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    Engineering and Physics

    Engineering professors and teaching assistants work hard to teach their students the skills they need to graduate from college and obtain jobs, but there are developing concerns from engineering professors that their students are having trouble with one of the requirements needed for graduation: physics.

    Deb Klein, a teaching assistant in PHY 131, said that freshmen retain the study habits they had in high school and often don’t realize that college-level physics means a bigger workload. “People think they can go to class and just sit there,” Klein said, who attends Stony Brook University on a combined degree program. “They think they can teach themselves by using the textbook.”

    Nevertheless, students from around the country say they get mostly A’s in their classes. The National Survey of Student Engagement conducted a survey of almost 380,000 freshmen and seniors at 722 four-year colleges. The survey found that students spend about 3 1/2 hours a week preparing for each class, about half of what professors expect from a typical college student.

    The NSSE survey also found that 29 percent of freshman and 36 percent of seniors still got A’s in their classes even when they didn’t turn in homework assignments.

    Even with the survey numbers, students taking PHY 125 and PHY 131 have trouble grasping the material. According to physics professor Philip B. Allen, the 42 percent failure rate of PHY 125 is the second highest of the courses offered at Stony Brook University.

    The failure rate may stay firm; as the average midterm score of the 310 students enrolled in PHY 131 this semester was 33 out of 60. Last semester, the average scores for the same class were around 60 to 65 out of 100 for the first midterm and 55 to 60 out of 100 for the second.

    Engineering students like Arieh Hammer say physics gives them trouble. “A large portion of engineering students are hands-on people,” Hammer said. “We are big fans of the concept of physics. However, we are not fans of the math behind physics.”

    One problem engineering students have involves units and directions. Klein said they are able to do the math required to solve the problem, but they have no concept of what the answers mean. “They do all the math in the problem, and then they just write any unit at the end of the problem,” Klein said.

    One example she gave is when students are asked to measure the velocity of waves on a string. They do this by measuring the period of the wave’s motion and its wavelength. Klein says that even though the students are able to find a number, they often report the numbers without any type of units attached to it.

    She stresses to her students that every number means something in physics. On the first day of classes, she posed the question “How do you know what a unit means?” to her class.

    With the number of students needing assistance with physics increasing, the number of outside-the-classroom tutoring opportunities is also rising. This semester, Klein started a program called “The Physics Help Session.” The program, which takes place every Wednesday during campus lifetime, gives students a place to go if they need help with the concepts that the professors are teaching.

    However, attendance at the help sessions has been in the single digits. The highest attendance so far has been five students. “It’s quite depressing,” Klein said.

    Elyce Winters, assistant dean of the college of engineering and applied sciences, said that students are reluctant to ask for help. “Some students are shy because they didn’t need to ask for help before. They were used to having success come to them.”

    Professor Allen said that students do not do enough to reach out for help.

    Despite the low attendance, Klein said that the students who come often return to the program the next week for more help. She also said the program has benefited the few students who have attended.

    Klein recalled working with one student during a session, “We were working on the problems he had, and at the end of the session he understood what we were working on.” When they solved the problem they were working on, the student said, “I feel like good will hunting”

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