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Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education (2013)

Chapter: 2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education

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Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
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2

The Current Status of
Undergraduate Physics
Education

The first step in improving undergraduate physics education is understanding the landscape in which the subject is being taught. Among the external forces that are shaping higher education, some offer opportunities not available even a few short years ago, while others constrain possibilities that could spur innovation. Internal factors associated with curriculum, instructional practices, and diversity also help define the challenges the physics community faces in trying to achieve widespread and sustained improvement in undergraduate physics education. This chapter surveys the landscape, identifying areas of concern, sources for optimism, and strategies worth supporting.

Among the most predominant characteristics of the landscape is the existence of change. Classes have gotten bigger, student demographics have shifted, and technology is transforming the way students communicate with each other and with educators. Strong economic pressures are bearing down on educational institutions such that discussions about “value added assessment” and “accountability,” which have had a significant impact on K-12 public education, are now affecting post-secondary education as well.

Change is also taking place in the way that undergraduate physics is taught. In recent decades, researchers, many of them physicists, have been engaged in efforts to understand the processes of learning and teaching physics. Some of that knowledge has been translated into practices that have been demonstrated to have positive impacts on student learning. Other techniques have turned out to be not nearly as effective as may have been thought (or hoped).

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×

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.

THE STUDENTS

Undergraduate Education in General

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).

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1 See National Center for Education Statistics, “Fast Facts,” available at http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×

College-level education is increasingly being offered in environments not traditionally associated with undergraduate education. Almost one-third of all higher education students now take at least one course online (Sloan Consortium, 2011). Organizations that collect and disseminate “open educational resources” have grown out of the original “open courseware” movement. YouTube videos and online discussion forums offer students a wide range of learning opportunities that go beyond the curriculum offered by their instructors. Prestigious institutions are among those offering free “massive open online courses” (MOOCs). Online courses are of varying quality, but in some cases, test scores and student satisfaction are at levels equal to or greater than traditional learning environments (Lovett et al., 2008; Higher Education Funding Council for England, 2012; National Survey of Student Engagement, 2008). While distance education is hardly new, the rapid growth in the number of such courses being offered is forcing many educational institutions to look seriously for the first time at both the educational and financial implications.

College-level instruction is also increasingly common on high school campuses. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that in 2003 more than 800,000 students at public schools were enrolled in dual credit courses, including Advanced Placement (AP) physics courses, in which they earn college and high school credit simultaneously. About two-thirds of these students were taking the courses at a postsecondary institution, the others at a high school. As these numbers increase, the availability of highly qualified high school teachers becomes critical.

Undergraduate Physics Education

In any given academic year, about 500,000 students take an introductory undergraduate physics course somewhere in the United States. Of those, 20 percent are at a 2-year college (White, 2012). Students take introductory physics for a variety of reasons. Some are attracted to the beauty and power of physics, which may lead to a major or minor in the subject, often beginning with an honors-level introductory course. For students pursuing degrees in education, the arts, social sciences, or humanities, their interests may lead them to enroll in a nonquantitative physics course (as with titles like “physics for poets” or “physics for future presidents”). However, the majority of students take physics as a foundation for other sciences and engineering or as a foundation for training in the health sciences. The programs that require physics do so for a variety of reasons, but it is not strictly for the content of introductory courses. Equally valued (or, in some cases, more valued) is the sense that physics is where students can learn to appreciate the essence of building predictive models of the world, verifying them, and using them to model reality (Van Heuvelen, 1991; Greca and Moreira, 2002; NRC, 2003).

These goals and statistics are mentioned here because they are important to keep in mind when discussing the current status of physics education and future

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×

directions. In particular, only 3 percent of all undergraduates are enrolled in an undergraduate physics course at a given point in time;2 of those, only a small percentage, slightly over 1 percent, end up with a physics degree. These numbers serve as a reminder that most students never take a physics course. Those who do have mostly practical reasons for doing so and stop as soon as they have fulfilled program requirements.

The diversity of students’ motivations and interests and the range of mathematical skills they bring to the study of physics complicate the selection of goals and topics for any introductory course. The common practice is to emphasize a wide variety of topics that differ little between algebra- and calculus-based courses. This chapter later discusses a few innovative efforts that attempt to differentiate introductory courses—tailoring them to suit the needs of different groups of students, while preserving, or even increasing, the emphasis on the fundamental ways of reasoning about the world that characterize physics.

Segments of the Physics Student Population

Different subpopulations of physics students present different challenges for developing an effective strategy for improving undergraduate physics education. Some brief statistics are given below about three such groups—physics majors, students from populations that are traditionally underrepresented in science-based careers, and future K-12 teachers. Other groups of students, such as those who take physics courses to fulfill general education courses, are also important but are not the focus of this report.

Physics Majors

For many physics faculty, physics majors are seen as the principal means by which the field is perpetuated, and for many outsiders, the number of majors enrolled in a department is viewed as the principal means for measuring that department’s vitality. Thus, despite the fact that they represent a very small fraction of the students who take physics courses, physics majors are crucial for the discipline. Three statistics are important to note. First, a large minority (~30 percent) of physics graduates earn degrees in departments that produce, on average, five or fewer majors per year. While local factors, such as institutional size and mission, help determine the “right” number of majors for a given department, as discussed in “Economic Forces” in Chapter 1, those departments perceived as having low

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2 According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2010 slightly more than 21 million students were enrolled in degree-granting institutions (Digest of Education Statistics 2011, Table 238, available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2012/2012001.pdf).

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×

enrollment may be vulnerable to cost-cutting measures that depend heavily on the number of majors.

Second, while the number of physics undergraduates has increased in the past decade, over the past 40 years that number has been relatively unchanged, in contrast to the number of graduates in all other science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines (see Figure 2.1). The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recently called for producing 1 million additional college graduates with STEM degrees to help retain U.S. preeminence in science and technology and to meet critical future workforce needs. In the committee’s judgment, increasing the number of students holding physics degrees should be an important component of the response to that call (PCAST, 2012).

Third, as noted in “Future K-12 Teachers” below, only one-third of those teaching physics have a major in physics or physics education (Neuschatz et al., 2008). Increasing the number of physics majors has been called out as an important step in addressing this shortage (Mulvery et al., 2007).

The diversity of goals for students in introductory courses extends to physics majors as well. About 35 percent of those who obtain a bachelor’s degree continue to graduate study in physics or astronomy, with another quarter entering graduate

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FIGURE 2.1 Annual graduates in all STEM fields and physics for the past 40 years. SOURCE: Data from the National Center for Education Statistics; graph from Ted Hodapp, American Physical Society.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×

studies in other areas, while another 35 percent enter the workforce upon graduation (Tesfaye and Mulvey, 2012)in a wide variety of careers (see Figure 2.2). These numbers have implications for the design of programs that prepare majors to succeed in a variety of endeavors. However, for those physics majors who will be responsible for teaching physics to future generations, the undergraduate courses they take should serve as models for how the subject should be taught. Later in this chapter, some strategies for taking these factors into account are mentioned.

