APS News

APS Board Calls for Doubling the Number of Physics Bachelors

A look at the ratio of physics degrees to all bachelor degrees granted

APS Staff /Source: AIP Statistical Research Center

APS has gone on record as favoring the doubling of the number of physics majors at US colleges and universities. At its June meeting, the Executive Board endorsed the following statement: “We advocate doubling the number of bachelor degrees in physics, to address critical national needs including K-12 education, economic competitiveness, energy, security, and an informed electorate.”

A similar goal has also been endorsed by the American Association of Physics Teachers.

The statement does not precisely define what doubling means. As the graph shows, after peaking in the early 1960’s, the percentage of physics majors has gone into decline, reaching a nadir of about 3800 majors in 1999. In recent years, there has been a turnaround, with the number of majors in 2006 reaching about 5400. One suggested realization of the doubling concept is to reach 10,000 majors within less than a decade. Given the rate of increase since 1999, this number would not be attained until 2023. To regain the same percentage as the peak in the 1960’s would require 15,000 majors today.

APS Director of Education and Diversity Ted Hodapp stresses that the doubling refers to undergraduate majors, not PhD’s. “There is a dramatic shortage of high-school physics teachers,” he says, a problem that APS is already working on via its PhysTEC and PTEC programs. Hodapp expects that doubling the number of physics majors will significantly increase the pool of new physics teachers.

Another issue that Hodapp points to is what he calls the “woeful under-representation” of women and minorities among physics majors. One of the goals of the doubling initiative is an increase in the fraction of both women and under-represented minorities who major in physics.

Currently, about 300 physics majors and minors receive certification to teach physics each year. APS Committee on Education chair Michael Marder estimates that about 700 more per year would be needed to address the physics teacher shortage. “If we do not accomplish this, then poor and minority students will continue to get less than the educational opportunities they deserve,” he says.

The best way to increase the number of physics majors is to make the major more welcoming, says Marder. “Probably the most effective strategy will be creating degree plans for physics majors that do not require them to settle on physics as freshmen if they want to finish their degree in 4 years, and creating supportive communities within physics departments for future physics teachers.”

“I think we are most likely to meet this goal if it is part of a general change in attitude in physics departments so that the undergraduate degree is not exclusively aimed at people continuing on to graduate school in physics, but also is attractive for students interested in other careers,” says Marder.

Increasing the number of physics majors is important for other reasons as well, says Marder. “More and more, the influence of the discipline depends on how many majors it has. I’m worried that the physics community will lose resources” if it does not attract more majors.

“The increase does not come without risk, since physics has retained status and influence for a long time in the US by holding to exceedingly high standards. However I think the risk is worth taking,” says Marder.

The language accompanying the statement notes that “physics majors successfully pursue and are qualified for a wide range of careers, and we support a much broader recognition of this by faculty and employers.” APS News is in the midst of a series of articles, under the banner “Profiles in Versatility”, that highlight physics majors (and in some cases PhD’s) who have gone on to a variety of careers. The first three articles appeared in the April, June and July APS News (all available online), and more will appear in future issues.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff