b. Physics students learn to develop conceptual and mathematical approaches to models to help them understand complicated systems and solve complex problems. As a result of learning the inquiry process and ways of thinking used in physics, students with a physics education are prepared for success in complex analytical professional programs such as medicine, business, finance, and law.
c. Physics is concerned with topics that underlie most other branches of science and engineering, and it is relevant to current societal concerns such as energy, nanotechnology, and national security.
• SYSTEMIC TENSIONS: The familiar college environment in which physics is currently taught is threatened by powerful, rapidly changing external forces, and U.S. physics departments will either adapt and improve or fade.
a. Although many students (~500,000/year) study introductory physics, only about 1 percent end up with physics degrees. At many institutions, the number of majors is so low that it invites merging of the physics department with other science departments.
b. Electronic communication and networking technologies are transforming, in both positive and negative ways, all educational institutions and programs, including physics.
c. Economic realities are pressing undergraduate physics education (and all of higher education) to achieve reduced costs and improved outcomes.
d. Universities and colleges, including their physics departments, have generally been slow to make changes that adequately respond to these challenges.
• MAJOR CHALLENGES: Current practices in undergraduate physics education do not serve most students well.
a. Important groups remain underserved by the current paradigm (women, underrepresented minorities, prospective high school teachers).
b. As evidenced by pre- and post-testing, most students taking introductory physics do not gain a genuine understanding of the concepts, practices of inquiry, or mental habits used in the discipline.
c. Improvements are needed in the initial and subsequent professional training provided to physics teachers, particularly those teaching in K-12.
d. Impediments to needed change include economic constraints, traditional academic cultures, and institutional structures.
e. The subject matter and skills that undergraduates study have remained largely static for more than 50 years. Students learn little about current discoveries and research, which they might find exciting or relevant to their lives.