Recruiting Physics Students in High School

Gabriel Popkin

What would you think if your child came home from school and told you that he or she had been advised not to take physics? You would probably be shocked, but the unfortunate fact is that such advice is frequently dispensed by well-meaning guidance counselors and others who are involved in helping high school students make academic decisions. These advisors often fear physics might hurt students’ GPAs, and therefore their college prospects. They may have had a negative experience with physics - perhaps during their own high school career - or they may know nothing about physics at all beyond what is in the popular media, which is largely that physics is an impossibly complex subject reserved for geniuses (see the TV show The Big Bang Theory for ample evidence of this).

About a year ago, a group of us at APS and AAPT met to discuss the issue and begin developing an information campaign that would counteract the negative publicity that we know physics often gets. Although we did not have hard data on the prevalence of students being dissuaded from taking physics in high school, we had received an alarming number of independent reports of this phenomenon occurring in different parts of the country, and felt compelled to take action on behalf of the physics education community. One of our initial decisions was to enlist physics teachers to provide information to students and guidance counselors. Many teachers are members of AAPT and APS, read our organizations’ publications, and attend their meetings; in addition, they are our natural allies in this campaign.

Our efforts were also informed by focus groups conducted among high school students by John Rice of CommonSense Communications, a marketing consulting firm. This initiative, though in its early stages, has yielded some clues into how high school students think about physics, and why more of them do not take it. Rice thinks the fundamental problem is a dire lack of knowledge among high school students about how physics can help them in their careers and their everyday lives. He says, "High school students who take physics usually like it - especially if it is hands-on - however, almost all of them plan on majoring in engineering, because they know what they can do with engineering. They have no idea what they can do with physics. They do not know that they can use physics to treat cancer, design an electric guitar, or develop new sources of energy. There is a near-complete lack of connection between the physics taught in high school and any possible applications." As for those who choose not to study physics, Rice says that he thinks "They know what chemistry and biology are, but they do not know what physics is, or how it could be useful in their lives. All they know is that it is hard, and they are afraid it will kill their GPA."

Data from the America Institute of Physics show that about a third of US high school graduates take physics at some point. By comparison, over 90% take biology and over 60% take chemistry, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The fraction taking physics represents a major gain over two decades ago, when it was around a fifth, but it still indicates that two-thirds of our high school graduates have not taken physics - not to mention all those who do not graduate from high school. If these students hope to compete in the high-tech 21st-century economy, they will be at a major disadvantage.

It also hurts their chances of getting into a good university. According to Vikki Otero, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at the University of Colorado at Boulder, "College admissions is never just about the GPA. We are interested in seeing that students have maintained an excellent college prep curriculum. A transcript with physics is better than one without it." This sentiment is echoed by Greg Pyke, Senior Associate Dean of Admissions at Wesleyan University, a liberal arts university in Middletown, Connecticut. Pyke says, "Highly selective colleges and universities look for students who have taken a very demanding program in high school, which includes courses such as physics. The rigor of the program is often more important than the final grades they get." Over three-quarters of incoming Wesleyan freshmen have taken physics in high school; at Caltech, physics is a requirement for admission.

With all this in mind, we have developed a multi-pronged approach to recruiting high school students, which began with a survey of physics teachers to gather best practices for increasing course enrollments. This yielded a number of interesting and clever strategies that included making sure the chemistry and math teachers in their school promote physics to their students (since these courses typically come before physics in the curriculum); inviting guidance counselors into their classroom to observe hands-on activities; and doing fun labs and activities in high-visibility places around the time that students enroll in courses for the following year. Much of this wisdom was distilled in an article [1] in The Physics Teacher by Earl Barrett, a high school teacher with many years’ experience in recruiting students to his program.

Our next effort was to develop a poster entitled "Top 10 Reasons Why You Should Take Physics." This poster uses humor and colorful graphics to communicate the many benefits of studying physics, which range from broad incentives such as "Physics teaches you how to think," to specific careers and technologies that rely on physics. We have distributed this poster to thousands of physics teachers by inserting it into an issue of The Physics Teacher as well as by handing it out at APS, AAPT, and National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) meetings.
Gray arrow  View "Top 10 Reasons Why You Should Take PhysicsWhy Physics" Poster

These are the first steps we have taken toward filling the physics information vacuum, but there will need to be many more if we are going to ensure that every student has the opportunity to enjoy the benefits that physics has to offer. Some future efforts we have in mind are:

  • Publishing an op-ed piece in The Science Teacher about the importance of physics in the high school curriculum.
  • Designing a brochure for teachers to give to guidance counselors explaining the benefits their students will get from taking physics.
  • Creating an online "toolkit" for teachers to recruit more students into physics classes. This will have a home on the web.
  • Engaging Society of Physics Students chapters in recruiting high school students to study physics.
Finally, we want your help. If you have ideas on how to recruit high school students into physics, please email us.


[1] E. Barrett, "Increasing physics enrollment in your school," Phys. Teach. 47, 399–400 (2009).

Gabriel Popkin is an Education Projects Manager at APS.

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.