Underrepresented Groups

There is a well-documented shortage of African American, Hispanic, Native American, and female workers in physical science- and math-based careers (Huang et al., 2000). The short supply of well-trained workers from diverse backgrounds can be traced to both the racial/ethnic and the gender representation gaps among STEM bachelor recipients (Chen and Thomas, 2009). Physics is an important

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FIGURE 2.2 Field of initial employment for physics bachelor’s in the private sector. STEM in this graph refers to positions in natural science, technology, engineering, and math. SOURCE: C.L. Tesfaye and P. Mulvey, Physics Bachelor’s Initial Employment—Data from the Degree Recipient Follow-Up Survey for the Classes of 2009 and 2010, Focus On, September 2011, American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center, Figure 3, available at http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/empinibs0910.pdf, accessed on September 20, 2012.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×

feeder discipline into STEM careers, yet U.S. colleges and universities are not producing a very diverse group of professional physicists.

The percentage of students from these demographic groups who take physics in college is disproportionately small when compared with the demographics of the population of students (Huang et al., 2000). Both females and underrepresented ethnic minorities are less likely to pick a physics-based major initially, and if they do, they are less likely to remain in that major (Chen and Thomas, 2009). Physics majors have the lowest percentile representation of African American, Hispanic, Native American, and female students in the liberal arts and science disciplines (Figure 2.3; Native American representation is so low that it is not visible on the scale shown).

The gender representation gap in physics initially appears late in high school. There is gender parity during the first high school physics course: female students are just as likely to take and successfully complete a high school physics course as their male counterparts. But a disproportionately small percentage elects to take the most challenging subsequent high school physics courses that prepare them for physics in college (White and Tesfaye, 2011a). This differential in course-taking during high school has been linked both to the gender representation gap and to a proportionally lower persistence rate of female students in STEM majors (Griffith, 2010; National Science Board, 2007).

Research suggests that the affective domain, which includes factors such as student motivation, attitudes, perceptions and values, can significantly enhance, inhibit, or even prevent student learning in the sciences (Simpson et al., 1994). These factors may partially account for female underrepresentation in physics. Although many physicists see their discipline as a fun-filled, curiosity-driven endeavor, college physics courses are sometimes characterized as unwelcoming, and the average course grades tend to be lower than in many other disciplines (Rojstaczer and March, 2010). In a large-sample, multiyear study conducted at Cornell University, researchers examined the effect of course grades and peer interactions on students’ persistence in science. While the researchers saw no effect on the male students and the life science students, they found that these factors strongly influenced female students’ persistence in physical science majors (Ost, 2010). Physics instructors and curriculum designers have experimented with the affective domain to improve student learning with some successes. We describe later in this chapter several programs that address the affective aspects of the physics classroom.

Just as there is no strong link between gender and mathematical ability, there is no support for a biologically based explanation of racial or ethnicity gaps in physics. There is strong evidence, however, that socioeconomic status accounts for much more variation in SAT scores than race and ethnicity does (White and Tesfaye, 2011b; Carnevale and Strohl, 2010). Given that high school math level is a predictor for success in college physics (Sadler and Tai, 2001), students from

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×

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FIGURE 2.3 The percentage of the bachelor’s degrees granted to women from 2001 to 2009 (top). The percentage of the bachelor’s degrees granted to select underrepresented minorities from 2001 to 2009 (bottom). SOURCE: Data from National Science Foundation, “Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering,” National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, available at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/tables.cfm; accessed on June 20, 2012. Graphs courtesy of Dean Zollman, Kansas State University.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×

economically disadvantaged backgrounds (and correspondingly weak college preparation) are understandably less inclined to choose a career path for which they feel they are not prepared. The racial/ethnicity gaps are related, at least in part, to a more fundamental problem—a gap in representation based on, and perpetuated by, poverty (Marder, 2012).

For those who do intend to pursue a STEM major, it is less likely that students from underrepresented groups will persist after the first year (Griffith, 2010). Institutional characteristics can influence persistence in STEM majors. It has been shown that STEM field students from underrepresented groups at selective institutions that have a large graduate-to-undergraduate student ratio and that devote a significant amount of spending to research have lower persistence rates than similar students at other institutions (Griffith, 2010). Thus, large research universities are less likely than smaller institutions to retain students from underrepresented groups in STEM majors.

Two-year colleges (TYCs) provide an opportunity to improve the racial and ethnic diversity of the physics student population. Nearly half of the African American college students and more than half of the Hispanic and Native American college students start at a community college (White, 2012). But the percentage of students at TYCs who take physics is still only a small fraction of the students who attend TYCs. Given the overrepresentation of ethnic and racial minority freshmen at TYCs, effective recruiting and educational transformations at TYCs may have the potential to increase the diversity in the STEM workforce. In addition, policies that encourage recruitment and eliminate barriers for potential transfers to 4-year institutions could be especially fruitful.

Similarly, recruitment and educational transformations at minority-majority 4-year institutions could provide an opportunity for decreasing the ethnic representation gap in physics. Some historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are already excellent models, because they produce about 45 percent of all African American B.S. physics graduates annually and about one-quarter of the African American Ph.D.s. Of the institutions that averaged the most African American B.S. physics graduates during 2004-2006, all are either an HBCU or a black serving institution (Mulvey and Nicholson, 2008). Successful programs at minority serving institutions can inform improvements to current programs at majority institutions, especially the large research universities.

Future K-12 Teachers

Undergraduate students who become teachers of physics or physical science in K-12 schools present both special opportunities and considerations. As shown in Figure 2.4, the percentage of students enrolled in physics at the high school level has essentially doubled since 1990.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×

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FIGURE 2.4 Enrollment as a function of time for high schools physics. SOURCE: S. White and C.L. Tesfaye, High School Physics Courses and Enrollments—Results from the 2008-09 Nationwide Survey of High School Physics Teachers, Focus On, August 2010, American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center, Figure 1, available at http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/highschool3.pdf, accessed on June 19, 2012.

This trend is significant for two reasons. First, the production of high school physics teachers is not keeping pace with the growth in high school physics enrollment. In fact, physics teacher education programs throughout the United States are producing only about one-third of the number needed annually. According to the 2010 report of the National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics, fewer than one-fourth of U.S. colleges and universities have graduated a student certified to teach physics in the past 2 years, and only a handful of institutions graduate more than one physics teacher per year on average: “Consequently, more students than ever before are taking physics from teachers who are inadequately prepared” (National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics, 2013, p. xi). A recent AIP report shows that only one-third of those teaching physics have a major in physics or physics education (Neuschatz et al., 2008). Strategies at national and local levels to improve this situation are discussed later in this chapter. The second reason increasing high school enrollment is notable is that it has not translated into increased numbers of students seeking to major in physics.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×

THE EDUCATIONAL LANDSCAPE

The challenges of undergraduate physics education have been considered before. In fact, many of the issues raised in reports dating back to the 1950s—and many of the recommendations that emerged—are consistent with those found in this report. For instance, a 1991 paper, “The Undergraduate Physics Major” (Abraham et al., 1991), cited a shortage of high school physics teachers and the underrepresentation of women and minority students among their concerns. The paper also mentioned a deterioration in students’ mathematical skills and in their oral and written communication abilities. Will the situation change substantially before yet another group undertakes a major study? There are two factors that suggest that it might: (1) the explosive growth of information and computer technology and (2) the emergence of research on the learning and teaching of physics. Both were mentioned in the 1991 document, but that report did not anticipate the degree to which these factors would transform the landscape in which physics is taught. The role of research on learning and teaching is discussed explicitly below. The role of technology permeates the discussion of instructional innovations. The committee cautions that it is not implying that technology will, by itself, solve subtle educational problems that have existed for decades. However, the coupling of a range of tools now available with insights gained from the scientific study of physics learning offers the strongest basis yet for sustained progress in physics education.

