ADAPTING TO A
CHANGING WORLD—

CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITES IN
UNDERGRADUATE PHYSICS EDUCATION

Committee on Undergraduate Physics Education
Research and Implementation

Board on Physics and Astronomy

Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES

THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES PRESS

Washington, D.C.

www.nap.edu



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Committee on Undergraduate Physics Education Research and Implementation Board on Physics and Astronomy Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences

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THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES PRESS  500 Fifth Street, NW  Washington, DC 20001 NOTICE: The project that is the subject of this report was approved by the Governing Board of the National Research Council, whose members are drawn from the councils of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. The members of the committee responsible for the report were chosen for their special competences and with regard for appropriate balance. This study was supported by Grant No. PHY-1003414 between the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation. Support for this study was also provided by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation Fund of the National Academy of Sciences. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or rec- ommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organizations or agencies that provided support for the project. International Standard Book Number-13:  978-0-309-28303-8 International Standard Book Number-10:  0-309-28303-5 Library of Congress Control Number:  2013940085 Additional copies of this report are available from the National Academies Press, 500 Fifth Street, NW, Keck 360, Washington, DC 20001; (800) 624-6242 or (202) 334-3313; http://www.nap.edu; and the Board on Physics and Astronomy, National Research Council, 500 Fifth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001; http://www.national-academies.org/bpa. Copyright 2013 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America

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The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit, self-perpetuating society of distinguished scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research, dedicated to the furtherance of science and technology and to their use for the general welfare. Upon the authority of the charter granted to it by the Congress in 1863, the Academy has a mandate that requires it to advise the federal government on scientific and technical matters. Dr. Ralph J. Cicerone is president of the National Academy of Sciences. The National Academy of Engineering was established in 1964, under the charter of the National Academy of Sciences, as a parallel organization of outstanding engineers. It is autonomous in its administration and in the selection of its members, sharing with the National Academy of Sciences the responsibility for advising the federal government. The National Academy of Engineering also sponsors engineering programs aimed at meeting national needs, encourages education and research, and recognizes the superior achievements of engineers. Dr. Charles M. Vest is president of the National Academy of Engineering. The Institute of Medicine was established in 1970 by the National Academy of Sciences to secure the services of eminent members of appropriate professions in the examination of policy matters pertaining to the health of the public. The Institute acts under the responsibility given to the National Academy of Sciences by its congressional charter to be an adviser to the federal government and, upon its own initiative, to identify issues of medical care, research, and education. Dr. Harvey V. Fineberg is president of the Institute of Medicine. The National Research Council was organized by the National Academy of Sciences in 1916 to asso- ciate the broad community of science and technology with the Academy’s purposes of furthering knowledge and advising the federal government. Functioning in accordance with general policies determined by the Academy, the Council has become the principal operating agency of both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering in providing services to the government, the public, and the scientific and engineering communities. The Council is administered jointly by both Academies and the Institute of Medicine. Dr. Ralph J. Cicerone and Dr. Charles M. Vest are chair and vice chair, respectively, of the National Research Council. www.national-academies.org

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COMMITTEE ON UNDERGRADUATE PHYSICS EDUCATION RESEARCH AND IMPLEMENTATION DONALD N. LANGENBERG, University of Maryland, Chair SUZANNE BRAHMIA, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey JERRY P. GOLLUB, Haverford College DAVID HAMMER, Tufts University CHARLES HENDERSON, Western Michigan University PAULA HERON, University of Washington THEODORE HODAPP, American Physical Society MICHAEL P. MARDER, University of Texas, Austin JOSÉ P. MESTRE, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign MARY BETH MONROE, Southwest Texas Junior College VALERIE OTERO, University of Colorado, Boulder DAVID E. PRITCHARD, Massachusetts Institute of Technology JAMES SCHAFER, Montgomery Blair High School, Montgomery County Public Schools JACK M. WILSON, University of Massachusetts HUNG-HSI WU, University of California, Berkeley DEAN ZOLLMAN, Kansas State University Staff JAMES C. LANCASTER, Director DONALD C. SHAPERO, Senior Scholar CARYN J. KNUTSEN, Associate Program Officer TERI G. THOROWGOOD, Administrative Coordinator BETH DOLAN, Financial Associate v

