Spring 2002



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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 1950’s. If this is not shocking enough, then it could be compared to the nearly four-fold increase in the total number of bachelor’s 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 master’s 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, They’re not dumb, They’re 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 “What’s New” on line newsletter drolly remarked [PARK]:

“’Untrained teaching 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 nation’s 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 Park’s 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 70’s 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 (

[APS] APS Report: Challenges in Physics Education; /educ/undergrad/main-challenge.cfm

[PARK] What’s New; APS; 24 April 1998. /WN/WN98/wn042498.cfm

[NTFUP] National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics;

[CARNEGIE]:Boyer Report: Reinventing Undergraduate Education;

[AAAS] Research Report 2000;

[RPC] Revitalizing Physics Conference;

[AIPGRAD] AIP: 1998 Graduate Student Report : First Year Students;

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.