To organize the discussion below, the current status and trends in six areas are considered: (1) the instructional methods in physics education, (2) the content and structure of physics courses and degree programs, (3) the diversity of the student body, (4) the preparation of future teachers, (5) the assessment of courses and programs, and (6) faculty development. Interested readers will find that many of the issues raised are addressed in greater depth in Chapter 3. Recommendations for supporting the most promising emerging practices can be found in Chapter 4.

Instructional Methods

This section begins with perhaps the most difficult task: acknowledging the shortcomings in the ways in which physics is being taught in many, if not most, institutions. All of the members of the committee, and perhaps most readers of this report, were educated in ways that worked for them and for the prominent physicists who have shaped our discipline (and to a great extent, the world around us). Sharp criticism of these methods is, thus, not always welcome, and claims about their ineffectiveness should be treated with appropriate skepticism. However, it is worth noting that only about 1 in every 500 students in introductory physics will eventually enroll in a graduate program in physics. Students are not necessarily all

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×

the same. What worked (or worked well enough) for some does not necessarily work for everyone.

As part of this study, committee members examined the extensive research literature concerning undergraduate physics teaching, looking for robust findings that have been replicated at different institutions and that have “stood the test of time.” Given the complexity of the learning process and the large number of variables involved in any classroom, few studies are definitive in isolation. However, the picture that emerges from the collective body of research is clear. Below, two major studies are highlighted that were groundbreaking and are still consistent with the current state of knowledge about physics teaching. These studies are meant to motivate a discussion of some innovative practices that have resulted in improved instruction. Further discussion of research findings on these and other topics of physics education research can be found in Chapter 3. Most of the innovative techniques mentioned in this report were developed by physicists, some of whom devote their major scholarly efforts to physics education research (PER), and some of whom maintain research programs in other areas. It is notable that some innovations native to physics departments have spread significantly to other disciplines.

Research on the Traditional Lecture-Recitation-Laboratory Model

Traditionally, much of physics has been taught in a lecture-based mode in which students watch, listen, and (presumably) take notes while the instructor defines quantities, explains concepts, laws, and theorems (often with the aid of demonstrations), and solves sample problems. This method of instruction has a long history in education. However, for physics it was criticized as early as the beginning of the 20th century (Mann, 1912). More recently, physics education researchers have studied the learning that occurs in these lecture classes, as well as the recitations and laboratories that frequently accompany them. These studies have repeatedly shown over the past 30 years that students learn much less than many instructors assume and much less than students who have other modes of instruction.3

In particular, research (primarily at the introductory level) has documented how traditional instruction reliably results in (1) limited or no gains in conceptual understanding and (2) deterioration in students’ attitudes toward and beliefs about science. Of course there are many other goals for physics courses, such as developing the ability to solve quantitative problems or to “think like a physicist.” The research literature is not as clear on how to make progress toward many of these

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3 This issue has been discussed in some detail in the literature. See, for example, the AAPT Millikan Medal Lectures of McDermott, Zollman, Redish, and Mazur and the references cited in Meltzer and Thornton (2012).

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×

other goals, as is discussed in Chapter 3. However, it appears that gains in conceptual understanding and attitudes need not come at the expense of achievement in other areas. Nor do they necessarily involve an increase in faculty time devoted to teaching. The following two studies demonstrate these findings:

Conceptual understanding. A study that was published in the 1990s pulled together results from a wide variety of courses and institutions. Although many other studies have followed, Hake’s seminal report on the effectiveness of interactive engagement methods remains an important contribution to undergraduate physics education (Hake, 1998). The article presents results from the Mechanics Diagnostic (MD) (Halloun and Hestenes, 1985) and its successor, the Force Concept Inventory (FCI) (Hestenese et al., 1992), given before and after instruction on Newtonian mechanics in a variety of courses taught using different approaches. The FCI is a widely used multiple-choice test that contains 30 items intended to distinguish “Newtonian thinking” from thinking based on common misconceptions. For instance, students shown a figure of a cannon ball fired horizontally from a cliff are asked to choose the correct trajectory from among several possibilities. The MD is similar, but not as widely used. The plot reproduced in Figure 2.5 shows the average gain in score (the percentage of correct answers on the posttest minus the percentage of correct answers on the pretest) against pretest score. Two main features of the plot are that (1) overall, scores are low and do not increase much as a result of instruction; and (2) in the courses in which the largest increases were reported, some sort of interactive technique was used. The test used the calculation of “normalized gain” and the categorization methods used by Hake, which have all come under criticism in the research literature (Marx and Cummings, 2007). However, the conclusion, that more effective instructional approaches involve active learning, has been supported by many other studies using different methodology (Meltzer and Thornton, 2012; Hoellwarth et al., 2005).

Student attitudes toward physics and physics courses. Another study published in the 1990s examined students’ attitudes and expectations about physics (Redish et al., 1998). Redish and colleagues devised a survey—the Maryland Physics Expectations Survey (MPEX)—in which students indicate the degree to which they agree or disagree with statements such as “Physics is related to the real world, and it sometimes helps to think about the connection, but is rarely essential for what I have to learn in this class,” or “Problem solving in physics basically means matching problems with facts or equations and then substituting values to get a number.” Experts (undergraduate physics instructors) generally concur on whether agreement with a given statement is favorable or unfavorable. When students are given the MPEX at both the beginning and end of an introductory course, they typically regress toward more “unfavorable” responses.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×

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FIGURE 2.5 Gain versus pretest score on the conceptual Mechanics Diagnostic or Force Concept Inventory tests for 62 courses enrolling a total N = 6,542 students. The courses included 14 traditional (T) courses (N = 2,084), which made little or no use of interactive engagement (IE) methods, and 48 IE courses (N = 4,458), which made considerable use of IE methods. The slope lines for the average of the 14 traditional courses, <<g>>14T, and the 48 IE courses, <<g>>48IE, are shown, as explained in the text. SOURCE: Reprinted with permission from R. Hake, Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses, American Journal of Physics 66(1):64-74, 1998, Figure 1, Copyright 1998, American Association of Physics Teachers.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×

Like the Hake paper, these results have been supported by other studies using different methodology.

Both of the studies mentioned above featured multiple-choice tests that drew on a body of research on students’ ideas that had been published between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. The studies involved interviews and open-ended written questions to probe student thinking in depth. This research base has since grown substantially, as discussed in Chapter 3.

The results of studies such as those mentioned here have spurred changes in instruction at many institutions, especially in introductory physics courses. In upper-level courses, change has been much more limited. However, research has been conducted among students in upper division courses, and the findings are essentially consistent with those at the introductory level.

Research-Inspired Initiatives

Many of the instructional methods that have been introduced over the past few decades are referred to as active or interactive learning methods. While the details vary, a recent review by Meltzer and Thornton (2012, p. 479) identified a set of non-prioritized characteristics common to all of them:

(a)  Instruction is informed and explicitly guided by research regarding students’ pre-instruction knowledge state and learning trajectory ….

(b)  Specific student ideas are elicited and addressed.

(c)  Students are encouraged to “figure things out for themselves.”

(d)  Students engage in a variety of problem-solving activities during class time.

(e)  Students express their reasoning explicitly.

(f)  Students often work together in small groups.

