The Physics Major: An Endangered Species?
Jack M. Wilson, Chair APS Forum on Physics Education
In 1999, the last year for which complete data has been made available
by AIP, the absolute number of physics majors reached the lowest point
since the end of the 1950s. If this is not shocking enough, then
it could be compared to the nearly four-fold increase in the total
number of bachelors degrees over this period. By any measure
the health of U.S. undergraduate physics degree programs is precarious.
A quick look at the trends by type of institution reveals that the
trend line for primarily undergraduate institutions has remained relatively
level over the last four decades while the undergraduate degrees granted
by doctoral and masters degree institutions has declined to approximately
half the value of 1970. [AIPUNDERGRAD]
These trends are not an accident. They are the inevitable result of
the programs and practices of physics departments over the last four
decades. As noted in the 1998 APS sponsored report on Challenges in
Physics Education [APS]:
Departments generally justify their
existence to university officials on two grounds: 1) the excellence
of their graduate programs and their ability to attract large amounts
of outside research funding and 2) the large number of student credit
hours produced by the introductory level service courses in physics.
The relative weighting of the two criteria depends critically on the
kind of institution. The Carnegie Research 1 and 2 and Doctoral 1 and
2 Institutions (Doctoral-Granting in the former Carnegie Scheme)
focus on item one to a greater extent while the comprehensive universities
and colleges, the liberal arts colleges and the two year (or associate
granting) colleges put the greater emphasis on the second criterion.
When ABET changed the accrediting requirements for engineering programs
to effectively eliminate a requirement for physics, it sent shock waves
through the physics community as the second of the two pillars of physics
support was suddenly called into question. Research funding (in constant
dollars) for physics has remained essentially flat over the last three
decades while the life sciences have nearly quadrupled.[Source: AAAS] Again:
that is quadrupled in constant dollars! This dramatic shift
in emphasis in research has weakened the first pillar of physics support.
If undergraduate physics courses were popular with students, then
these trends might be easily reversed, but they are not. Sheila Tobias
painted an unflattering picture of the introductory physics course
in her 1990 book, Theyre
not dumb, Theyre different. The Boyer Commission
on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University chaired by Shirley
Strum Kenney, President of SUNY Stony Brook, was no less critical.
Their report: Reinventing Undergraduate
Education suggested that [CARNEGIE]:
Nevertheless, the research
universities have too often failed, and continue to fail, their undergraduate
populations. Tuition income from undergraduates is one of the major
sources of university income, helping to support research programs
and graduate education, but the students paying the tuition get,
in all too many cases, less than their moneys worth.
Bob Park in the APS Whats
New on line newsletter drolly remarked [PARK]:
assistants groping their way
tenured drones who deliver set
lectures from yellowed notes, anybody we know? A report released
by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching bluntly
accused the nations research universities of false advertising.
I could go on and on by citing additional work that documents the
need for improvement in undergraduate science teaching and in particular
in physics teaching, but that has been done far too often.
The more interesting question is: why this situation has prevailed
for decades? (Some of my retired colleagues would insist that this
has been going on for a century.) The Physics Community is widely admired
for the excellent work that we have done in research in physics education.
We have come a long way in our understanding of how students learn
physics. Physics has also pioneered some widely adopted course models
based upon physics education research such as Workshop Physics, Studio
Physics, Peer Teaching, and so on. These models have even inspired
other disciplines to create their own versions. APS and AAPT have tried
mightily to focus attention on the situation by creating the National Task Force
on Undergraduate Physics [NTFUP], conducting the Revitalizing
Physics Conference in 1998 [RPC], doing Workshops for New Faculty
and bringing these issues to the Department Chairs Conferences.
With all this innovation, how could things not have changed for the
better? The short answer is: this is because the physics community
remains largely in denial. The Boyer report cited above led to a furious
reaction from the research universities in which they focused their
considerable energies on disproving the report rather than fixing the
problems identified. Faculty and Chairs go home from the
APS and AAPT programs all fired up only to encounter a skeptical department.
With all of the adoption of innovative physics educational programs,
the experience of most undergraduates is best described by Bob Parks
quote and not by the innovative programs that remain marginal in the
overall picture. Physics learning for most students continues to be
an unpopular regimen of lecture, recitation, and lab. Few students
ever chose to major in physics because of the introductory course.
Most that go on to major in physics do so in spite of the course.
Those few exceptions are always a source of rejoicing.
Innovation has taken a slightly better hold in the liberal arts and
four-year colleges. This may explain why the physics undergraduate
major numbers have remained constant at the four-year schools while
shrinking in the graduate institutions.
Those who chose to remain in denial may do so by reciting a litany
of reasons for the declines: Society has changed. Our high schools
are doing a lousy job. Engineering pays better. Now the best students
are going into life sciences and computer science. We only need a few
of the best in physics anyway. Lectures are the stable product of long
evolution (Wow! Evolution and stable product?). We cannot afford to
do anything differently. These all have the virtue of being partly
true and beside the point.
Rather than addressing these problems directly, most universities
have chosen denial coupled with coping strategies. Too few U.S. students
majoring in physics? No problem! Just turn up the recruitment of outstanding
students from other countries. The result? According to the AIP
statistics [AIPGRAD], the number of foreign graduate students passed
the U.S. numbers in 1998. In the early 70s foreign students represented
roughly 20% of the total. I for one am proud to have these outstanding
students joining the physics community, but we cannot ignore the trends
in U.S. undergraduate physics.
Earlier in the essay, I asserted that the devastating decline in undergraduate
physics was the direct result of the policies and programs of physics
departments. We have allowed our laudable success in research to distract
us from addressing the crumbling foundation. The problems are well
documented. The research in physics education points to clear pathways.
There exist viable models that can be both adopted and adapted. Better
models will be created in future years. We have everything that we
need to reverse the decline of physics. Will we focus on solving the
problem, or put our energy into denying that it exists? History is
a worrisome guide.
References and Links
[AIPUNDERGRAD] AIP Enrollment and Degrees Report (http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/highlite/ed/figure1.html)
[APS] APS Report: Challenges in Physics Education; /educ/undergrad/main-challenge.cfm
[PARK] Whats New; APS; 24 April 1998. /WN/WN98/wn042498.cfm
[NTFUP] National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics; http://www.aapt.org/programs/ntfup/index.html
[CARNEGIE]:Boyer Report: Reinventing Undergraduate Education; http://naples.cc.sunysb.edu/Pres/boyer.nsf
[AAAS] Research Report 2000; http://www.aaas.org/spp/dspp/rd/discip01.pdf
[RPC] Revitalizing Physics Conference; http://www.aapt.org/programs/rupc.html
[AIPGRAD] AIP: 1998 Graduate Student Report : First Year Students; http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/highlite/grad/gradhigh.html
Jack Wilson is Chair of the Forum on Education. He is the founding
Chief Executive Officer of UMassOnline, the University of Massachusetts
Virtual University. Prior to this he was the J. Erik Jonsson '22
Distinguished Professor of Physics, Engineering Science, Information
Technology, and Management and was the Co-director of the Severino
Center for Technological Entrepreneurship at Rensselaer. At RPI Dr.
Wilson led a campus wide process of interactive learning and restructuring
of the educational program.