Pakistan: Academic Visits

The United States Educational Foundation in Pakistan (USEFP) made good use of my ten days in  Pakistan. I have already mentioned my talk given at the Fulbright Alumni conference on my work establishing a computational physics course at Peradenyia. In the days following the conference, arrangements were made for me to visit Pakistan’s top university, Quaid-i-Azam University (see also), COMSATS  Institute for Information Technology (COMSATS IIT, see also), and Fatima Jinnah Women’s University (in nearby Rawalpindi, see also). I was astonished in all cases to be received as if I was a Nobel Prize winner.

My first visit to Quad-i-Azam University was to meet Professor Doctor M. Aslam Baig, Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, Distinguished National Professor, and a physicist. After talking for awhile to introduce ourselves to each other, including a visit to Professor Baig’s research lab, the conversation turned to one that seemed to run through all of academic visits. Leading Pakistani physicists are openly very concerned about the state of physics education at all levels (secondary through graduate). More discussion below, but one thing that came out of my talk with Professor Baig was that it was extremely difficult to get academics to visit Pakistan. Unlike Sri Lanka, there is some available money to “throw at” the problem, but Professor Baig’s attempts to bring American physicists to Pakistan to talk about new pedagogy were ultimately unsuccessful because of a reluctance by American academics to visit Pakistan. I find this somewhat unfortunate on a number of counts. One is that it shows that even American physicists are not very good at risk assessment (or not very interested in visiting such a historically interesting part of the world). Secondly, Pakistan is a long standing ally of the US and deserves our support on many levels. If the Pakistanis are putting there lives on the line against al-Quaida and the Taliban daily, the least we can do is to accept the infinitesimal increased risk of traveling to stable regions in the country. In any case, this reluctance may help explain my extremely warm reception in Pakistan.

My next visit was to COMSATS IIT where I met with the chair of the Physics Department, Professor Arshad Saleem Bhatti. After a brief mutual introduction, once again the topic turned to physics education in Pakistan. Professor Bhatti left the room briefly, rounded up his senior professors, and brought them back to his office to discuss the issue. Again, I will postpone a discussion of the details, but I was surprised at the openness and the apparent sense of urgency surrounding the issue.

After about an hour of pedagogical discussion, Professor Bhatti took me to his “dream” lab. He has been funded to create one of the first semiconductor fab research facilities in the country. I was not aware that in both India and Pakistan there has not been much development of semiconductor processing and research, the heart of modern electronics. In retrospect, this makes sense because of the expense involved in getting started in this area. Instead, India and Pakistan have been more involved in software development. However, recently Pakistan is devoting more resources to academic research and Professor Bhatti has created an impressive new lab that is just about to switch from the construction phase to the research phase. He told me it was his “dream” lab because it has been so long just a figment of his imagination, but now it is coming true after many years of hard work.

My first post-Fulbright Alumni conference talk was given to a general audience at Fatima Jinnah Women’s University (FJWU). We arrived just a few minutes late, unfortunately. Our USEFP SUV stopped right outside the auditorium where I was to speak. I was greeted by the Registrar of FJWU, the Vice-Chancellor unfortunately detained elsewhere. The hand shake greeting was recorded by an official photographer as was the rest of my visit. I stepped into the packed auditorium which probably had a seating capacity of 150 students. I was embarrassed by having to make them wait further while my PowerPoint slides were loaded and then I had to give my lecture from a podium with a fixed microphone, too far from my computer to advance my own slides.

The talk I prepared was a general talk on the rise of computation as a new mode of inquiry in science, on a par with theory and experiment. I told them of the duplicity of physicists in presenting basic physics as if all problems had analytic solutions if only one were smart enough to figure them out. I used the simple pendulum as an example then introduced the double pendulum as a counter example. I finished by talking a little about what it takes to set up a computational physics course and some cultural differences I had encountered in teaching computational physics at Peradeniya.

The professor who had introduced me at the start of my talk then returned to the stage. He told the students how, even though they probably did not understand anything I said, they should take note of my excellent presentation style. There were no questions.  Aaargh! My heavy American accent had done me in again. I was mortified. I had been part of forcing students to sit through a meaningless lecture. The professor then gave me a sack of FJWU souvenirs and a hand shake, duly photographed, and the talk was over. There was a short reception with faculty members afterward to conclude my visit.

