Physics is the curiosity-driven study of the inanimate natural world at a very fundamental level that extends across all nature—from the extremes of empty space itself, time, light, energy, elementary particles, and atoms through many orders of magnitude to stars, galaxies, and the structure and fate of the universe. At all levels it shares the objective of a deep conceptual and mathematical understanding. Physics is widely appreciated for the beauty of its concepts, but it is valued for its immense range of predictive power and life-improving applications.
People’s overall economic well-being is roughly measured by gross domestic product (GDP) per person. Amazingly, this index was essentially flat from Egyptian times up to the mid-18th century (Hansen and Prescott, 2002). Since then, GDP per person has increased 20-fold in the United States and other “first world” countries where circumstances allowed innovators to apply knowledge originating in various subfields of physics to societal problems. From this perspective one sees that successive revolutions in fundamental physics have been tightly interconnected with technological advances that have each substantially improved our lives:
• Newtonian mechanics—Industrial revolution based on engineered machines;
• Thermodynamics—Steam engines to power machines, railroads, steamboats;
• Electricity and magnetism—Electrical power distribution system, motors, lights, telegraphs, electronics;
• Quantum mechanics—Lasers, atomic clocks, chemistry;
• Nuclear—Atomic energy, medical diagnosis and treatments;
• Condensed matter physics—Transistors and integrated circuits, computers, fiber optics, materials like liquid crystals (e.g., liquid-crystal displays), polymers, superconducting technology and materials; and
• Modern physics research—Mining large data sets, the World Wide Web.
This vast amount of understanding resulted from a new way of thinking about natural phenomena—the scientific method—in which hypotheses are expressed in a precise, generally mathematical, form that enables exact predictions; then testing these hypotheses and generally exploring nature with insightful and precise experiments; and then refining those hypotheses or, when merited, replacing them with new ones. Among the fruits of this process is the ability to make models of natural processes that predict the behavior of things in advance, e.g., the number of looms that can be powered by a particular waterfall, the effect of cross-connections on a polymer or a highway system, the takeoff speed of an airplane, and so on.
The beauty of this intellectual approach and its remarkable cornucopia of insights, knowledge, and applications has captured the imaginations of people for centuries and attracted them to study, research, and develop applications in physics.
Some undergraduates are attracted to take and major in physics by the beauty of its intellectual approach and finesse of the related experiments and apparatus. However, many more take physics as a required course in another major’s curriculum because of the foundational role it plays in developing an understanding for other branches of science and engineering. In fact, only slightly more than 1 percent of students who take an introductory physics course end up obtaining an undergraduate degree in physics.
Too often, introductory physics has been cast as a subject that only a tiny elite could truly master. As a result, many students have viewed it as too difficult or unpleasant, and so have chosen not to pursue physics and other STEM majors. This has detrimentally affected not only the health of undergraduate physics and other STEM programs, but also the intellectual health of the nation.
Currently undergraduate physics education is especially challenged by financial constraints and by limited success in appealing to many of the demographic groups that represent an increasing fraction of today’s incoming students and in providing enough physics teachers for high schools. Addressing these challenges requires that the physics community take a close look at the issues related to undergraduate physics education and pursue paths that can lead to improved student understanding of physics, reasoning skills, and attitudes toward physics. As shown in this report, recent developments in physics education research, computer-based instruction, and social networking can guide undergraduate physics education to more positive outcomes.
Higher education is beset by change on many fronts: changes in the student populations, transformations in societal needs, financial pressures, and technologies that enhance and threaten to replace the college and its classrooms. Higher education must prepare students for a world in which intelligent systems allow anyone to find even arcane bits of knowledge, which greatly reduces the value of knowing a large number of detailed facts. Robots and intelligent programs make possession of specialized information and skills less valuable and have reduced the number of routine, middle-skilled jobs, as well as some jobs thought to be immune from automation, such as librarians, lawyers, and, potentially, teachers. In addition to providing the basic scientific competency in physical sciences that is needed in many professions (AAMC-HHMI, 2009), higher education must prepare its graduates to do nonroutine highly skilled work that
… cannot be reduced to an algorithm that is programmed into a computer or robot, or easily digitized and outsourced abroad. These jobs involve critical thinking and reasoning, abstract analytical skills, imagination, judgment, creativity, and often mathematics. They require the ability to read a situation, to extrapolate from it, and to create something new—a new product, a new insight, a new service, a new investment, a new way of doing old things, or new things to do in new ways in an existing company. (Friedman and Mandelbaum, 2011, p. 75)
While Friedman and Mandelbaum discuss the abilities needed for employment, these aptitudes are essential if future citizens are to function effectively and to make intelligent decisions about many aspects of life in a contemporary democratic society. Today, higher education must prepare graduates for an international arena in which being competitive requires the ability to learn new things, understand complex systems, manage large sets of data, think creatively and critically, communicate, and collaborate. As a discipline, physics has much to contribute, not only for the subject matter—the phenomena, concepts, and theories—but also for the disciplinary practices of empirical and theoretical inquiry. As emphasized earlier, the former are of foundational importance across all of science and engineering, while the latter are non-routine skills of critical importance in our constantly changing modern society.
