in planning mechanics curricula and changes to curriculum.  Should we be offering courses in the area of this month's jClub, "Nanomechanics"?  Should we drop classical courses that have stopped being interesting to the majority of students (and thus attract low numbers)?  Should we educate students explicitly in biomechanics without providing them a classical mechanics background?  These are the questions we are likely to face in the next few years as change continues to sweep across the university system, especialy in the US but elsewhere as well.  I believe that we as a community have a responsibility here to ensure that the high standards of the discipline are maintained through teaching of fundamentals and the passing along of these values to future generations!



Henry Tan's picture

I don’t know if my observation is right or not. It seems that less and less students are interested in science and engineering, it is even so in mechanics.


Zhigang Suo's picture

Henry: I don't have statistics with me, but I believe your observation is correct. I wish I had more time to write a longer post on this important observation, but here is a recorded interview given by Tim O'Reilly, the guru of Web 2.0 and the founder of a company publishing fine computer science books. (I cannot resist to mention that he was a Harvard undergraduate.) The record is nearly 1 hour long, but is well worth the time.

Although his comments come from the perspective of a successful business person in the computer industry, I think some of his comments are of broad interest, and are perceptive. Being not an academic himself, he is not shy to question the value of "traditional education". Please hear him out before jumping to any conclusion of what he has to say.

Roberto Ballarini's picture

This discussion is worth having. Perhaps conferences can devote more sessions to undergraduate and graduate education in mechanics.

 I will touch upon just one issue, raised by Michelle. In one sense, we are our own enemies. Younger faculty are developing, perhaps as a result of messages they are receiving related to tenure and career development, specialized courses that are competing with courses teaching "fundamentals". IIn such courses basic sciences are taught in a very cursory manner, and their importance is unintentially reduced.  In fact, some courses that I have witnessed are basically dog-and-pony shows. I think this is very dangerous, not only because it leads to too many courses and in turn competition for a limited number of students, but also because I believe that courses should not be used to teach research topics. In other words, we do not teach courses at the graduate level to train our own graduate students in our own research topics. Research topics should be pursued as part of a student's independent thesis work. I suggest that courses should only teach fundamentals, with some interesting applications of course.


Henry remarked that less and less students are interested in science and engineering, particularly mechanics.   I have a feeling that if we consider actual numbers (worldwide) that's not true.  What might be true is that the very best students are no longer attracted to mechanics.  Does anyone have any hard statistics?

What exactly do we mean by "mechanics"?  This blog is frequented by students and researchers whose focus is not solely on classical mechanics - particularly those who straddle interdisciplinary niches.  If you count those research areas as mechanics then almost every person working on physical phenomena is doing mechanics.  Clearly that is a large and expanding community worldwide.

Regarding whether "fundamentals" should be taught in courses, I agree with Michelle that it's hard to determine what is/should be fundamental in each discipline as people become more and more interdisciplary.  It is true that it is not possible for undergraduates to learn all that we would like them to know when they arrive in industry/graduate school - given the rapid rate at which knowledge is growing.  On the other hand we cannot afford to have undergraduates who are well versed only in ideas that are more than a hundred years old.

So I would like to ask: what are the ideas that every mechanician absolutely needs to know?  Given that many of us do not know whether we are interested in mechanics when we are at the undergraduate level, what are the ideas in mechanics that are the most interesting? 


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