How to Increase the Number of Physics Majors

Stewart E. Brekke

The APS Executive Board and the American Association of Physics Teachers have gone on record as seeking to double the number of physics majors approaching 10,000 college students by the end of the decade. In order to attain this admirable goal I believe that the standard mathematically based algebra-trigonometry high school course must be made “user friendly,” not only for the upper 30% of normal high school populations who normally take high school physics, but also to the average student, minority student and female student who is often excluded from high school physics. It is the good experience in the high school physics course that generates many of the college physics majors. Therefore, we need to make these traditionally hard courses substantive, but also user friendly.

There is a great, untapped potential of minority students, Black and Hispanic, in the inner cities of this country who could be physics teachers and physicists if they could be positively tuned on to a career in physics. I have found over the years that many minority students can do the standard, mathematically-based high school course using drills and practice, especially in physics problem solving, with extra help from the high school physics teacher.

The environment for these minority students in the inner cities can be so devastating to young students of color that what appears to be simply a lack of motivation and achievement is really an indication of the amount of destruction that a repeatedly violent environment can work on what are really bright and capable minds. They may need extra help and well prepared lessons, not just standard high school physics texts to make up for years of poor teaching and motivation by the students themselves, especially the boys in the inner city.

Another group of high school students that could be tapped for the physics major in college is the average student in both majority and minority communities. In most high schools only the top 30% or so of the school population takes the standard mathematically based physics course and a few more take the chemistry course. A number of average students with hard work are good physics major candidates. Many students of average capacity would make excellent physics teachers, laboratory technicians and industrial science professionals thereby making good lives for themselves through these types of well paying jobs.

Traditionally, physics has been a male dominated subject. Unfortunately, in many minority high schools, males are often not the best students because gangs, violence, and negative peer pressure target them. Somehow, we must reach these at-risk minority males. However, the advanced mathematics and physics classes, especially at the honors level, are often populated by a majority of young women. These young women have to be courted to make college physics, traditionally a male-dominated course, their major. These at-risk minority young women students could be excellent candidates for physics professionals such as teachers, professors, industrial and health scientists. However, the girls and these minority students, both girls and boys, need encouragement and direction because many of them have never thought of majoring in physics. By making all high school physics courses user friendly, substantive but not unnecessarily hard, physics teachers can generate many more successful college physics majors from the enormous pool of inner city and middle class, average and above average students, both male and female.

Many at-risk students do not always learn from examples in the text and/or from examples on the board. They learn from the teacher going around the room showing each individual student how to do a particular problem and then allowing the student to practice on two or more of the same type of problem. As time goes on these at-risk students get the idea of how to solve a mathematical type physics problem and with this type of empowerment they become interested in the real physics because they are successful in the mathematical type problem solving which is the basis of a career useful physics course. Many university physics and chemistry professors would be surprised at the variety and kind of high school students who can actually do a standard mathematically based college physics course from teenage mothers to gangbangers, and football players provided they are given a user friendly mathematical type course with help in high school and support in college.

In order to turn students of all types on to physics, so that they will make physics and chemistry their college major, the high school course must be made pleasurable in some way. In this manner the students will remember that they had a good experience in high school physics and may feel they will have the same good experience in college physics. B. F. Skinner once stated that good experiences produce pleasurable consequences. To keep those students in college physics as majors, college physics teaching must be made more user friendly. However, the high school course must be mathematically based so that when the student goes into higher education, he/she has a good foundation; the college courses in physics are more intensively mathematically based than the high school course.

During the cold war the number of physics majors was high. Unfortunately, those college courses in the 60’s and 70’s were not user friendly and a virtual “bloodbath of physics and engineering failures” took place. While there were many majors in physics and related subjects such as engineering, the number of actual graduates was far less in those majors, especially in the large state universities.

I found many at-risk students, average to honors, could easily do the standard mathematical physics course with varying degrees of help. I could thereby empower these students to be able to solve a standard high school physics problem and be prepared for a mathematical college freshman course. We need to make these high school (and even college) physics texts more user friendly. By employing the principles of learning instead of erroneously stressing so called “thinking” – a euphonic for actually making physics at all levels unnecessarily hard – in the teaching and texts, we can turn many students on to physics. Learning should be the emphasis in physics to keep and encourage physics majors, not unnecessarily emphasizing struggling with the problems but on solving them correctly.

Often, the problem solving aspect of the course (the main and most effective manner of teaching and learning physics) has become a dreaded endeavor for the student, from the most competent to average. Problems often have no example in the text, and most students cannot solve even basic physics problems without some kind of outside help. A vast multimillion dollar industry has arisen in which physics, engineering and other technical mathematical problem solvers (such as the wonderful Schaum’s College Outline Series) provide insights into the solution of physics problems which could easily be solved if an example problem is given in the text. These physics texts often give hard problems under the erroneous pretext of raising the thinking capacity of the student, undergraduate to graduate, when in reality the student rarely does any thinking of that type to solve the problem. Mostly, the students look for an example of how to do the problem in a physics problem solver or get someone, such as a friendly professor, to solve the problem. Unnecessary emphasis on solving hard problems turns many potential students in physics off. Today, a vast tutoring industry is also developing across the nation. A few years ago I took an advanced physics course and hired a tutor who I saw twice a week at $20/hr to help me pass the course. I passed with an A, my time was maximized, and I learned quite a bit. In high school I interacted with a minority student of another teacher who spent six hours at home trying to solve a problem that I showed her how to do in two minutes. An example in the text would have saved this young minority student six hours of wasted effort which if repeated again and again would have certainly turned her off of mathematics: a field in which she could make a decent wage if she majored in it and given her access to equality.

In summary, we need to make high school and college physics more user friendly if we are to increase the number of physics majors. However, to increase the number of physics majors is not enough. We must actually graduate a larger number of those initial physics majors though better texts and teaching which employ the basic principles of learning, such as more examples of problems to be solved in the texts and the increased use of drills and practices of those problems. We must also target more minority students, Black and Hispanic, and we must target average students and young women in the high schools. To reach these traditionally at-risk students, average and women students in high school (where interest in physics begins) we must make these traditionally “hard” courses much more user friendly.

Stewart E. Brekke MS in Ed, MA, retired from Chicago Public Schools where he taught high school physics and chemistry.

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.