In STEM fields especially, these developments are forcing faculty to rethink their roles as teachers and researchers. They must understand pedagogical advances, identify the needs of current-day students, and effectively employ new technologies in all aspects of their professional lives. Higher-education faculty must also understand the developments in distance learning, respond to external and internal financial pressures, and above all, they must continually reevaluate their role in educating a diverse citizenry and its future teachers.
Recent research in physics education and cognitive studies has revealed far more about the way humans learn physics than was known in the past. The ability to mine data about detailed student performance and habits, conduct relatively clean learning experiments in online environments, and process educational research data much more comprehensively could accelerate this educational understanding. This knowledge can potentially enable the physics community to constructively address the many new pressures on it and to better help students enjoy the excitement of learning physics and its methods. However, doing so will require that physics faculty become more aware of these developments and be willing to adopt them.
The lecture-recitation-laboratory approach to physics education was developed more than a century ago, when the student body was far more uniform than today and the opportunities for students to learn using technology and via experiences outside college were virtually nonexistent. Physics education will clearly need to adapt and change in response to changes in the students and their experiences on the one hand, and advances in the understanding of learning on the other. Together, this will require changes that are foreign to most faculty members’ experience and will challenge institutional inertia. At the same time, social, economic, and governmental forces are transforming the environment in ways that are relentless, unavoidable, and not always welcome.
The need for the physics community to engage the many challenges facing undergraduate physics education and to solve them using a research-based approach that generates sustainable improvement is the driving force for this report.
Disruptive applications of technology to education offer both enhancements and challenges to traditional ways of teaching, especially by offering novel learning experiences that are inexpensive and scalable. As discussed in Chapter 2, online simulations can supplement or even replace traditional laboratories, and online homework tutorial systems such as MasteringPhysics.com or Andes.org have replaced graded homework. Currently, both commercial organizations (Coursera and Udacity) and a consortium of universities (edX) offer free online introductory physics courses, which can ultimately be accompanied by a verified certificate of completion. Additionally, new approaches to educational data mining and online intelligent tutors show promise for providing assessments of student learning habits and their relationship to their future rate of learning (Baker et al., 2011). The combination of educational data mining with various types of complete online learning environments offers an unprecedented opportunity to study and improve free online learning and to blend it with on-campus learning.
Building communities of practice or interest is a key component of these new learning environments for both students and teachers. Such communities can exist both in the moment (e.g., skyping together three students puzzled by the same question) and as permanent means of support (e.g., teachers in different small departments teaching the same course). While communities of 40 years ago were often limited to individuals in our classes or on our campuses, communities of learners today transcend boundaries of geography, culture, and language. At the same time, these communities often form around interest rather than being constrained by geographic lines. Research has demonstrated that interactions (student-to-student, student-to-teacher, student-to-content, and so on) are important to learning and are critical to addressing learning disparities and underrepresentation, and so these interactions must remain an integral part of even the most technologically advanced learning environment (Seymour, 1995; Seymour and Hewitt, 1995; Springer et al., 1999; Brahmia and Etkina, 2001).
Over the past dozen years, the United States has endured two major economic downturns. For public higher education, these economic pressures have resulted in major decreases in public support, with the net effect often being the transfer of more of the cost of education to students. These pressures have also resulted in significant cost cutting, which has often affected physics departments directly. In private higher education, the rapid increase of tuition above the rate of inflation has compelled many institutions to lower their standards of admission in order to find paying students and to rely increasingly on adjunct faculty to provide instruction. Many of these factors have combined to push college loan debt to more than 1 trillion dollars,1 where it raises general concern, especially in the face of the inability of many recent college graduates to find well-paying jobs.