(g)  Students receive rapid feedback in the course of their investigative or problem-solving activity.

(h) Qualitative reasoning and conceptual thinking is emphasized.

(i)  Problems are posed in a wide variety of contexts and representations.

(j)  Instruction frequently incorporates use of actual physical systems in problem solving.

(k) Instruction emphasizes the need to reflect on one’s own problem-solving practice.

(l)  Instruction emphasizes linking of concepts into well-organized hierarchical structures.

(m) Instruction integrates both appropriate content (based on knowledge of students’ thinking) and appropriate behaviors (requiring active student engagement).

The list of instructional materials and tools that are consistent with these characteristics is long. The following is an overview of some of the most important, successful, and enduring innovations. It is not the committee’s intent to promote or endorse any particular tool, method, or set of instructional materials. Rather, it seeks to illustrate the range of approaches that are available, from adopting tools

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×

that support incremental change to comprehensive strategies that restructure how a department teaches physics. The best examples are based on research on learning. Perhaps more importantly, most have been evaluated and refined through extensive research in a large number of undergraduate classes. While technology features in many approaches, it is usually not the driving force behind the innovations, but it enables research-based strategies that would be cumbersome, time consuming, or even impossible otherwise.

It is also important to note that, as with any tool or method, the quality of implementation is critical. It is possible for students to engage in shallow discussions in class and to complete meaningless hands-on tasks. Learning is complex; simple solutions are not realistic. Nonetheless, there are ample opportunities for any instructor, department, or institution to provide students with better instruction while respecting local resources and constraints. Although the examples below were chosen by the committee, the organizational structure from the Meltzer and Thornton (2012) review is used facilitate use of that article’s extensive references.

1. Materials for use primarily in lecture sessions or lecture-based courses. Polling students, using flashcards, or using personal response systems (sometimes known as “clickers”) has become prevalent in large lecture classes as a mechanism for motivating student engagement. Clickers (handheld infrared or radio frequency transmitters, or networked devices) allow the rapid and convenient collection and display of student responses to multiple-choice questions posed by the instructor. These facilitate interactive engagement techniques, even in large lecture classes, by encouraging discussion among peers and by giving real-time feedback to students and instructors. Because these devices are easily used in most existing classrooms and lecture halls as an adjunct to traditional learning environments, they have found wide application.

2. Materials primarily for use in the laboratory. Laboratory experiments in physics courses serve many purposes, one of which is developing conceptual understanding. For this purpose, computers equipped with data acquisition devices and analysis software offer an advantage over more traditional techniques (e.g., using meter sticks, timers, and so on) by allowing rapid, or even real-time, display of results—bypassing the need to tabulate data and make graphs by hand. For example, students can graph their own position, velocity, and acceleration in real time, attempting, perhaps, to move in such a way that produces a particular graph—a strategy that can help address specific student difficulties in relating position, velocity, and acceleration. Sensors and entire laboratory activities exist for a broad range of topics in introductory physics.

Sophisticated but easy-to-use video analysis tools allow students to make direct measurements of the motion of objects in digital videos, which can be supplied by an instructor, found on the Web, or made by students themselves using

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
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inexpensive digital or cell phone cameras. The rapid production of graphs and other representations can help students focus on the physics concepts and enable discussions among peers.

Modeling tool sets facilitate student participation in an important aspect of physics: constructing a simplified model of a physical process, particularly a mathematical model, and subsequently exploring the relationship between the model and the actual phenomena, while noting the limitations of the models.

3. Fully integrated courses. While many of the methods listed here can be incorporated into existing course structures as part of lectures, laboratories, recitations or homework, at some institutions the entire traditional course structure has been replaced. New courses that integrate direct instruction (if any) with laboratory experiments, discussions, and problem-solving exercises allow the introduction of different activities with different goals when appropriate, rather than according to a predetermined timetable. Many of these fully integrated courses feature “studio-style” classrooms with large tables equipped with computers, which facilitate discussions among students. These approaches also promote coherence and consistency, which is difficult to achieve when different elements of a course are developed and implemented independently, as is often the case.

4. Tutorials and problem-solving worksheets. The term “tutorial” in physics education has become a generic term for research-based worksheets primarily intended for use in small groups to supplement instruction in lectures and laboratories. Tutorials are designed to lead students, working with small groups of peers, through the reasoning processes involved in constructing, interpreting, and applying fundamental concepts. Because many introductory physics courses have a lecture-laboratory-recitation structure, the introduction of tutorials in place of some or all recitations often requires little or no additional investment of faculty or teaching assistant (TA) time. However, as with all research-based instructional approaches that depend on them, TA preparation is critical for the effective implementation of tutorials.

5. Computer simulations, intelligent tutors, and pre-instruction quizzes. Carefully constructed and tested simulations make visible what was previously invisible. For example, students can watch microscopic models in action (electrical current, magnetic fields, gas molecules, and so on); examine how electrical, potential, and thermal energy changes during mechanical processes; and explore the shapes of wave functions associated with different potentials. All of these can facilitate instruction by helping students focus on the most important phenomena, giving them access to richer representations (e.g., three-dimensional models) and allowing them to explore the implications of increasing or decreasing friction, gravity, and so on.

Online homework is now the norm in college physics. The two largest online homework systems in physics, MasteringPhysics.com and WebAssign.com, have

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
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nearly 400,000 unique users in physics every year, and together these websites are used in more than half of more than 300 U.S. colleges surveyed recently. Homework systems by various other publishers reach an additional 20 percent of these colleges.4 A large fraction of students complete and submit assignments online, providing students with instant feedback and instructors with a report containing a wealth of data for analysis. In many cases, the decision to adopt online homework systems is made for economic reasons, but many systems offer educational advantages as well. Some systems primarily use standard end-of-chapter problems drawn from popular texts, but others use specially designed problems that “tutor” students and target their difficulties. Of concern is evidence provided by online homework services which suggests that cheating does occur with online problem sets (Palazzo et al., 2010).

Readings (sometimes using multimedia) and quizzes can prepare students for in-class learning and allow instructors to tailor their lectures to target concepts that are causing the greatest difficulties. These methods, along with pre-recorded lectures, have been used in many physics classes for the past few decades and are now a defining characteristic of the so-called “flipped classroom” in which the presentation of facts and definitions occurs outside the classroom, and in-class time is devoted to discussion and activity.

The rapid growth of online tools in particular raises questions about the validity of the material and the degree of quality control (see Box 2.1). Resources like ComPADRE, the PER Users’ Guide, and Meltzer and Thornton (2012) provide some guidance in determining which tools have been carefully validated. These also serve as resources for techniques that are not delivered online.

Course Content and Program Structures

While physics itself has been evolving, with entire new subfields emerging in the past few decades, the curriculum in most physics departments has remained essentially the same. There are good reasons to approach change cautiously. The traditional approach acknowledges the vertical structure of physics, in which most concepts build on others. However, the range of careers now open to physics students and the research efforts under way in many departments indicate that the courses offered, and the structure of degree programs themselves, should be examined. Below, two related studies are cited that examine thriving physics programs, and some examples of changes that have been undertaken are provided.

To understand the characteristics of departments that excel in attracting majors and preparing a broad spectrum of students for both further study and

___________________

4 Based on personal correspondence with representatives of the publisher of MasteringPhysics, Pearson, and Web Assign.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
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BOX 2.1
Incremental Change or Radical Restructuring?

