Phys21 - Physics Education for the 21st Century

By Douglas Arion and Lawrence Woolf

Are you one of the 5 percent or the 95 percent? No, we’re not talking politics or economics. We’re talking physics careers. If you are one of the roughly 5 percent of undergraduate physics majors who ultimately became a faculty member, congratulations! Congratulations, too, to the 95 percent who are contributing to all sorts of industries and professions, using their physics background to create products, services, and processes of value to society. In general, the undergraduate physics curriculum was designed to best serve the 5 percent. With greater demand on higher education to demonstrate economic value to students, combined with greater international economic competition and the changing demographics of incoming students, the education we provide to physics majors requires a critical re-examination.

The Phys21: Preparing Physics Students for 21st Century Careers report, summarized below, examined these issues. It is the outcome of the Joint Task Force on Undergraduate Physics Programs (J-TUPP), which was convened by the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers to answer the following 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? J-TUPP was also asked to provide guidance to physics faculty on how to revise their department’s undergraduate curriculum to better prepare students for diverse careers, and to include relevant recommendations on content, pedagogy, professional skills, and student engagement.

This study was seen as a necessary follow-on to the SPIN-UP report [1] (an outcome of the physics revitalization effort begun in the ’90s), trends in innovation and entrepreneurship education, and the aforementioned issues of economic competitiveness, student demographics, and economic pressures on colleges and universities [2]. Other nations are making significant efforts to enhance economic competitiveness by linking physics, innovation, entrepreneurship, and career development [3]. It was the goal of this project to encourage the physics community to be pro-active, rather than re-active, to the coming changes in physics education, and to be the leading discipline in adapting to this changing educational landscape.

Douglas Arion

Douglas Arion

Lawrence Woolf

Lawrence Woolf

The task force consisted of leaders in academic physics, physics education, industry, national labs, and professional societies who brought with them knowledge and insight from a variety of perspectives including career development, innovation and entrepreneurship, physics education research, and systemic change in education [4]. The panel conducted a comprehensive study to identify the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that physics graduates will need in order to be prepared for diverse careers and to generate a set of learning goals and recommend methods to achieve these goals in academic settings.

The task force reviewed reports and learning goals generated by panels in physics and other STEM disciplines, National Academy reports, employment data, recommendations from think-tanks and economic development organizations, surveys of employers, the STEM competency literature, data from the American Institute of Physics Career Pathways Project and Statistical Research Center (see the figure), and interviews with a range of industry and education experts. In addition, J-TUPP commissioned studies of hiring managers and recent physics graduates employed outside of academia, and conducted case studies of physics departments to better understand how to develop innovative programs that support the career preparation of their students. A number of external reviewers also provided insight that was incorporated into the report. The two-year study resulted in Phys21, which was published in October 2016. A supplementary document summarizes the supporting research used in Phys21 [4].

The Phys21 report is intended to help physics programs better prepare students for today’s careers and those of the future. It provides information about the skills and knowledge that employers of physics graduates are seeking, and describes ways in which physics departments can help students acquire those skills and that knowledge. Not only will departments that take up this challenge better serve all of their current students, they are also likely to attract a more diverse set of students with a broader range of career interests. The potential for greater funding resources, new and interesting research projects, and creating a greater sense of relevance for physics among students are all valuable outcomes.

Phys21’s Major Findings

  • There is broad consensus regarding the skills, knowledge, and attitudes needed by college graduates to prepare them for 21st century careers.
  • Colleges and universities are increasingly scrutinized regarding the value and the return on investment that an undergraduate degree provides.
  • Many students expect their intellectual work to have relevance, often resulting in a social good, authenticity, and application; they seek out disciplines and programs that they perceive to have these characteristics.
  • Students who plan to obtain graduate degrees will also benefit from developing skills and knowledge that are valued outside the academic community.

graph about knowledge and skills
Source: AIP graph

Skills and Knowledge used by Physics Bachelors in the Private Sector

Learning Goals that Promote Career Readiness

  • Physics-specific knowledge: Use fundamental cross-cutting themes in physics, apply basic laws of physics, represent physics in multiple ways, solve problems that involve multiple areas of physics, engage in multidisciplinary problems that link physics with other disciplines, and investigate how physics concepts are used in modern technology.
  • Scientific and technical skills: Solve ill-posed problems through experiments, simulations, and models; determine follow-on investigations; and identify resource needs. Competencies required include instrumentation, computational and industry-standard software, coding, and data analytics.
  • Communication skills: Communicate orally and in writing with audiences that have a wide range of technical and non-technical backgrounds. Competencies include listening, discussing, persuading, assessing understanding, and teaching.
  • Professional and workplace skills: Work in diverse teams and generate new ideas; demonstrate familiarity with workplace concepts such as project management, budgeting, intellectual property, and legal and regulatory issues; demonstrate awareness of career opportunities and pathways for physics degree holders; and life skills such as responsibility, time management, perseverance, and ethical behavior.

Phys21’s Recommendations

  • Use the findings of Phys21 to guide strategic planning for program improvement and enhanced student recruitment through faculty development, course modifications, changes in program requirements, and co-curricular activities that include fostering contact between students and physicists outside of academia, and exposing students to physics as applied in non-academic settings.
  • Incorporate application-related topics and industry-standard software and tools into courses, exercises and assignments, and laboratory activities.
  • Utilize co-curricular activities, such as co-ops and student internships, community resources such as chambers of commerce and economic development organizations, and industry speakers and guests to expose students to opportunities as well as to business and professional skills.
  • Collaborate with other academic departments and campus offices (such as career services) to bring work-place relevant topical content and experience to physics students.
  • Direct students, through advising, to general education courses and programs that can support their career objectives while meeting graduation requirements.
  • Expand written and oral communications content and activities to address diverse, non-technical audiences.
  • Build industry partnerships, add industrial projects to the research enterprise, and utilize sabbaticals and other opportunities to provide faculty with opportunities to become familiar with the needs and opportunities presented by non-academic organizations.
  • Develop interdisciplinary research and teaching opportunities, and leverage existing capabilities on campus.
  • Promote a departmental and faculty culture that values non-academic careers and the students who pursue them, and which emphasizes innovation and the entrepreneurial mindset.

Additional Resources

There are groups within the physics community that are developing resources, implementation methods, and curricular approaches for achieving goals such as those recommended in Phys21. Primary in this effort is the development of the PIPELINE Network [5], an APS-led, NSF-funded project engaging a consortium of colleges and universities to develop and test a variety of implementation methods to achieve learning goals such as those recommended in Phys21. As documented in the J-TUPP Supplement [4] there are other academic disciplines working to achieve similar goals, and the methods developed across these areas can be applied to physics. In addition, there are national organizations, such as VentureWell, that offer financial support, conferences, and other resources [6]. You are not alone.

Douglas Arion is Professor of Physics and Astronomy and Donald Hedberg Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at Carthage College. Lawrence Woolf is a technical fellow at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. and President of the General Atomics Sciences Education Foundation. Both Arion and Woolf are members of the J-TUPP panel.



2. D. N. Arion, "Things Your Advisor Never Told You: Entrepreneurship’s Role In Physics Education." Physics Today, August 2013, Pg. 42.

See also




APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Rachel Gaal
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

Help us make better by telling us what's important to you. Take a short survey.