The deterioration of U.S. investment in undergraduate STEM education and the resultant anticipated damage to the national economy have been well documented in other studies, such as Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future (NAS-NAE-IOM, 2007); its sequel, Rising Above the Gathering Storm Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5 (NAS-NAE-IOM, 2010); and Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (PCAST, 2012). These studies document that the other large and growing economies (for example, those of Brazil, Russia, India, and China) have chosen to increase investment in higher education—especially in science and engineering—while the
1 See FinAid Page, LLC, “Student Loan Debt Clock,” available at http://www.finaid.org/loans/studentloandebtclock.phtml.
United States has chosen to reduce these investments. Thomas Friedman’s series of books—from The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (Friedman, 2005) to That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back (Friedman and Mandelbaum, 2010)—have brought this disastrous situation to the attention of a wide public audience.
To address these challenges the report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), Engage to Excel, advocates an increase of 1 million STEM graduates over the next decade. The report notes that “increasing the retention of STEM majors from 40 to 50 percent would, alone, generate three quarters” of this target (PCAST, 2012, p. 5). This retention goal must be achieved for physics majors, of course, but even more important is that introductory physics is required of nearly all STEM majors. Therefore, many of the students who drop the course or fail it are forced to abandon their dream of a STEM career. Increasing the retention rate while maintaining a quality education for future physicists and other STEM majors is a necessity for our nation.
The risk inherent in the economic pressures of declining state resources was illustrated by policy changes in Texas in the Fall of 2011. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board decided to close physics programs with fewer than 25 majors graduating in the past 5 years (Matthews, 2011; Luzer, 2011). An express motivation was to increase STEM graduates by diverting students, and ultimately resources, away from inefficient and inequitable programs, which happened to include many physics programs. According to the American Physical Society, if such a policy was applied nationwide, it would close more than 60 percent of all physics departments nationally—forcing the closure of 174 physics programs in public institutions alone. Of particular concern, implementation of this criterion would terminate the physics programs of all but 2 of the 34 historically black colleges and universities, causing a huge impact on the diversity of the physics community (Hodapp, 2011).
The committee notes, in passing, that the research enterprise as practiced in the large research universities is also feeling the pressure of state cutbacks and draconian cuts to federally funded research. As the American Institute of Physics (AIP) reported in 2011, “the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) met to hear from experts about the future of research endeavors in the United States. To open the meeting, PCAST Co-Chair John Holdren noted that fiscal restraints created by the difficult budget environment will make it harder to make the investments necessary in science and technology to maintain American dominance in these fields” (Kronig, 2011).
This situation places physics higher education in a dilemma: the urgent need to become more effective (in terms of learning and retention for both physics majors and other students served by physics educators) without additional resources to enable that change. Thus, the physics community needs to make bold changes in direction that are needed to ensure the opportunity to thrive in the coming decades
and to educate the next generations who will maintain a strong global science- and technology-based economy. Dramatic advances to be made at unpropitious times are not unprecedented in U.S. history. For example, at the height of the Civil War in 1862, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act to create the land grant colleges, which have since developed into most of the flagship and other highly respected public universities.
Is the physics community prepared to respond in a way that can forestall national decline? Doing a much better job teaching the students that it touches is a crucial aspect of an adequate response. These students include both future physics majors and those who will enroll in a physics course while they concentrate in other fields.
Traditional undergraduate physics education, as practiced in much of the 20th century, centered on teaching facts and procedures using the lecture-recitation-laboratory format to a student body largely made up of white males. The preeminent goal now is to educate students in what are sometimes called 21st-century skills—things like self-learning, complex problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration. Moreover, the students who must learn these skills today are representative of current U.S. demographics, not the select group of the past century. Obviously, the traditional educational paradigm for teaching undergraduate physics must change.
For much of the 20th century, physics was crucial to national defense, the value of physics was accepted by most college students, and introductory physics was often used as a filter to select the most desirable physics majors. Times change: The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics became the former Soviet Union, the accolade “nuclear physicist” for a smart person was replaced by “rocket scientist,” and even experimental physicists can no longer repair their automobiles. Yet physics has maintained its selectivity and, over the 40-year period from 1965 to 2005 (see Figure 2.1), has limited itself to a 20 percent growth in numbers of majors, while STEM majors overall have increased 200 percent. For many of the institutions where physics is now taught, maintaining physics as a viable undergraduate major requires that introductory physics courses attract more students to physics. For the good of the country, introductory physics must also help to attract more majors to STEM and other majors for which it is a required course. This is particularly true with respect to women and minorities—a demographic that now comprises around 73 percent of college students.2 In fact, the declining fraction of college
2 According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2010 slightly more than 21 million students were enrolled in degree-granting institutions, and approximately 5.6 million of them were white males. Digest of Education Statistics 2011, Table 238. Available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2012/2012001.pdf.
