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Introduction and Overview

Preparing Students for the 21st Century

Many factors need to be considered as we educate physics students for the roles they will fill in the 21st century: new and challenging world problems to solve, job flexibility, multiple employers, a gig economy, new demographics in the US, and international competition for everything. Physics education is one of the best ways we can prepare them—and when we adapt and improve it to incorporate elements of innovation and entrepreneurship, we arm our graduates with the best tools to be successful in the world ahead.

This report is an outcome of the Pathways to Innovation & Physics Entrepreneurship: Launching Institutional Engagement (PIPELINE) project. It discusses what was accomplished and learned and presents ways that innovation and entrepreneurship education can be incorporated into the undergraduate experience of your students to better prepare them for the 21st century. PIPELINE team members worked together to develop methods to incorporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E) into the experience of physics students, build a network of practitioners, and promote I&E within the physics community. Innovation and entrepreneurship encompasses problem solving in situations of uncertainty, creativity and design thinking, incorporating human factors (e.g., need, desirability), opportunity recognition, managing projects and diverse teams under constrained resources, a multidisciplinary and flexible approach to problem solving, learning and applying new technical skills, and communicating with diverse and nontechnical audiences, among others. I&E encompasses a “sociotechnical” way of thinking. All of this work is aimed at preparing students for the professional and career challenges they will face in the 21st century, making physics a discipline attractive to students, and preparing students to apply physics in more diverse ways to successfully address real-world problems.

How to Use This Report

It is our hope that this report will motivate the physics community to incorporate PIE as a core component of physics education. Bringing I&E elements, such as nontechnical communication skills, project management, and industrial physics applications, into the student experience is new and challenging for most academic environments—especially in physics. We recognize that many barriers seem to make this appear difficult. First and foremost is the perception among faculty that adding PIE elements to the undergraduate physics curriculum means taking other physics out. That is not the case. What PIPELINE has developed does not reduce the physics that students learn—in fact, it enhances it. In this report you will find a variety of low-risk and low-cost approaches to bring I&E to your students, promote I&E within departments and to administrators, and enhance physics education and the research enterprise. This report also includes information that will influence the professional societies in which we participate, as well as recommendations for funders and other agencies with whom we interact.

A Note About COVID-19

At the time that this report was being prepared, the COVID-19 pandemic had begun to seriously impact all aspects of life, including higher education. Those impacts will pose challenges to the implementation of the work reported here but may also provide new and unique opportunities to experiment with the recommendations made. For example, increased use of virtual tools may make it easier to bring in outside speakers to online classrooms; more students may have access to activities through online learning. Other pedagogical approaches, such as hands-on laboratory activities, may be more difficult and necessitate redevelopment. What is almost certainly true is that now, more than ever, universities will need to demonstrate that they are providing students with the skills, knowledge, and mindset for finding innovative solutions to difficult, far-reaching problems. We hope that the approaches described in this report serve to inspire educators who are adapting to the post-COVID environment to add these new curricular elements to the educational landscape they currently inhabit. We also hope that this report will strengthen the resolve of funding agencies to support innovative approaches to teaching that will culminate in student outcomes that better prepare them for the diverse career paths that they will pursue and allow them to impact and address the many major issues facing 21st century society and the world.

A Bit of History