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Students are heading back to school, and a new study shows many will be spending more time in science classrooms. Maintaining Momentum: High School Physics For A New Millennium, a new report from the American Institute of Physics, shows that enrollment in physics classes is at its highest point since World War II. The study shows big gains in the types of physics being taught and the number of girls studying physics, but points out that more needs to be done where minorities and students with fewer economic advantages are concerned.
According to AIP, over the past ten years, the number of students enrolled in physics has increased by eight percent, reaching an all time high of 28% since the end of World War II. What's more, the study shows that the type of physics being taught is expanding. While traditional introductory physics classes still constitute the bulk of the physics curriculum, the fastest growing alternative uses a less mathematical approach to teach physics concepts. At the other end of the spectrum, the study shows rapid growth in advanced physics courses. The number of students taking Advanced Placement (AP) physics today is double what it was just a decade ago.
Girls are also making a greater showing in physics classrooms. "I am very encouraged by the news that more women are taking physics courses in high school," says Jack Hehn, the manager of the education division of AIP. According to the research, in 1987 only 39% of physics students were girls. Today, girls represent almost half (47%) of students taking physics. But there are still advances that need to be made. Women are less likely to continue in physics education after high school. Only one-fifth of all bachelor's degrees in physics go to women, and only one-eighth of all doctorates.
There are also concerns about drawing more minorities to physics classes. The report shows that African-American and Hispanic students are still under represented in physics classrooms. The research also points out that far fewer students take physics at schools which teachers rate as socioeconomically worse than average. These schools are also much less likely to offer advanced placement classes. According to Michael Neuschatz, the report's author, "a substantial fraction of the academically most successful students are now getting an introduction to physics. But that is not at all the case for other students, including many who are headed towards two- year colleges and technologically demanding jobs."
The study therefore suggests that while there has been great improvement overall in physics education over the past ten years, the fight is not over. Fred Stein, APS' new Education Officer, laments, "It is difficult to be elated over the recent fact that 28% of students are enrolled in high school physics, even if this is an all time high since the end of World War II. It is even more distressing that African-American and Hispanic students are still greatly underrepresented in physics classrooms."
Ironically, the latest statistics for graduate enrollments in physics has experienced a sharp decline and is currently at its lowest point since the post-War boom of the 1950s. During the 1996-1997 academic year, 11,786 graduate students were enrolled in the 261 US physics graduate departments, representing a 6% drop from the previous year and a cumulative 19% drop from the most recent high in 1992. Because of the declines in first-year enrollments, it is expected that overall enrollments will continue to decline for several more years. The decline has been steeper for US students (27%) than for foreign students (15%), and as a result, foreign students now comprise roughly 45% of the physics graduate student population. [See www.aip.org/statistics]
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