NRC Study Seeks to Articulate Best Practices in the Learning, Teaching, and Assessment of Physics

James Lancaster

The National Research Council (NRC) is nearing completion of a study on undergraduate physics education (UPE). The central charge to the committee is that it

… produce a report that identifies the goals and challenges facing undergraduate physics education and identifies how best practices for undergraduate physics education can be implemented on a widespread and sustained basis. In so doing, the committee will assess the status of physics education research (PER), and will discuss how PER can assist in accomplishing the goal of improving undergraduate physics education best practices and education policy.
(Statement of Task)

The committee's charge further directs that it focus its attention on students in three categories: those students in fields such as engineering and life sciences who need a physics background for their vocations, physics majors who typically then proceed to graduate school or into the workforce, and those students who will be teaching physics and physical sciences in K-12.

The committee undertaking this challenge was formed in early 2011 and is chaired by Donald Langenberg, chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland. The committee has 16 members and includes a mix of expertise and backgrounds. A large portion of the committee consists of individuals actively engaged in physics education research (PER). Other members are physics professors with an interest in and expertise in teaching but who are not heavily involved in PER. Still others have different backgrounds that were also considered important for the study. The goal was to include on the committee as many voices as practical from those communities who would be impacted by a successful study and so members include a high school science teacher, a member with expertise in the area of two-year college instruction, as well as several university administrators.

During the course of the study, the committee held five face-to-face meetings. The first meeting was held in March 2011 in Washington D.C., where the committee heard from representatives of the study's sponsors: the NSF's Education and Interdisciplinary Research Program in the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences' Physics Division, and the NSF's Division of Undergraduate Education in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources. The sponsors shared with the committee their goals for the study and engaged in discussions with the committee on what they envisioned would be useful outcomes. At its next two meetings, held over the spring and summer of 2011, the committee continued to collect information, hearing from speakers who addressed a number of topics pertinent to the committee's charge such as the training and education needs for students who want to teach physics and general science at the K-12 levels, the status of PER for upper division courses, and efforts to develop on-line resources for those interested in undergraduate physics education issues. During and between those meetings, the committee began to develop the report's structure and language. The committee's fourth and fifth meetings, held in the fall of 2011 and winter of 2012, principally were working meetings at which the report was further developed and written.

The committee's efforts are close-to-complete. It has produced a report that is now in the NRC's review process. One of the steps undertaken by the NRC to ensure that its reports meet appropriate standards of objectivity and satisfy the committee's charge is that each report must undergo an independent review by a panel of experts who were not involved in the study process or in the preparation of the report. All of the reviewers' comments will be responded to by the committee in developing the final version of the report. Once the report is deemed to have met the concerns and issues raised by the reviewers it will be publicly released. Current expectations are that the report will be available for public release by the end of 2012. More information about the study can be found at

James Lancaster is the Director of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Research Council.

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.