students majoring in physics these days is largely a reflection of the fact that only a very small fraction of these demographics are attracted to the physics profession. While many factors are at play, at least part of the reason why more students from these demographics chose not to pursue physics is that they fail to see the excitement and joy that physicists feel in the process of studying, experimenting with, and understanding the natural world, seeing only the drudgery of performing well on the next test (Krogh and Thomsen, 2005; Sharp, 2004; Scott and Martin, 2012). Students do not realize that appreciation of a sunset or a rainbow can be enhanced by the explanation that physics provides for these phenomena. They do not realize that a wide range of everyday devices—from an MRI to the scanner at the grocery store—depend critically on the discoveries of physics, as do many branches of science and engineering. While recognizing that many of the students taught in introductory physics courses have specific physics knowledge goals that must be met, those teaching such courses also should engage students in thinking about physics in a broader context. Rather than simply memorizing answers for the next test, they should be puzzling about some of the profound and unanswered questions currently being addressed in physics, such as dark matter or relativity. Some work (Treisman, 1992; Brahmia, 2008; Beichner, 2008) has demonstrated that innovations that increase student engagement, whether pedagogical or technological, are critical to all students and particularly important to retention of students from underrepresented populations.
Over the past few decades, research in physics education and cognitive science has helped to increase understanding and inform the process of learning and teaching physics. In particular, physics education researchers—an interdisciplinary community centered predominantly in departments of physics—have been engaged in complementary efforts to understand how students learn physics and how to use that knowledge to improve physics teaching and learning. Much of this knowledge has been translated into practices with demonstrated improvements in student learning. (See Chapter 3.) The physics education community has also learned that the widely used lecture-based classroom instruction is not nearly as effective in teaching students or creating positive attitudes toward physics as many have assumed. Discovering the limits of the lecture-based paradigm of instruction ironically coincides with a growing collection of excellent lectures delivered by prestigious lecturers for free over the Internet. They may render the traditional large university lecture classes obsolete more quickly than the discoveries of learning theory. Much more needs to be learned, but researchers are beginning to understand why some practices are more effective than others. While some undergraduate physics educators have responded to this new flow of information, ideas, and technologies, the community of physicists is in an early stage as a formal discipline of both research in physics education and the application of its results.
An overarching theme has emerged from educational research: Learning improves when students are interactively engaged with their peers, their instructors, and the material being learned, and when they are integrating the newly learned concepts with their previous ideas, whether learned in a formal classroom or in everyday life. While this statement does not sound revolutionary, it does emphasize that success in learning is more strongly determined by how successfully and frequently students are engaged in the learning experience than by the content knowledge or the delivery skill of the instructor. This research finding does not devalue an instructor’s role, but it indicates the most accessible path to improving effectiveness.
To address these findings, some physics education researchers have focused on the creation of new instructional tools that can be incorporated into conventional course structures and then learning outcomes with these new tools are measured. These efforts include student response systems (or “clickers”) that can help make lectures interactive; interactive small group activities based on research about specific conceptual difficulties; structured collaborative group work; undergraduate peer instructors or “learning assistants”; computer-based laboratory instruments and software to facilitate real-time data collection and analysis; and Web-based systems for simulations, class preparation, lectures, and homework. Other physics education researchers have focused on wholesale course redesign, creating unified in-class activities where students work together to make sense of concepts, problems, and experimental phenomena rather than maintaining the traditional separation of lecture, recitation, and laboratories.
These new tools and courses, some of which are described in Chapters 2 and 3, have been evaluated and refined through extensive research in a large number of undergraduate classes. As this report documents, they show evidence of significant gains in student learning, in particular with respect to conceptual understanding. Further, evidence indicates that retention of majors increases when students are involved in active engagement during the beginnings of their undergraduate careers (PCAST, 2012, p. 8). In these ways, physics education research has provided guidance for significant, near-term improvement of physics instruction.
During the committee’s extended deliberations, five basic themes recurred frequently. These themes, discussed briefly above, permeate this report. They and their components are listed below, along with some comments on where in this volume they are discussed further.
