This afternoon, I taught my first full lab to a class of physics students. Readers may recall that I have never had the chance to do this before; whereas I have been instructing labs for a year now, before this semester, I was only able to TA labs for students of Engineering.
Given how similar physics at engineering are (at least at the undergraduate level), you would think that these classes would be virtually the same…but no, as it turns out. While I wouldn’t describe the difference as “night and day,” it is, certainly, very noticeable. For the first time, I have students who are actually interested in the subject matter at hand, asking me a variety of theoretical questions (above and beyond the ones in the lab manual). I always had the impression that my engineers regarded their coursework as a boring distraction from the things that they actually care about.
The difference, I suspect, lies in the motivations behind the students. Understand, I’m not trying to diss engineers here (contrary to what you might think from my recent posts), but it is an indisputable fact that there is a profit motive to going into engineering that simply is not present for going in to physics. Alot of people become Engineers in the hopes that by doing so, they will be able to earn enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives; for people like that, I would guess that the work itself is nothing more than a necessary sacrifice that they must make in order to get what they want out of life; they will do it, but it will be a strictly “9-to-5” interest. What’s more, even those students who go into Engineering out of a sincere love of the subject will generally only be interested in physics to the extent that it can be used for Engineering purposes. Engineers apply science, but they are not themselves scientists.
On the other hand, no one would choose to major in physics if they didn’t love the subject matter. There is no pay-off for physics* other than bragging rights (which admittedly can be pretty sweet). The only reward for studying physics is the ability to understand nature at a fundamental level. It breeds a very different type of student.
*When physics majors are out of university and want to make money, they go back and get certified as engineers.