The first section of this chapter, “The Students,” addresses the most important part of the evolving landscape—the students themselves. This section can be thought of as the “who, where, and why” of undergraduate physics education, starting by reminding readers of the variety of reasons that students take undergraduate courses in physics. Basic data about enrollment trends are presented, including figures relevant for physics majors, groups that are traditionally underrepresented in science-based careers (women and certain minorities), and future K-12 teachers. These data set the stage for the discussions in the following section.
The second section, “The Educational Landscape,” addresses the “what and how” of undergraduate physics education. It is the committee’s judgment that the future of physics depends on undergraduate programs that maximize the effectiveness of instruction, educate students in both fundamental physics and contemporary topics, recruit and retain the most talented students from all segments of the population, and ensure that tomorrow’s K-12 teachers can prepare tomorrow’s K-12 students for the challenges of higher education. Meeting these challenges in turn relies on the existence of tools for gauging the extent to which changes produce the desired outcomes, and on physics faculty who are both equipped to engage in educational innovation and supported in doing so.
Throughout this chapter, recent national studies are drawn upon that have examined a particular aspect of physics education in depth, such as teacher preparation, the status of women and minorities in physics, or characteristics of thriving programs. A list of these studies and other resources can be found in Box 3.1.
Many of the changes taking place in undergraduate physics classrooms reflect more general transformations happening across higher education. The demographics of those enrolled in undergraduate institutions are shifting. Overall enrollment is increasing, as are the fraction of students who are part-time and the fraction who are over 25 years old.1 These “nontraditional” students may have different experiences and expectations, and often they are seeking degrees while working and raising families and, thus, have very different constraints than the full-time, on-campus students that many of us think of as the norm.
The fraction of students from ethnic minorities is also increasing, especially at two-year colleges (TYCs). According to a recent study, “these large percentage enrollments among underrepresented students mirror the ethnic populations in the geographic communities of the two-year colleges” (Monroe et al., 2005, p. 60).