Pictured: Physics major Ashraful Haque (C’22).
By Máté Garai
People’s facial expressions right after you tell them you’d like to major in physics are just part of the fun. Either induced by respect or disgust, that tiny spark of intrigue always initiates a particular type of conversation that is so well known to STEM majors. Either way, to a certain degree, the pride in pursuing a hard science is a major driving force behind the jumbled-up mind of a future physicist.
Of course, this pride does not come without the well-known blood, sweat, and tears naturally caused by the subject. Physics is not for everyone, but it could be possible to make it more appealing to the general public. This way, it would entice young minds to have the courage to make those first steps toward a more colorful, more magical world that this beautiful science provides.
That was the topic of my conversation with my friend Ashraful Haque (C’22) sitting on the white steps of Spencer Hall. Having moved to the U.S. from Bangladesh just five years ago to major in physics, he certainly has a unique perspective.
“So I guess my answer to your question: am I worried about kids turning away from STEM fields? Yeah, definitely, I think if we had better, more creative ways of teaching courses in the field, I wouldn’t be as worried,” said Haque.
And it’s not just the U.S.; I believe that the world in general suffers from a deficit of open minds. As we are starting to grow more and more profit-oriented, we tend to forget that at the very base of our core lies the element of curiosity that makes us human. The driving force, which gave us the majority of our greatest technological inventions, is our child-like curiosity and genius, which, for it to be working correctly, needs to be nurtured at all times. Physics should not be narrowed down to merely a way to assimilate into the workforce. It is a toolbox, a way of thinking which is solid enough to build upon but at the same time continually evolving.
“I feel like math and sciences should not be taught like other traditional subjects like the social studies as an example, but I still feel like that’s how these subjects are being taught anyways: you go over each chapter, the teacher gives a lecture, you memorize the formula, solve some problems, and then comes the next chapter. It is focused more on covering the syllabus rather than actually understanding the material itself,” explained Haque when asked about his stance on the education of fundamental sciences.
“That hurts their basic understanding, so when they go to college and take higher-level courses, they don’t fully understand it, making them turn away from the field as a whole,” he continued.
And therein lies the problem: not understanding something is okay, it is the basis of physics after all, but we need to make sure that we create a safe space around this “not knowing,” embracing it, and instead of shame we are ought to give hope by patiently diving deeper into the subject, replacing that shame with even more curiosity.
“A lot of the time that depends on the professor,” said Haque after asking him what he thinks of Sewanee’s way of teaching physics. “It also depends on what you make of it,”
A degree in physics does not merely signify a career interest but shows an exceptional level of curiosity, determination, and flexibility. It is a set of tools that can be applied to nearly all areas of life. This fact is confirmed by the wide variety of careers physics majors choose after their higher education, from research and education to finances and marketing; it covers everything which requires logical, creative thinking. It is also important to mention that at the end of the day, all that matters is the competence behind that degree.
“If I want to pursue engineering after Sewanee,” Haque said, “I could definitely do it, but also if I have enough technical experience, and enough connections — this is very important — then I’ll have plenty of opportunities with my physics degree. You need real, raw skills, perhaps you know how to program really well, or you have in-depth knowledge about a certain topic, then no one cares about your degree.”
My conversation with Haque reassured that there still is a lot of hope for scientific creativity. As I have noticed, his insight, patience, and humility are defining qualities of most physicists. It certainly reassures anyone to be a proud member of the department.
As a finishing thought I wanted to ask him if he had any advice to give his younger self, or perhaps an incoming freshman. Haque remarked, “I think this is popular advice, but not enough people follow it: There is no shame in relearning something that you learned back in high school. A lot of the time, we learn something, and then we forget it; that’s completely natural. If you ever feel like you’ve already learned something earlier so you should definitely know it, but you have doubt, you should go back and revise it as many times as you need to.”