In most physics departments in which some level of research-based instruction has been adopted, the traditional structure of lectures, laboratories. and recitations has mostly been preserved. One or more of these components may be modified, and additional elements such as online pre-lectures may be added, but the basic design remains the same. The net gain from this sort of incremental change can be large and the (short-term) cost to a department may be modest. Not insignificantly, faculty accustomed to a certain style of teaching and a certain division of labor may only need to change their practices minimally, if at all. Change may, therefore, be more palatable. However, there are missed opportunities with this approach. Coherence and consistency are difficult to achieve when different elements of a course are managed separately. Even concerted efforts by faculty to coordinate laboratory experiments with lectures may fall short, leaving the content in laboratories, recitations, and lectures intellectually disconnected. Moreover, many students continue to view laboratory sessions as subordinate to lectures, in direct contrast to the practices of physics (and science more generally) in which the didactic lecture finds a parallel only in talks, seminars, and colloquia, which play a different role for the professional physicist than does a lecture for a novice. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the learning strategies supported by decades of research are most easily implemented in laboratory settings.

These considerations have led some departments to reinvent the introductory course from scratch, asking, What environment is best suited to learning? Integrated courses with a minimal (or nonexistent) lecture component where group work on complex problems and challenging experiments takes center stage have become the norm in these departments. A few decades of experience with these studio or workshop-style courses suggest that learning gains can outstrip those of minimally modified courses (see Box 3.2 for an example), but there are challenges. Redesigning classrooms to install large tables instead of fixed seats that face forward is not a minor undertaking. Faculty members can no longer use familiar lecture notes (with or without the addition of a few clicker questions), but instead roam the room monitoring progress and intervening when necessary to help student groups keep moving forward. This style takes considerable adjustment. However, for departments ready to take on these challenges, there are several successful models to follow. Workshop Physics developed at Dickinson College, the Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP) project from North Carolina State, the TEAL approach developed at MIT, and the Studio model from RPI have all spread successfully beyond their original institutions.

the workforce, the American Association of Physics Teachers, the American Physical Society, and the American Institute of Physics sponsored the National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics. The task force visited 21 thriving departments and learned that “in all cases, the department as a whole took responsibility for the undergraduate program …. Most members of the department took part in discussions of what changes should occur, and most took part in figuring out what was working and needed repair” (Hillborn et al., 2003, p. 19). However, in many cases, the actual revision of a course or curriculum was accomplished by a single faculty member. (See Box 2.2 for the executive summary of the task force report, Strategic

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
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BOX 2.2
Executive Summary of the 2003 SPIN-UP Report

[The National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics, in writing its report,] Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics (SPIN-UP), set out to answer an intriguing question: Why, in the 1990s, did some physics departments increase the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in physics or maintain a number much higher than the national average for their type of institution? During that decade, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the physical sciences, engineering, and mathematics declined across the country. Yet in the midst of this decline some departments had thriving programs. What made these departments different? What lessons can be learned to help departments in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics that are—to put it generously—less than thriving? SPIN-UP, a project of the National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics, set out to answer these questions by sending site visit teams to 21 physics departments whose undergraduate programs were, by various measures, thriving. These visits took place mostly during the 2001-2002 academic year. In addition, with the aid of the AIP Statistical Research Center, SPIN-UP developed a survey sent to all 759 departments in the United States that grant bachelor’s degrees in physics. The survey yielded a 74 percent response rate distributed broadly across the spectrum of U.S. physics departments.

The site-visit reports provided specific insight into what makes an undergraduate physics program thrive. In very compact form, these departments all have

•    A widespread attitude among the faculty that the department has the primary responsibility for maintaining or improving the undergraduate program. That is, rather than complain about the lack of students, money, space, and administrative support, the department initiated reform efforts in areas that it identified as most in need of change.

•    A challenging but supportive and encouraging undergraduate program that includes a well-developed curriculum, advising and mentoring, an undergraduate research participation program, and many opportunities for informal student-faculty interactions, enhanced by a strong sense of community among the students and faculty.

•    Strong and sustained leadership within the department and a clear sense of the mission of its undergraduate program.

•    A strong disposition toward continuous evaluation of and experimentation with the undergraduate program.

SOURCE: R. Hilborn, R. Howes, and K. Krane, eds., Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics: Project Report, American Association of Physics Teachers, College Park, Md., 2003, available at http://www.aapt.org/Programs/projects/ntfup.cfm.

Programs for Innovation in Undergraduate Physics, Hilborn et al., 2003, referred to as the SPIN-UP report.) A similar investigation was conducted at 2-year colleges where physics is thriving. The resulting report, referred to as the SPIN-UP-TYC report (Monroe et al., 2005), provides profiles and recommendations for these institutions. Previous studies have shown that because of their smaller size, TYCs often are more flexible when it comes to implementing curricular change or adding new courses or program activities (Neuschatz et al., 1998).

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
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A thorough evaluation of the efforts that have been undertaken to update course offerings and programs was beyond the scope of this report, but a few categories are highlighted here, ranging from updating the content of introductory courses to offering different “tracks” for majors with different career goals.

Updated introductory courses for life-sciences majors. The National Research Council report Bio 2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists (2003) acknowledges the increasingly quantitative and interdisciplinary nature of the life sciences and calls for changes in the physics courses offered for future biologists. The AAMC/HHMI report Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians (2009) addresses the needs of future health sciences professionals, who increasingly rely on physics-based technology. In response, many departments have rethought the content in introductory courses aimed at students in the life sciences.

Updated introductory courses for physics and engineering students. Some physicists have questioned the traditional sequence of topics in introductory physics (beginning with kinematics, dynamics, and so on) and have developed courses organized around conservation principles and other “big” ideas. These courses typically introduce more modern topics at the expense of traditional topics such as geometrical optics, dc circuits, and so on. Textbooks that take these approaches are available from major publishers.

New courses for majors. The SPIN-UP final report noted that “the ‘core’ upper-level courses (advanced mechanics, advanced electricity and magnetism, and quantum mechanics) are even more homogeneous [than introductory courses] with a relatively small number of standard textbooks used across the country” (Hilborn et al., 2003, p. 2). However, some departments now offer new courses that introduce students to areas and techniques that are important for current research in physics, such as biological physics and computational physics, and incorporate nontraditional instructional methods into traditional courses. These include efforts at Oregon State University in its Paradigms in Physics program (McIntyre et al., 2008) and at the University of Colorado, Boulder (Pollock et al., 2010; Goldhaber et al., 2009). The development of new courses represents a challenge to the existing curriculum, with its traditional requirements in quantum mechanics, electrodynamics, classical mechanics, statistical mechanics, and mathematical methods. Few departments can require more credits for a degree; increased flexibility is typically needed.

Different “tracks.” The career choices open to physics majors are diverse, but traditionally all majors have been prepared in essentially the same way, usually as if all would enter a graduate program in physics. In the past few decades, some departments have begun to tailor degree offerings to prepare students with specializations in, for example, applied physics, physics education, astrophysics, or biological physics; or to structure programs to facilitate double majors with

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
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astronomy, engineering, applied mathematics, and so on. Other departments have included in their offerings student enrichment opportunities such as research, internships, and participation in international programs. Offering a B.A. as well as a B.S. degree is another way that departments can acknowledge the different aspirations of students who are interested in physics.