Despite the difficulties (“other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the show?”) I was pleased to visit FJWU. The university represents a commitment to education of women by overcoming the objections of some that it is not proper for women to attend classes with men. From conversations I had with Pakistanis, FJWU is turning out well educated and progressive young women, which, in my opinion, bodes well for the future of Pakistan. ( To prevent confusion, I should say that public universities in Pakistan admit women as well, so FJWU is not unique in this regard. But it was the first all-female university established in Pakistan and is significant in providing an educational opportunity for women who might not otherwise have been allowed to receive a university education because of their or their family’s religious beliefs.)

My next visit to Quaid-i-Azam University was to meet a remarkable man, whose title as Head of the Department of Physics might be his least significant, Professor Doctor Pervez Hoodbhoy. In addition to being a distinguished nuclear theorist, Professor Hoodbhoy has been a voice of conscience for Pakistan. As he describes it, his advocacy priorities have shifted as the dominant threat to the country has shifted. For many years, he advocated against nuclear weapons in Pakistan (and elsewhere, of course). This was an extremely unpopular opinion in Pakistan, faced with the nuclear arms of neighboring India. His anti-nuclear advocacy also created enemies for him within the Pakistani physics community. Several years ago, it was his turn to become head of the physics department, but his appointment was blocked at least partially by the opposition of A.Q. Khan (the father of the Pakistani atomic bomb and the-would be father of Libyan, Iranian, and North Korean atomic bombs) who said that the Physics Department could not have as its head a traitor to Pakistan.

From anti-nuclear advocacy, Professor Hoodbhoy turned to the corruption inherent in Pakistani politics. One specific example turned virtually the entire faculty and staff of Quaid-i-Azam University against him. The university was allocated a very substantial tract of land as part of the design of Islamabad. During the tenure of Benazir Bhutto as president of Pakistan, the ruling party wished to reward its supporters with land grants and plotted to use university land to do so. Knowing that they needed the cooperation of the university to convert this public land to private use, they cut the university faculty and staff in on the deal. Everyone was going to get a piece of land worth several years salary; land that they could not have afforded otherwise. But Professor Hoodbhoy, with one fellow faculty member as ally, filed suit in Pakistan’s Supreme Court to block the deal. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor, but of course he was vilified within the university for his action.

Lately, Dr. Hoodbhoy has been actively writing and speaking out against the forces of Islamic extremism in Pakistan which he sees as the current most potent threat to modern Pakistan.  That battle is still ongoing of course.  I felt honored to be received by someone of his moral courage. For some of his most recent commentary, see http://www.chowk.com/writers/495

My final visit to Quaid-i-Azam University was to give a research talk on dynamic scaling and pattern formation in the Cahn-Hilliard system. I don’t think it went very well but whether it was my accent, the topic, or the way I presented it, I do not know.

Let me finish this long post with a discussion of the physics education issues raised in the discussions I had during my various visits. I save it to the end partly to avoid repetition, but also partly to avoid attributing opinions to individuals. I am still a bit surprised at the candor with which the depth of the concerns were expressed and worry a bit that one of my Pakistani colleagues might b e criticized for expressing such negative feelings.

So one concern expressed was the quality of the students being given the PhD at Pakistani universities, including the best, Quaid-i-Azam. One question involved quality control, how to assure that Pakistani PhDs were on a par with graduates of other countries. One method that was tried was to require that before being conferred the PhD, a candidate had to “pass” the GRE Advanced Test in Physics. This is the test that is administered to applicants to US graduate schools in physics. If I recall correctly, the department first set the passing mark at 60 percentile, but no one passed. The next year they set the mark at 40 percent,  but only a very few passed. So the test was then dropped as a condition for graduation. As one professor expressed it, he was concerned that students were graduating with a PhD in physics from Quaid-i-Azam University who did not know enough basic physics to be admitted to an American graduate school. The concern was two-fold. The first was the worry about the future: how could these newly minted PhDs teach the next generation undergraduate physics? The second concern was the narrowness of the knowledge represented by research training for the PhD. A professor described a student whose theoretical research topic involved solutions to the Dirac Equation, but who could not answer basic questions about the non-relativistic Schroedinger Equation particle-in-a-finite-well problem during their thesis defense. However, one problem with using the GRE Advanced Test in Physics was that those who did score highly were admitted to US universities and left Quaid-i-Azam for a more lucrative position in the US.