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BOARD ON PHYSICS AND ASTRONOMY PHILIP H. BUCKSBAUM, Stanford University, Chair DEBRA ELMEGREEN, Vassar College, Vice Chair RICCARDO BETTI, University of Rochester ADAM S. BURROWS, Princeton University TODD DITMIRE, University of Texas at Austin NATHANIEL J. FISCH, Princeton University PAUL FLEURY, Yale University S. JAMES GATES, University of Maryland LAURA H. GREENE, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign MARTHA P. HAYNES, Cornell University MARK B. KETCHEN, IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center MONICA OLVERA DE LA CRUZ, Northwestern University PAUL SCHECHTER, Massachusetts Institute of Technology BORIS SHRAIMAN, Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics MICHAEL S. TURNER, University of Chicago ELLEN D. WILLIAMS, BP International MICHAEL S. WITHERELL, University of California, Santa Barbara Staff JAMES C. LANCASTER, Director DONALD C. SHAPERO, Senior Scholar DAVID B. LANG, Program Officer CARYN J. KNUTSEN, Associate Program Officer TERI G. THOROWGOOD, Administrative Coordinator BETH DOLAN, Financial Associate vi

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Preface We live in turbulent but exciting times! The U.S. economy is struggling to recover from a great recession. As we do so, the circumstances within which we hope to rise are not those from which we came. We are entering what some have termed “The Third Industrial Revolution.” In this new world, what characterizes a leading economy is not factory production lines producing well-designed machines. Rather, it is the ability to serve the informa- tion and communication needs of populations approximating those of the entire Earth. Specifically, the United States can no longer enjoy an unchallenged position of leadership in this new world. Our preeminence is being challenged by many countries and societies from both the developed and developing worlds. In this new world, much depends on the capabilities of a nation’s citizens in high technology. Those capabilities depend critically on the quality and levels of education of those citizens, from kindergarten through graduate school. It is, thus, not surprising that the performance of education institutions in the United States has become the subject of national concern. Where once we could take pride in being at the top of the world in education, comparative international studies show that we are sliding down into the middle of the pack, not so much because we are failing to meet our traditional standards, but because other nations are on innova- tive and creative tracks that enable them to overtake and surpass us. This is of particular concern because this new world requires a citizenry well informed about technical matters and well educated in the STEM (science, technol- ogy, engineering, and mathematics) subjects. It is not solely economic issues that require such skills, but many political issues as well, including environmental and vii

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viii Preface energy issues. For example, climate change (or disruption) has become a central problem for all of us, including our children. The first letter of STEM is for science. The component parts, including ­physics, chemistry, biology, and Earth sciences, are not interchangeable. Physics is the funda­ ental science that provides the foundation for all others. Education in m ­physics, at all levels, forms the gateway into technological competence and expertise in almost everything of importance in our new world. Evidence indicates, however, that the physics community remains in a traditional mode in which the primary purpose of physics education is to create clones of the physics faculty. Yet there are notable exceptions. Over the past several decades, active research by physicists into the teaching of their subject has yielded important insights about what can be done to heighten the quality of students’ understanding of the universe—at all levels. But this new knowledge is slow to find significant adoption, nor is it fully understood by physics faculty. This report was commissioned by the National Science Foundation to examine the present status of undergraduate physics education, including the state of physics education research, and, most importantly, to develop a series of recommendations for improving physics education that draws from what is known about learning and effective teaching. Our committee has endeavored to do so, with great interest and more than a little passion. Our committee was composed of a broadly diverse pool of concerned ­physicists. These individuals brought a considerable breadth of experience and expertise and an understanding of the landscape of current physics education as well as an appreciation for how education research has begun to transform understanding of student learning. What they all shared is a deep dedication to physics and the ways of thinking that characterize it. That’s where the passion came from. There are two popular maxims about physics: “Physics is a social science,” and “Physics is a contact sport.” Both were demonstrated in our work. I thank all the members of the committee for their deep engagement in and devoted attention to meeting our charge. It was a great pleasure to work with them. Finally, let me thank the talented members of the NRC staff who supported us. They include Jim Lancaster and Caryn Knutsen, who kept us on track, and Don Shapero, representing the Board on Physics and Astronomy. Donald N. Langenberg, Chair Committee on Undergraduate Physics Education Research and Implementation

