APS Board Calls for Doubling the Number of Physics Bachelors

graph of ratios of physics degrees to all bachelor degrees granted
Kerry. G. Johnson/APS Staff

Source:  American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center
The APS Executive Board wants the number of physics majors at U.S. colleges and universities to double to keep the nation globally competitive, according to a statement recently released by the board.

 “We advocate doubling the number of bachelor degrees in physics to address critical national needs, including K-12 education, economic competitiveness, energy, security and an informed electorate,” said the statement.

After peaking in the early 1960s, the percentage of physics declined, reaching a low of about 3,800 majors in 1999, according to the American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center. In recent years, there has been a turnaround, with the number of majors in 2006 reaching about 5,400. Doubling that number would mean more than 10,000 physics majors in the country, said Ted Hodapp, APS Director of Education and Diversity.

A similar goal has been endorsed by the American Association of Physics Teachers.

“There is a dramatic shortage of high school physics teachers,” says Hodapp, a problem that APS is addressing through the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC and PTEC) programs. Hodapp added that doubling the number of physics majors would significantly increase the pool of new physics teachers and help overcome the “woeful under-representation” of women and minorities who major in the field.

The best way to increase the number of physics majors is to make the major more welcoming, said Michael Marder, chair of the APS Committeee on Education.

“Probably the most effective strategy will be creating degree plans for physics majors that do not require them to settle on physics as freshmen if they want to finish their degree in four years, and creating supportive communities within physics departments for future physics teachers,” he said.

Marder added, “I think we are most likely to meet this goal if it is part of a general change in attitude in physics departments so that the undergraduate degree is not exclusively aimed at people continuing on to graduate school in physics.”