Lowering Barriers to Curricular Change in Physics: Injecting Computation into the Undergraduate Curriculum

Kelly Roos, Bradley University

The AAPT’s Statement on Computational Physics quite succinctly makes the case that computation should be an integral part of the undergraduate physics curriculum. Accompanying the AAPT’s statement is a "Rationale" that includes the following assertions:

Contemporary research in physics and related sciences almost always involves the use of computers. . . . Computational physics has become a 3rd way of doing physics & complements traditional modes of theoretical and experimental physics. . . . almost all undergraduate students who take physics courses will use computational tools in their future careers even if they do not become practicing physicists.

Building on this statement on Computational Physics, the AAPT, in 2013, established the Undergraduate Curriculum Task Force (UCTF) to develop recommendations for modernizing the undergraduate physics curriculum. The UCTF’s "AAPT Recommendations for Computational Physics in the Undergraduate Physics Curriculum" was endorsed by the AAPT in October of 2016. This report, in its entirety, can be viewed at https://www.aapt.org/Resources/upload/AAPT_UCTF_CompPhysReport_final_B.pdf. The implications of the AAPT Computational Physics statement and recommendations document for STEM education are poignant, especially in the context of modernizing and improving the undergraduate physics curriculum, where, with a few exceptions, computation is largely non-existent.

To be sure, over the last decade, several new undergraduate physics degree programs, specifically for a BS in computational physics, have cropped up in the manner of the pioneering efforts of Oregon State University and Illinois State University of a few decades ago. Furthermore, a cursory internet search reveals that many physics departments across the country now offer at least one elective course in computational physics. There have even been computational incursions into high school physics through the use of Chabay and Sherwood’s Matter and Interactions.

Yet, despite the AAPT’s urging, little has been done on a larger curricular scale, especially in introductory physics, to formally integrate computation directly into individual physics courses such that computation plays an important role in developing both, a deeper conceptual understanding of physical principles and problem-solving skills.

In 2005, the journal, Computing in Science and Engineering (CiSE), commissioned a survey that was sent out to 762 physics departments in the US. The survey queried the attitudes towards computation in the undergraduate curriculum, and solicited information on the use of computation in undergraduate physics courses. Interestingly, the survey demonstrated a ubiquitous concurrence by physics faculty on the importance of computation in the undergraduate curriculum, but a dearth of actual implementation. If nearly all physics faculty concede the importance of computation, why has there been little progress in its inclusion in the undergraduate physics curriculum?

In the neighborhood of 2007, the author teamed up with two of the principal investigators of the aforementioned survey project, Norman Chonacky (then Editor-in-Chief of CiSE and Applied Physics, Yale University) and David Winch (Physics, Kalamazoo College) to investigate, and ultimately do something about this discrepancy, if not disconnect, between physics in STEM professional practices and physics in education. Thus was born an informal organization, which has come to be known as the Partnership for Integrating Computation into Undergraduate Physics (PICUP), with the following mission:

"To create a vibrant community of educators, a forum for open discussion, a collection of educational resources, and a set of strategies and tactics that support faculty committed to improving undergraduate physics education through integration of computation into their undergraduate physics courses."

With funding from such sources as the Shodor Foundation, the National Computational Science Institute (NCSI), and the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) PICUP has, over the past decade, convened conferences and workshops involving physics faculty from around the country in order to study and address the lack of computational instruction in the undergraduate physics curriculum. We were able to identify the predominant barriers that precluded physics faculty from integrating computation into their courses, some of which are:

  • Faculty time constraints - to prepare and administer a course that radically deviates from tradition requires a significant time investment. It is so much easier, time-efficient, and comfortable to just keep doing things the way they’ve always been done. There is a particular risk for non-tenured faculty to implement any kind of non-traditional approach in the classroom, especially a computational approach.
  • Lack of faculty rewards - few physics departments reward faculty for innovative efforts in the classroom, even if the innovations are demonstrably effective for student learning.
  • Assumption that there is no room for computation - it is believed that some fundamental core topics would have to be dropped in order to make room for computational activities.
  • Aversion to programming - physics faculty are generally leery of having students engage in actual programming. The reasons for this wariness are widely varied, but span the spectrum from insufficient familiarity with a programming language on the part of the instructor, to concern that the course may take on too much of a computer-coding emphasis.
  • Textbooks - undergraduate physics courses are "locked" to textbooks, and there are very few textbooks that integrate computational activities and thinking into the traditional format of physics courses. The predominant tool for learning physics supported in most physics textbooks is still almost solely analytical, non-computational theory.
  • Faculty preparation - the mathematical underpinnings of computation - numerical instead of analytical - are arguably unfamiliar to traditionally educated physicists, possibly intimidating to some faculty, and counter to what is typically taught in mathematical courses.
  • Lack of departmental support - even if a faculty member is completely sold on an idea of innovative pedagogy, it is difficult to implement if one has to go it alone. The presence of other faculty members of like mind in a department, or better yet-a team effort-may provide the resource development and support necessary to successfully include computation.
  • Computational resources - there is a lack of computational educational resources sufficiently focused on real classroom needs.

PICUP has very recently received NSF funding for a national-scale project to address and lower these barriers for physics faculty-we believe we have a viable answer for each of them! It is a 4-year, transformative faculty development project aimed at building and nurturing a community of physics faculty, from a diversity of institutions across the country, who are committed to integrating computation into undergraduate physics courses. Our central strategy includes a week-long faculty development workshop each summer, wherein faculty are guided in planning and implementing their own approach for integrating computation into their upcoming course(s), combined with continuing, community-based support for faculty participants. Crucial to this strategy is the development of online computational pedagogical resources that are barrier-lowering in nature, easy to search and interact with, are readily adoptable and adaptable (we want faculty to adapt the materials we develop to their own personal pedagogical preferences), are programming language-agnostic, are developed in a uniform format, and are produced according to current best practices in physics instruction.

We believe that the community building and barrier-lowering aspects of the PICUP approach, as well as our unique approach to developing online educational materials can eventually serve as a model for all of the STEM disciplines for transforming the way that STEM education is administered. For more information about PICUP and the national-scale computational integration project contact the author, or go to www.gopicup.org.

Kelly Roos has been at Bradley University for 24 years. After 17 years in the physics department, he has spent the past 6 years in the Bradley Caterpillar College of Engineering and Technology with the charge of enhancing the physical rigor, including computation, of the engineering curriculum.


1 Robert G. Fuller, Numerical Computations in US Undergraduate Physics Courses, Computing in Science and Engineering vol. 8, 2006, pp. 16-21.

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.