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Acknowledgment of Reviewers This report has been reviewed in draft form by individuals chosen for their diverse perspectives and technical expertise, in accordance with procedures approved by the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Report Review Committee. The purpose of this independent review is to provide candid and critical comments that will assist the institution in making its published report as sound as possible and to ensure that the report meets institutional standards for objectivity, evidence, and responsiveness to the study charge. The review comments and draft manuscript remain confidential to protect the integrity of the deliberative process. We wish to thank the following individuals for their review of this report: Michael Brown, Swarthmore College, David Daniel, University of Texas, Dallas, Fred Eiserling, University of California, Los Angeles, Eugenia Etkina, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Ken Heller, University of Minnesota, Ernest M. Henley, University of Washington, Kenneth Krane, Oregon State University, Tom O’Kuma, Lee College, and Howard Stone, Princeton University. Although the reviewers listed above have provided many constructive comments ­ and suggestions, they were not asked to endorse the conclusions or recommenda- tions, nor did they see the final draft of the report before its release. The review of ix

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x Acknowledgment of Reviewers this report was overseen by Julia Phillips, Sandia National Laboratories. Appointed by the NRC, she was responsible for making certain that an independent examina- tion of this report was carried out in accordance with institutional procedures and that all review comments were carefully considered. Responsibility for the final con- tent of this report rests entirely with the authoring committee and the institution.

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Contents SUMMARY 1 1 INTRODUCTION: PHYSICS IS AMAZING AND PRACTICAL AND 8 MUST BE TAUGHT BETTER Undergraduate Physics Education in a Rapidly Changing World, 10 Technology—Engine of Change, 11 Economic Forces, 12 Changing the Educational Paradigm, 14 Themes, 16 Physics Is Fundamental and Foundational, 17 Systemic Tensions, 17 Major Challenges, 18 Improvements Exist, 18 Scientific Approach to Physics Education, 19 Concluding Thoughts, 19 References, 21 2 THE CURRENT STATUS OF UNDERGRADUATE PHYSICS 23 EDUCATION The Students, 24 Undergraduate Education in General, 24 Undergraduate Physics Education, 25 Segments of the Physics Student Population, 26 xi

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xii Contents The Educational Landscape, 33 Instructional Methods, 33 Course Content and Program Structures, 40 Recruiting and Retaining Students from Traditionally Underrepresented Groups, 44 Preparing Future Teachers, 46 Assessment, 49 Faculty Development, 50 Conclusions, 51 References, 54 3 PHYSICS EDUCATION RESEARCH AS A FOUNDATION FOR 58 IMPROVING EDUCATION A Brief Overview of the Field of Physics Education Research, 59 Key Findings from Physics Education Research, 60 Areas of Current and Emerging Emphasis in Research, 65 Student Learning: Understanding, Reasoning, and Problem Solving, 67 Learning to Learn Physics, 69 The Role of Physical and Social Environments in Learning Physics, 70 Participation and Achievement of Students from Groups Traditionally Underrepresented in Physics, 71 Preparation of Future Physics Teachers, 72 Assessing Progress, 73 Scaling and Sustaining Research-Supported Instructional Strategies, 74 Conclusion, 75 References, 76 4 RECOMMENDATIONS 82 Physics Faculty, 83 Detailed Recommendations for Individual Physics Faculty, 84 Departmental Leadership, 86 Detailed Recommendations for Physics Department Leadership, 86 Academic Administrators, 92 Detailed Recommendations for Higher-Level Academic Administrators, 93 Funding Agencies, 96 Detailed Recommendations for Funding Agencies, 97

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Contents xiii Education Researchers, 100 Detailed Recommendations for Education Researchers, 100 Professional Societies, 102 Detailed Recommendations for Professional Societies, 103 Conclusions, 105 References, 105 APPENDIXES A Statement of Task 109 B Meeting Agendas 111 C Biographies of Committee Members 114 D Additional Suggested Reading Material 122

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