Undergraduate research. The opportunity to participate in forefront research is often cited as important for recruiting and retaining students. National efforts like the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates program acknowledge the potential importance of such participation. Many universities encourage undergraduate participation in research through Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programs, while some departments require research experience as a graduation requirement.

Recruiting and Retaining Students from Traditionally Underrepresented Groups

While interactive teaching methods improve student performance in general, other aspects of the goals and culture of physics education also warrant consideration (Hazari et al., 2010; Mann, 1994; May and Chubin, 2003). A surprising example of the significant relationship between student performance and the affective domain is “stereotype threat,” which was first described by social psychologist Claude Steele (1997). Steele and his collaborators performed experiments in which members of an underrepresented group (i.e., women in one study, African Americans in another) performed significantly worse on a math test when reminded that their particular group is not expected to do well in math. The effect is well validated and robust. Employing methods that reduce stereotype threat in the classroom have been shown to reduce achievement gaps for underrepresented students in mathematics (Beilock and Ramirez, 2011).

Another affective characteristic that relates to physics achievement is self-efficacy, first described by Albert Bandura (1986). According to Bandura’s social cognitive theory, people with high self-efficacy—that is, those who believe they can perform well—are more likely to view difficult tasks as something to be mastered rather than something to be avoided. Students from underrepresented groups have measurably lower self-efficacy in physics than majority students (Kost et al., 2009; Sawtelle, 2011).

Focusing on course modifications designed to improve these affective aspects of the physics classroom has been shown to contribute to improved course grades, persistence in engineering, and narrowing of achievement gaps for students from underrepresented groups. What follows are five exemplary programs of reformed instruction that have reduced the achievement gaps for underrepresented students, implemented at a broad range of research universities. In all cases, students play a

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
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less passive role in their learning than they would in a traditionally taught lecture course; they collaborate with each other while participating more actively in the development of ideas. These features are consistent with recommendations for creating a more hospitable workplace for underrepresented students (Hazari et al., 2010; Mann, 1994; May and Chubin, 2003).

• The Extended Physics program at Rutgers University was the birthplace of the Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE) interactive teaching method (Etkina and Van Heuvelen, 2007), which provides a student-driven learning environment. In addition, the program has been specially developed to create inclusive classroom norms and has devised TA training and mentorship (Brahmia and Etkina, 2001) that are consistent with reducing stereotype threat (Beilock and Ramirez, 2011). This program has shown a narrowing of gaps for underrepresented students in course grades and test scores and has shown longitudinally a strong correlation with the elimination of the gender, racial, and ethnicity gaps in engineering degree completion (Brahmia, 2008; Etkina et al., 1999).

• At North Carolina State University, implementation of the SCALE-UP program has shown at least a 15 percent reduction in the failure rate for female and underrepresented minority students when the program replaced traditional instruction with a studio-style course that emphasizes interaction (Beichner, 2008).

• At Harvard University, a highly interactive full implementation of Peer Instruction (Mazur, 1997) is used in conjunction with Tutorials in Introductory Physics (McDermott and Shaffer, 1998). Their combination has been shown to eliminate the gender gap in final exam grades and concept inventory scores. The researchers also found a significant relationship between pedagogy in an introductory physics course and persistence in science (Watkins, 2010; Lorenzo et al., 2006).

• The University of Colorado at Boulder blends Tutorials in Introductory Physics (McDermott et al., 1998, 2002) with their pioneering learning assistant program (Otero et al., 2006) to create an environment that is both pedagogically rigorous and student supportive. Researchers there have found that with specific additional attention paid to developing self-efficacy (Bandura, 1986) and a strong physics identity for their female students (Hazari et al., 2010), they have been able to make a significant reduction in the gender achievement gap on concept inventories (Kost et al., 2009).

• At Florida International University, a Hispanic-majority institution, its particular implementation of Modeling Instruction (Halloun and Hestenes, 1987), together with its implementation of the Learning Assistant model, includes careful crafting of the learning environment designed to improve self-efficacy (Bandura, 1986) and to reduce stereotype threat (Beilock and Ramirez, 2011). They have measured significantly higher scores on concept inventories and 25 percent lower

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
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drop-fail-withdraw rates when compared to traditionally taught courses at their institution (Brewe et al., 2010).

There are groups that are underrepresented in physics, not necessarily because they cannot do it, but because they often have no way of knowing that physics exists as a field of study and no indication that they can, in fact, participate. Reasons for this are quite complicated; however, research is increasingly demonstrating that interactive engagement methods of instruction improve the science experience for high school, middle school, and elementary students. At universities, physics faculty can think carefully about the education that is being provided for future physics teachers, including the physics curriculum for future elementary teachers.

Preparing Future Teachers

As noted in the section “The Students,” the physics community is not producing enough highly qualified physics teachers to meet the growing need at the high school level. The report of the National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics (2013; see Box 2.3) concluded that:

The potential negative consequences of maintaining the status quo are far-reaching, both for physics as a discipline and for the U.S. economy and society as a whole. As international competition for science and engineering talent continues to increase, the United States’ ability to recruit foreign-born talent to fuel the nation’s technological innovation will become increasingly threatened. Interested in STEM fields but uninspired by physics instruction and unprepared for the challenges physics offers, an ever-smaller fraction of U.S. STEM majors are pursuing physics, and many drop out of STEM completely. Moreover, at a time of unprecedented scientific and technological complexity, many U.S. citizens are unable to participate in STEM-related economic opportunities or informed democratic decision-making. (National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics, 2013, p. xi)

BOX 2.3
National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics

To prepare future citizens to tackle 21st-century multidisciplinary problems, teachers need both a deep understanding of a discipline and of the teaching of that discipline. The urgency in fulfilling this need in physics is as intense and pressing. In response to the shortage of physics teachers in the United States and concerns over their effectiveness, the American Physical Society, American Association of Physics Teachers, and American Institute of Physics formed the National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics. The task force was charged with documenting the state of physics teacher preparation and with making recommendations for the development of exemplary physics teacher education programs.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
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The recommendations given below are a selection excerpted from the full recommendations of the task force (National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics, 2013, pp. xii-xiii). These recommendations reflect a synthesis of relevant results from the literature on science teacher education and development and address the findings identified throughout the 2-year investigation of the task force. The task force recommendations are organized in terms of various stakeholders’ commitment to physics teacher preparation and to the quality education opportunities for future physics teachers.

Commitment

Physics and education departments, university administrators, professional societies, and funding agencies must make a strong commitment to discipline-specific teacher education and support.

1.  Institutions that consider the professional preparation of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teachers an integral part of their mission must take concrete steps to fulfill that mission.

2.  Physics departments should recognize that they have a responsibility for the professional preparation of pre-service teachers.

3.  Schools of education should recognize that programs to prepare physics teachers must include pedagogical components specific to the preparation of physics teachers; broader “science education” courses are not sufficient for this purpose.

4.  Federal and private funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education, should develop a coherent vision for discipline-specific teacher professional preparation and development.

5.  Professional societies should provide support, intellectual leadership, and a coherent vision for the joint work of disciplinary departments and schools of education in physics teacher preparation.

Quality

All components of physics teacher preparation systems should focus on improving student learning in the pre-college physics classroom. Recommendations 9(a) and 9(b) are intended to be implemented together to ensure that a higher standard for quality of preparation does not increase the length and cost of the program nor decrease the number of teachers who are qualified to teach more than one subject.

