A Time for Action, Not Another Report: Physics and Astronomy Communities Call for All Physics and Astronomy Undergraduates to have a Research Experience

John Mateja

Over the past year, the physics and astronomy communities took a decisive step to enhance retention and to increase the number of undergraduates pursuing advanced degrees in these disciplines. The American Physical Society's Committee on Education, Society of Physics Students, American Astronomical Society and the Council on Undergraduate Research's Physics and Astronomy Division called on physics and astronomy departments nationwide to provide ALL undergraduate majors in these disciplines with a research experience. 1

For over a quarter of a century, the education community has been called upon to strengthen science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in the U.S. Starting with the Department of Education's report "A Nation at Risk" 2 in 1983 and the National Science Board's "Neal Report" 3 in 1986, the community has been "called to action" every few years by another major report 4 -7. The latest of these, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm – Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," argues the need for action in terms of a rapidly changing global economy 8.

Of all of the STEM disciplines, the U.S. physics community, because of its relatively small size and its current workforce demographics, may be one of the most vulnerable to rapid and significant global marketplace changes. According to the National Science Board's 2008 Science and Engineering Indicators 9, 26% of the U.S. science and engineering labor force is older than 50. For physics, the percentage of the workforce with their highest degree in physics that is older than age 50 is 38%, the highest percentage of any STEM area! In addition to a "graying" workforce, significant percentages of the U.S. physics workforce – 27%, 34% and 40% at the bachelor's, masters, and doctoral levels, respectively – are foreign born.10 While the strategy to import whatever physics talent was needed has worked well for the physics community and the U.S. for over a half a century, the changing global marketplace and the demand that is developing in other countries for this expertise may, in simple terms, cause the well to go dry.

This picture is even more troubling when one considers the production of new physics talent in the U.S. At the bachelor's level, the 2007 August issue of APS News noted that "the proportion of bachelor's degrees in physics to total degrees awarded was twice as high the year before Sputnik, deemed a time of dangerous education neglect, than it was in 2004." 11 While the number of physics and astronomy majors has been increasing over the past 5 years 12, it is still not at a point to support future workforce needs. Troubling pictures can also be painted at the precollege and graduate levels.13, 14

Recognizing the seriousness of this situation, a number of physics and astronomy societies decided it was time to act rather than to simply generate another study. The research literature on "what works," clearly identifies the involvement of undergraduates in research as having a positive impact on many factors, including undergraduate STEM retention and the number of undergraduates who pursue advanced degrees.15-27 The 2002 SPIN-UP study 28 of 21 "thriving" undergraduate physics programs with large physics major enrollments done by the American Association of Physics Teachers, American Institute of Physics and American Physical Society found that these departments all had very active undergraduate research programs and that about half of them required participation for the major. Taking this into account, the community is now calling on departments to provide ALL physics and astronomy majors with an undergraduate research experience.

Considering that the number of physics and astronomy majors is small (nationally ~6,000 in a class year) 12 and AIP survey statistics indicate that approximately 70% of graduating physics majors already have participated in some type of undergraduate research experience 29, the task is not as daunting as it may first appear. To provide all physics and astronomy undergraduate majors with a research experience, departments should consider a variety of strategies. Where possible, students should be encouraged to join on-campus faculty-mentored research projects. When such opportunities do not exist or the numbers of students exceed the number of available on-campus opportunities, departments should proactively help students find research opportunities at NSF REU sites, at the national laboratories, and at corporate research facilities. A list of REU sites can be found on NSF's web site. The Society of Physics Students populates a site called "The Nucleus" with a wide variety of summer opportunities, including those at NSF REU sites 30. Rather than simply posting summer research announcements on a bulletin board, departments should work with their students to help them prepare competitive applications for these opportunities. For still other departments, undergraduate research might be provided through the existing course and laboratory curricular structure. For this type of curricular experience, research questions could be developed, experiments designed, data collected and analyzed, error analysis performed, inferences and conclusions drawn, and written and oral reports prepared and delivered. Support for changing the current curriculum to a more research-like or to include even authentic research experiences may be available through, for example, the NSF's Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement program.

Will this recommendation require departments to change? For some, like those highly successful departments found in the SPIN-UP study, the answer is no as they are already encouraging and requiring their students to have an undergraduate research experience. For other departments, change will be required. However, for all departments, enrollments matter and if those physics and astronomy departments that have small enrollments can increase their numbers, both the departments and the physics community will benefit.


1 All statements are posted on the Society of Physics Student web site and can be viewed at http://www.spsnational.org/governance/statements/2008undergraduate_research.htm.