Undergraduate physics education provides students with unique skills and ways of thinking that are of profound value to themselves and to society.
a. Physics explores and answers the most fundamental of questions: the origin of the universe, the nature of matter and energy, and symmetries and laws that shape everything. It provides a framework and discipline for probing these questions whose range of applicability extends far beyond the physical sciences.
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.
These ideas are discussed above, and in Chapter 2.
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.
These dangers are both internal and external and must be addressed by physicists and by all involved in undergraduate education. Some of these dangers have been discussed in this chapter; others will be included in the discussion of the present landscape in undergraduate physics education, Chapter 2.
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.
This theme is discussed primarily in Chapter 2, which looks at the present landscape of undergraduate physics education and issues that have been raised by the changing content of physics, the nature of 21st-century students, and the skills needed by those students for addressing modern societal issues.
Substantial improvements in undergraduate physics education have been made with existing knowledge and resources in a variety of contexts; encouraging and preserving these gains requires a symphony of efforts by many different participants, and improving on them requires continuing research and development.
a. Novel curricula, materials, and approaches to instruction exist that have demonstrated improved results, not only in students’ conceptual and quantitative knowledge of physics, but also in their ability to engage in scientific inquiry.
b. Some physics departments have demonstrated how to be attentive to their student communities, attract more students to physics, retain them through the major, and support them in a variety of career aspirations.
c. There is a substantial and growing research base on which institutions can draw to improve educational practices.
d. Implementing change will require concerted efforts at a range of levels, from individual physics faculty and departments to top administrative levels in universities, state and federal governmental agencies, research funding sources, and professional associations.
These points are elaborated in Chapter 3.
Future improvement of undergraduate physics education depends critically on a vigorous physics education research enterprise and effective application of its findings.
a. Physics education research has emerged relatively recently as an important element of the broader academic exploration of the science of teaching and learning.
b. Physics education research has yielded findings that are being applied in the development of better educational practices in some institutions and that could be more universally adopted.
c. Education research in physics is a rapidly growing field and is still finding answers to important questions about learning and pedagogy. Physics education research needs systemic support to fuel future improvements in education.
Chapter 3 gives a short review of physics education research and some of its applications to undergraduate physics education. This research provides a foundation on which to build the next generation of undergraduate physics education programs. Chapter 4 concludes with suggestions and recommendations about future directions for undergraduate physics education.
The committee’s judgment is that substantial improvement of undergraduate physics education will benefit the physics community, students, and our nation and must be undertaken because of the many challenges facing physics education today. Fortunately, physics educators have learned and continue to benefit from
a robust and growing physics education research literature and community. The insights gained through this scholarship, and through an increasingly sophisticated set of assessments, allow evidence-based decisions on improving undergraduate education. Furthermore, information technology, although just beginning to touch physics education in profound ways, has the potential to significantly improve the way students engage with and learn physics on both large and small scales. The committee emphasizes that physicists and physics departments live in a broader community that, if ignored, will bypass physics to find solutions to important contemporary problems that are partially physicists’ responsibility to help address. Included in this list are the effective preparation of high school physics teachers and the education of a workforce whose competence requires critical thinking, abstract analytical skills, and some knowledge of how physics relates to what they are doing. If the solutions developed without the physics community’s involvement are of low quality, then the community will be partially to blame.
Finally, student perceptions, attitudes, social networks, and the environment in which they develop have changed profoundly over the last several decades, and the U.S. population is increasingly diverse in ethnicity and socioeconomic class. Failing to understand and address today’s nontraditional students threatens to undermine our effectiveness in preparing scientists and a science-literate population for the coming generations.
The committee recognizes the difficulty of implementing change in the current environment of financial pressure and diminishing support for the physics enterprise. At research universities the intense pressure for research productivity leaves the faculty member with difficult choices about how to devote time and effort, and at many other institutions the requirement to teach several courses simultaneously prevents devoting efforts to implementing even established reforms in some of them. Often individual faculty members have little motivation to consider improvements in the teaching environment while their departments are faced with pressures to increase “efficiency” in order to save institutional resources. The committee also recognizes the historical inertia that leads most to teach as they were taught and to view with caution any proposed changes that require substantial effort. However, in spite of these issues the committee believes that our community can improve the undergraduate physics experience and that our community must make appropriate changes before it is coerced by outside forces. Thus, this report strongly encourages faculty, departments, administrators, funding agencies, and professional societies to take a scientific approach to our own practice and to inform themselves of the research and development that can help the physics community make measurable and desirable improvements in undergraduate physics education.
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