6.  Teaching in physics courses at all levels should be informed by findings published in the physics education research literature.

7.  Physics teacher preparation programs should provide teacher candidates with extensive physics-specific pedagogical training and physics-specific clinical experiences.

8.  Physics teacher education programs should work with school systems and state agencies to provide mentoring for early career teachers.

9.  (a) States should eliminate the general-science teacher certification and replace it with subject-specific endorsements. (b) Higher education institutions should create pathways that allow prospective teachers to receive more than one endorsement without increasing the length of the degree.

10. National accreditation organizations should revise their criteria to better connect accreditation with evidence of candidates’ subject-specific pedagogical knowledge and skill.

11. Physics education researchers should establish a coordinated research agenda to identify and address key questions related to physics teaching quality and effective physics teacher preparation.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
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The task of producing a well-prepared physics teacher is complex. Physicists who have been involved in teacher education for several decades point out that in addition to knowledge of physics content and knowledge of general pedagogy, a physics teacher must employ physics-specific pedagogical knowledge in the classroom (McDermott, 1990; Etkina, 2010). In particular, teachers need a nuanced understanding of the ways in which students think about specific physics topics.

The task force identified programs that focus on the development of physics-specific knowledge and skills for future teachers; however, these are not the norm. Within most universities, neither schools of education nor physics departments view physics-specific teacher preparation as their purview. Physics departments rarely offer prospective high school teachers more than the standard curriculum for majors, and faculty in colleges of education, which are typically responsible for preparing physics teachers, are seldom physics-trained. Collaborations between physics departments and colleges of education are rare. Many programs that prepare physics teachers do little to develop physics-specific pedagogical expertise. Thus, the typical experience for future physics teachers consists of the courses leading to the physics major, plus courses in general science teaching methods that are typically taught by science teacher educators with little or no experience in physics. It has been pointed out that the topics taught in typical high school curricula are those covered quickly at the introductory level and that further study of more advanced topics does not necessarily deepen understanding of topics covered earlier. Thus, the typical combination of physics courses and science methods courses usually provides neither the necessary depth of understanding of content nor foundations in physics-specific pedagogy (McDermott, 1990, 2006; McDermott et al., 2006).

The preparation of future elementary teachers is also a source of concern. While elementary school is where students first develop their ideas about science, and K-5 science curricula are full of physics topics, future elementary teachers typically take a small number of lecture courses for non-science majors and one science methods class in which little or no physics is taught.

The Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) (http://www.phystec.org/) was created by APS, AAPT, and AIP to help increase the number of well-prepared teachers of physics. Since 2001, it has provided direct funding and other resources to more than 25 physics departments that have launched physics teacher preparation programs. It has also enlisted more than 250 institutions “dedicated to improving and promoting physics and physical science teacher education.” The program acknowledges that ensuring that students who choose to pursue K-12 teaching as a career are well prepared will not have enough of an impact if the number of these teachers remains at current levels. Therefore, one of PhysTEC’s goals is to help departments ensure that students with even a slight interest in teaching have the opportunity to explore their interest and learn about their options.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
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Research-supported courses, curricula, and models that help physics departments become more deeply engaged in the preparation of future teachers are available. In particular, special physics courses that deepen teachers’ understanding of the content and develop physics-specific pedagogical knowledge have been shown to have positive effects for future high school and elementary school teachers (McDermott et al., 2006; Goldberg et al., 2010; Harlow, 2010). Specialized content-specific, pedagogy courses for future physics teachers have also been developed (e.g., Etkina, 2010; Henderson, 2008). Among the efforts in this area are the material for teacher physics preparation of elementary teachers found in University of Washington’s Physics by Inquiry program and the Physics and Everyday Thinking (PET) curriculum developed for elementary and high school teachers. A recent book produced in conjunction with the National Task Force, Teacher Education in Physics (Meltzer and Shaffer, 2011), is a compendium of research reports that, together, represent the state of knowledge in physics teacher education. A review of research contained within this volume concluded that:

Several program characteristics are key to improving teaching effectiveness, including (1) a prolonged and intensive focus on active-learning, guided inquiry instruction; (2) use of research-based, physics-specific pedagogy, coupled with thorough study and practice of that pedagogy by prospective teachers; and (3) extensive early teaching experiences guided by physics education specialists (p. 3).

Research indicates that the involvement of physics faculty in recruiting and preparing teachers can have a large impact on the quality of physics teaching in secondary schools, the interest of students in studying physics, and the preparation of undergraduates who study physics (Mulvery et al., 2007; Otero et al., 2006). Some physics departments have taken a two-pronged approach that improves education for all students while improving the education of future physics teachers. The Colorado Learning Assistant model is an example. Physics faculty transform their courses to be more aligned with educational research through the help of undergraduate learning assistants, some of whom choose to become physics teachers. Such programs have shown to increase the number of physics teachers produced as well as improving student outcomes in learning assistant-supported courses (Otero et al., 2010; Hodapp et al., 2009).

Assessment

The decision to undertake changes should be based on careful consideration of goals, an assessment of the degree to which existing structures are meeting those goals, and plans to gauge the impact of any changes made. Without all of these elements, systematic and cumulative progress is unlikely. Improvement and

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
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assessment are thus inextricably linked. The increase in online education poses special challenges for assessment. Many educators assume that being on campus offers benefits to students, but it is not clear how the on-campus experience can be compared objectively to that offered by online courses.

In acknowledgment of this relationship between improvement and assessment, the committee was charged with examining the current status of assessment. It observed that while there is no shortage of suggestions for modifications to instruction, from adopting new textbooks to restructuring entire degree programs, in many cases there are no clear guidelines for evaluating the outcomes. The measures currently available include concept evaluations, attitude assessments, problem-solving assessments, course and examination grades, and retention rates. Unfortunately, assessments can cover a very small portion of what is considered to be education. Consequently, the limited number and limited breadth of these assessment instruments fundamentally limits our ability to improve or even delineate progress. There are no widely agreed-on measures for assessing the degree to which courses and programs prepare students for future study, for making creative contributions to research, or for the workforce in general.

One national examination does exist in physics, the ETS Major Field Test. However, like any standardized exam, this one has limitations and is primarily designed to evaluate preparation for graduate school in the canonical areas of physics. That said, it can be used to provide longitudinal information on a department’s content preparation, but only in a fairly narrow band of skills. More broadly, the skills and knowledge that collectively constitute “thinking like a physicist” are subtle and difficult to define operationally in a way that would enable their measurement. Without such measures, it is difficult to distinguish between innovations that have a substantive impact on learning and those that do not. Accordingly, part of the effort in the area of assessments should be to evaluate the relative value of the different forms of assessment and focus on what can be known or at least measured. As resources become scarce, the ability to demonstrate the effectiveness of investment in education becomes ever more important.

Faculty Development

Faculty are the key to improvements in education, but many are hesitant about change, even when it’s felt that the current system is not very effective (Henderson and Dancy, 2009). The reward structure that prevails in many colleges and universities does not adequately recognize the professional effort and creativity that is part of improving student learning. With little or no professional incentive for change, in today’s climate of cutbacks, increasing class sizes, and dwindling grant funding, the lecture-course paradigm with little student activity continues to be the default practice. This issue is addressed in more detail in Chapters 3 and 4. Here,

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
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the committee points out that there are professional development opportunities that can help physics faculty assess their teaching and implement new techniques, even within the prevailing system.