Perhaps worse, there was a complacency among the professorate about these issues. One of the concerned professors was told that asking basic questions at a thesis defense was inappropriate and that questions should be restricted to the narrow topic of the thesis. One professor I talked to implemented his own PhD “quality control” in a different way. He required his students to publish three articles in internationally recognized journals before graduation.

I should point out that the Department of Physics at the University of Peradeniya avoids this PhD “quality control” issue by not granting any PhDs unless there has been substantial research conducted by the student at a US or European university. Also, at this point in time, all “tenure-track” physics faculty at the University of Peradeniya have PhDs from American or European universities. However, the department also has five, unfilled tenure track lines; unfilled for lack of qualified candidates, so the issue may become more acute in Sri Lanka as well. (I use the term “tenure-track” loosely here to indicate the approximate American equivalent of the jobs these candidates are applying for.) I admire the department for taking this politically difficult stand.

On a related faculty-complacency note, the faculty as a whole at Quaid-i-Azam also voted down a requirement that candidates for tenure-track  positions at the university be required to give a research presentation as part of the interview process. The majority of the faculty apparently holds the view that job candidates can be competently evaluated on the basis of one-on-one interviews and CVs alone.

The second issue turned around undergraduate education in physics. The issue is not restricted to undergraduate education, but since my expertise is in undergraduate physics education, most of the discussion centered around the undergraduate years. My Pakistani colleagues are aware that the educational system in Pakistan does not develop critical thinking or communications skills in their graduates.

The root of these two problems can be clearly traced to the educational style in Pakistan, a style that is shared in many countries in the world, including many classrooms in the US. A faculty member teaching a course gives a formal set of lectures. Students never interrupt the lecture to ask questions. They copy what the professor writes on the board into their notebooks.  No student leaves their seat until the professor leaves the room (thus eliminating another opportunity to ask questions). The formal relations between faculty and students mean that students do not approach faculty with questions outside of class either. At one or two points in the semester a high-stakes test is given on the material. Students do badly, but grading is on the curve, so the majority of the students pass the course.

Now I only say  that the problem can  be “clearly traced” because of the work done on physics education research in the US in the last few decades. Communications skills are learned and students must be taught communication techniques and given an opportunity to practice those skills. Asking questions in or outside of class can only happen if the professor (and the students) create an atmosphere in class where questions are welcomed. Mentoring students on open-ended or research projects can develop critical thinking skills. Infrequent, high-stakes testing is not the best way to motivate most students to engage meaningfully with the material over an extended time, though a few students do well in this system.

Of course, it was not so long ago that physics was regularly taught this way in the US, but hopefully that is changing, and it certainly has been changing in the best colleges and universities in the US. I think I may have only gotten one professor’s attention when I mentioned that MIT had changed its introductory physics course to a new, inquiry-style, lab-based system. The professor’s implication being that who cared what happened at a school like Kenyon that he had not heard of before, but if MIT was doing something new, then maybe it was to be taken seriously. (I felt  a little like Rodney Dangerfield: we get no respect.)

I was basically told that  I could get support to put together a team of US academics to bring to Pakistan to educate Pakistani professors on new physics pedagogies. I felt that it might be possible to find people willing to participate if I invited them personally. The remaining, but much larger question, is whether this is the right way to be of service. I will explore and ponder this more when I get back to Gambier.

Tim

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1 Comment

  1. Varuni said,

    July 19, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    Tim,

    I still check your blog for new postings. The problems you saw in pakistan in physics education are the same as what we have here in sri lanka. We have to worry about the so called “general degree physics students” more. I will try to bring attention of authoritative people, so that we too can make use of people like you to learn new teaching techniques…etc.

    Are you still in India?

    varuni


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