2 The National Commission on Excellence in Education, D. P. Gardner (Chair), "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform," 1983, Report to the Secretary of Education, US Department of Education

3 National Science Board (Neal Report), 1986 (NSB-86-100)

4 Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University, S.S. Kenny (chair), "Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Research Universities", 1998, State University of New York at Stony Brook

5 Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University, S.S. Kenny (chair), "Reinventing Undergraduate Education: Three Years after the Boyer Report", 2002, State University of New York at Stony Brook

6 National Science Board, Washington, W.M. (chair), "The Science and Engineering Workforce – Realizing America's Potential," 2003 (NSB 03-69)

7 National Panel Report, Ramaley, J. (chair), "Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College," 2002, Association of American Colleges and Universities (ISBN 0-911696-92-x).

8 Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy, N.R. Augustine (Chair), National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies report titled "Rising Above the Gathering Storm – Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, 2007, National Academies Press (ISBN: 978-0-309-65442-5).

9 Science and Engineering Indicators (S&EI), National Science Board, 2008, page 3:44.

10 Science and Engineering Indicators (S&EI), National Science Board, 2008, page 3:51.

11 American Physical Society, 2007, APS News. August/September

12 Mulvey, P. Enrollments and Degrees Report, 2006, Statistical Research Center, American Institute of Physics (September, 2008).

13 Education at a Glance 2009, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

14 Graduate Science and Engineering enrollment, by status and sex, and postdocs in science and engineering fields: 1993-2003. National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resource Statistics, Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering.

15 Nagda, B.A., Gregerman, S.R., Jonides, J., von Hippel, W., and Lerner, J.S. Undergraduate student-faculty Research Partnerships Affect Student Retention, The Review of Higher Education 1998, 22, 55-72.

16 Gregerman, S. Improving the Academic Success of Diverse Students through Undergraduate Research, Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly 1999, 2, 52-59.

17 Hathaway, R.S., Nagda, B.A. and Gregerman, S.R.,The Relationship of Undergraduate Research Participation to Graduate and Professional Education Pursuit: An Empirical Study. Journal of College Student Development 2002, 43, 614-631.

18 Hutchinson, A.R., and Atwood, D.A. Research with First- and Second-year Undergraduates: A Model for Undergraduate Inquiry at Research Universities, J. Chem. Education 2002, 79, 125-12

19 Bauer, K.W., Bennett, J.S. Alumni Perceptions Used to Assess Undergraduate Research Experiences, Journal of Higher Education 2003, 74, 210-230.

20 Seymour, E., Hunter, A.B.; Laursen, S.L., Deantoni,T. Establishing the Benefits of Research Experiences for Undergraduates in the Sciences: First Findings from a Three-year Study. Science Education 2004, 88, 493-534.

21 Rauckhorst, W.H., Czaia, J.A. and Baxter Magolda, M , Measuring the Impact of the Undergraduate Research Experience on Student Intellectual Development. (July, 2001 July) Paper presented at Project Kaleidoscope Summer Institute, Snowbird, UT.

22 Hunter, A.B., Laursen, S.L.: Seymour E. Becoming a Scientist: The Role of Undergraduate Research in Students' Congnitive, Personal, and Professional Development, Science Education 2007, 91, 36-74

23 Russell, S.J.; Hancock, M.P. and McCullough, J. Benefits of Undergraduate Research Experiences, Science Education 2007, 316, 548- 549

24 Karukstis, K. The Impact of Undergraduate Research on America's Global Competitiveness, Journal of Chemical Education 2007, 84, 912, and references therein.

25 Lindsay, H.A., McIntosh, M.C. Early Exposure of Undergraduates to the Chemistry Research Environment; A new Model for Research Universities, Journal of Chemical Education 2000, 77, 1174.

26 Hurtado, S., Eagan, M.K., Cabrera, N.L., Monica, H.L., Park, J., and Lopez, M. Training Future Scientists: Predicting First-year Minority Student Participation in Health Science, Research in Higher Education 2008, 49, 126-152.

27 Taraban, R., and Blanton, R.L., Creating Effective Undergraduate Research Programs in Science: The Transformation from Student to Scientist, Teachers College Press 2008, ISBN 978-0-8077-4877-0

28 Hilborn, R.C., Howes, R.H., Krane, K.S. Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics: Project Report (SPIN-UP), 2003, American Association of Physics Teachers.

29 Mulvey, P. Survey of Physics Seniors, Physics Trends, Statistical Research Center, American Institute of Physics (Spring 2005).

30 The Nucleus is part of the physics digital library ComPADRE (Committee of Physics and Astronomy Digital Resources in Education), a joint effort led by AAPT, with contributions from APS and AIP/SPS, and funded by the NSF as a pathway project of the National STEM Education Distributed Learning (NSDL) program.

John Mateja  is the Director of the Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Activity Office at Murray State University. He is a Fellow and past president of the Council on Undergraduate Research and serves on the Board of Governors of the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of APS.