From the Chair

Randy Knight

Changing the Culture of Physics Education

Physics departments in the U.S. awarded 7500 bachelor’s degrees in 2014, a full 100% increase over the nadir of physics degrees in 1999. This is news to celebrate; physics is still relevant to today’s students! Congratulations to all of you who worked to increase the number of graduates from your department.

At the same time, each year sees only 350-400 openings for tenure-track physics faculty, a number that is unlikely to change much anytime soon. Which is to say that only 1 in 20 of today’s physics majors is destined to one day be a physics professor. (Actually, less than 1 in 20 because a not insignificant number of faculty slots are filled by candidates who received their undergraduate degree abroad.) PhD-granting departments average about 20 majors per year, and, on average, only one of those graduates will ever be a physics professor. Most bachelor’s-only programs will graduate several classes before producing even one major who will go on to be a professor.

This is a problem. It’s also an opportunity. Let’s start with the problem. As everyone recognizes, the physics curriculum, both undergraduate and graduate, has been essentially frozen for the past 60 years, since quantum mechanics became a core subject. It’s a curriculum focused on preparing undergraduates for graduate school and graduate students to pursue pure research in academia or national labs. But it’s not just the ossified curriculum that’s the problem; it’s also the culture of physics.

We in academia have a culture that places a premium on fostering younger versions of ourselves and denigrating — often subtly although sometimes quite blatantly — other career paths. We’ve probably all seen colleagues trying to steer top students away from high school physics teaching and toward graduate school. The quite clear message to students is that physics teaching is a lesser career best left to those who can’t “cut it” in grad school. And when was the last time you or any of your colleagues actively guided a top student toward an industrial career or suggested that physics was a great entry into medicine or programming or interdisciplinary fields such as energy or climate?

Take a careful look at your department web site. What messages — tacit or explicit — is it sending to majors and potential majors about the range of careers that physicists can and do follow? Department web sites are the number one way that high school students gather educational and career information, and their number one question is “What could I do with a degree in physics?” State-of-the-art research is wonderful and will remain the core of physics, but is your web site unintentionally suggesting that this is the only career path for physicists?

The rather arrogant signals we send about what it means to be a physicist, and who has the ability to be a physicist, don’t go unnoticed by majors and potential majors. This narrow rather than expansive view of what physicists are and do is almost certainly a contributing factor to the still serious lack of women and minorities in physics.

Surely we can do better. And we must do better to meet the educational and career needs of those other 19 students (or 29 or 39 if the upward trend in physics majors continues) in our classes and labs. This is where the opportunities lie. We can make our degree requirements more flexible and offer more courses that will prepare students for non-academic careers. Computational physics, optics, condensed matter physics, biophysics, acoustics, energy, physics pedagogy, and a host of more-applied-but-still-physics topics come to mind. We can inform students early and often of the range of careers open to physicists. (And, conversely, refrain from unduly promoting graduate school as the only serious option.) We can welcome and embrace diversity. We can actively promote and support high school physics teaching as a desirable career — which, ultimately, is in our own self-interest in terms of generating a stream of qualified and enthusiastic freshmen.

In other words, we can change the culture of physics education to match the realities of physics in the 21st century.

All of which is to encourage you to read and act on the report of the Joint Task Force on Undergraduate Physics Programs when it is released later this spring. J-TUPP, a joint effort of APS and AAPT, was charged with answering the question: What skills and knowledge should the next generation of undergraduate physics degree holders possess to be well prepared for a diverse set of careers? Their report will “provide guidance for physicists considering revising the undergraduate curriculum to improve the education of a diverse student population.” The 2003 SPIN-UP report was instrumental in increasing the number of physics majors by providing insight into what makes an undergraduate program thrive. I’m hoping that the J-TUPP report will be equally influential in terms of helping departments change both their curriculum and their culture to better meet the needs of today’s physics students. We want to continue attracting the best and brightest, but with a clear message that physics opens doors to an entire universe of career possibilities.

Randy Knight is Chair of the Forum on Education. He is Professor Emeritus at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and author of the introductory textbooks Physics for Scientists and Engineers: A Strategic Approach and (with co-authors Brian Jones and Stuart Field) College Physics.

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 the APS.