Since 1996, the Physics and Astronomy New Faculty Workshops (NFW) program, sponsored by AAPT, APS, and AAS, and supported by NSF, has offered 17 workshops, each lasting 3 or more days. As of the time of this report, more than 650 newly hired faculty at master’s and Ph.D. degree-granting institutions and 460 new faculty at bachelor degree-granting institutions have attended. In 2008, these attendees represented 52.6 percent of the newly hired faculty in physics. A primary goal of these workshops is to provide opportunities to learn about new and successful pedagogical approaches in physics and how to assess the impact of the implemented strategies.

There is strong evidence to suggest that the NFW program has been very successful at increasing participant knowledge about research-based instructional strategies and motivating participants to try these strategies (Henderson, 2012). For example, in a national survey of randomly selected U.S. physics faculty, those who had attended NFW had the largest correlation of 20 personal and situational variables indicating a respondent’s knowledge about and use of at least one research-based instructional strategy (Henderson et al., 2012). See also a 2008 report on the effectiveness of the NFWs published in the American Journal of Physics (Henderson, 2008).

Since 1991, the TYC community has provided several workshop programs at the national level that provide opportunities to TYC faculty to learn about PER-based instruction and to develop and implement PER-based instructional materials, techniques, and assessments. Paralleling somewhat the NFWs for universities and 4-year colleges, the New Faculty Teaching Experience provides an 18-month training period for new faculty at TYCs to learn about alternative teaching strategies, laboratory activities, and assessments of course goals and student outcomes.

CONCLUSIONS

Undergraduate physics education is under a variety of stresses that cannot be ignored. These stresses affect curricular goals, methods of instruction, the types of students who are attracted to physics, and variables that are beyond the classroom. Moreover, the evolution of the discipline itself, advances in research on learning, and advances in technology all suggest that traditional courses and programs should be critically examined. Many local efforts to do just that have produced research-validated instructional strategies that provide opportunities for discussion, argumentation, and scientific exploration on the part of the student. Through implementation of these evidenced-based teaching practices, the learning process can be improved for all students taking physics. Collectively, these practices have

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
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raised standards for what instructors can expect students to gain from instruction. None of the innovations mentioned here is perfect or applicable to every setting. Local conditions, including course goals, resources, classroom design, and the availability of faculty, are important in deciding which approaches may be appropriate. In Chapter 3, some of the work being done to expand the range of available methods and materials is described. Chapter 4 contains recommendations for supporting both proven and promising innovations. It is also important to note that, despite the clear evidence of their shortcomings, many courses (perhaps most) continue to be taught in ways that fall short of what is currently possible, given the range of empirically validated course designs, materials, and tools available. This report points to many cases in which improved conceptual understanding, problem-solving performance, and retention have been achieved. Some of the barriers that impede more widespread improvements in instruction are addressed in Chapter 3.

While significant progress has been made in improving conceptual understanding in certain topics in introductory physics, less progress has been made toward other goals of instruction. For instance, even in courses that demonstrate improvements in conceptual understanding, many students tend to continue to see physics as unconnected to their everyday lives and as being concerned mostly with verifying known principles and substituting numbers into formulas. It is perhaps not a surprise that most students who take an introductory course do not pursue physics any further.

Low numbers of physics majors are jeopardizing some programs—but are enrollment trends a cause for concern at the national level? The committee believes they are, for several reasons. One is the need to heed repeated calls for increasing the number of STEM majors nationwide. Documents such as PCAST note that while the numbers of STEM majors are increasing, the demand for them is increasing more rapidly. While many students with talent and interest in STEM fields may prefer majors other than physics, unless one considers a bachelor’s degree in physics to be of little value to the student who earns it (or to society more broadly), the physics community should be trying to increase the numbers of students who study physics. There is no reason to expect that lowering standards will do so. Many students who do well in introductory physics choose other majors for reasons that may reflect their interests or their perceptions of the career opportunities offered by other disciplines. This would not be of concern except that introductory courses presumably play a major role in these students’ decisions, and if introductory courses do not accurately reflect the discipline, then students may not be making informed choices. If introductory physics courses were a valid reflection of the discipline, one could argue that physics is of innate interest to very few. The committee does not believe this is the case, but the rapid pace, rote problem solving, and highly artificial laboratory experiments that typify introductory physics courses

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
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have little do to with upper-division courses or the problems that physicists tackle today, which are as fundamental as the origins of the universe or as vital as novel energy resources or the mechanics of cell division.

Even if sheer numbers of physics majors were not a concern, the physics community should consider the implications of low participation of underrepresented groups on the quality of the physics student body. The discipline would surely be strengthened by recruiting talented students from throughout the population and not only from the groups that are traditionally well represented. The community should also question the implications of participation and achievement gaps in introductory courses (Sadler and Tai, 2001; Kost et al., 2009; Aud et al., 2010), which may be deterring capable students from succeeding in other STEM fields. Research results do not support common assumptions about ability and motivation being the major causes of these gaps. Aggressively exploring strategies for making introductory physics courses part of a pathway to success in STEM fields is essential.

The content of courses and the structure of degree programs play an important role in recruitment and retention. Updating the curriculum while maintaining a strong focus on fundamental concepts, scientific practices, and reasoning skills can, in principle, better prepare students for the demands of further study, research, and the increasing variety of careers open to them.

The issue of recruitment is also linked to the high school physics experience. At all levels, physics instructors tend to teach in a manner consistent with how they were taught. For too many high school teachers, their last physics course was at the introductory level. The studies cited here indicate that it is essential that the undergraduate experience of future teachers reflect what is known from research on learning and teaching in general and on effective teacher education in particular. Changing high school physics requires transforming introductory undergraduate physics courses and creating mechanisms to ensure that future teachers are well prepared in both physics and physics-specific pedagogy.

The landscape of physics education is growing in complexity. An increasing number of nontraditional students (older, part-time) are enrolling, and increasing numbers of students from all backgrounds are taking physics courses in nontraditional venues, such as online or on high school campuses. A majority of students from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in science-based careers take their first (and too often their last) physics course at a 2-year college. It is clear that providing quality education in physics requires concerted and coordinated effort by faculty in 2- and 4-year colleges, research institutions, and high schools. Regardless of where and how instruction is offered, systematic and objective assessment of educational outcomes is needed to ensure continuous progress.

Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×

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Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
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Page 39
Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
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Page 40
Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×
Page 41
Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×
Page 42
Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×
Page 43
Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×
Page 44
Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×
Page 45
Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×
Page 46
Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×
Page 47
Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×
Page 48
Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×
Page 49
Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×
Page 50
Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×
Page 51
Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×
Page 52
Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×
Page 53
Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×
Page 54
Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×
Page 55
Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
×
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Suggested Citation:"2 The Current Status of Undergraduate Physics Education." National Research Council. 2013. Adapting to a Changing World: Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18312.
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Adapting to a Changing World 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 the knowledge we have about learning and effective teaching. Our committee has endeavored to do so, with great interest and more than a little passion.

The Committee on Undergraduate Physics Education Research and Implementation was established in 2010 by the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Research Council. This report summarizes the committee's response to its statement of task, which requires the committee to produce a report that identifies the goals and challenges facing undergraduate physics education and identifies how best practices for undergraduate physics education can be implemented on a widespread and sustained basis, assess the status of physics education research (PER) and discuss how PER can assist in accomplishing the goal of improving undergraduate physics education best practices and education policy.

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