EO Report - Winter 2003

Bernard Khoury
Announcer, Vol. 33, Iss. 4

More Students Studying Physics

Physics, often seen as the most exclusionary of disciplines, is now experiencing growth in enrollments at every school level: high school, college, and graduate.

The number of high school students studying physics in the United States is at its highest level in history. In addition to the number of students, the percentage of high school students who study physics is at its highest level in more than half a century. These data show that at the high school level we are making slow but steady progress toward a long term goal of â??physics for all.â?? At the same time, since two-thirds of high school graduates never take a physics course, attaining this ultimate goal of universal access to physics is still a distance in the future.

At the undergraduate level, the number of physics majors has finally begun to show increases during the past two years, after a long decade of slow and steady declines in such numbers. More than 4000 physics bachelorâ??s degrees were earned in 2001, an increase of more than 10% above the 1999 level.

At the graduate level, the number of U.S. citizens entering physics programs has been increasing, although the number of non-U.S. students has been dampened recently by the difficulty encountered by such students in obtaining visas to study in our country. The increase in graduate enrollments is expected in several years to induce a turnaround in the declining numbers of Ph.D.s awarded. Following seven years of decline, with a cumulative decrease of about 22%, the number of Ph.D.s is expected to increase in two or three years.

These summary conclusions are drawn from a pair of studies recently conducted and published by our colleagues in the American Institute of Physics. AIP provides numerous services to the physics community and usually carries out this responsibility in cooperation with its member societies including AAPT. Continuing efforts by the AIP Statistical Research Center have enabled the physics community to know more about our enrollments, degrees, and employment trends than virtually any other discipline.

The AIP study of physics in high schools has other interesting findings.

Among the most heartening is the fact that close to half of the enrollments in high school physics now consists of females, although girls are still substantially underrepresented in the advanced level high school physics class, in which overall enrollments have also increased rapidly.

More students are studying physics at the conceptual level as well as at the advanced level. The authors of the AIP study cite this as â??differentiation of the curriculumâ?? in which the conceptual and advanced courses are seeing large increases while the more traditional algebra and trig based course is holding relatively steady in overall enrollments. It is clear that teachers and schools are increasingly recognizing that physics can be learned by many more students than the nominal group of â??the best studentsâ?? who had historically been filtered and winnowed by a succession of science and math courses.

Instead of physics as a monolithic track accessible to the academically strongest students, we are seeing our discipline adapt to our students with their wonderful diversity of interests, abilities, and career aspirations. The readiness by the physics community to adapt our teaching and our expectations augurs well for our future as a discipline increasingly connected to an evolving society. While more and more high school students are studying physics, there has been no reduction in the number who take advanced physics classes. Broadening the base has not diminished our effectiveness at attracting the best.

Consider the case of two high school graduates who have taken physics courses: Carlos and Natasha. Twenty years ago we would have been pretty confident that Carlos and Natasha were both in the top echelon of their high school graduation classes, because only such students would have studied physics. If we can continue to increase the numbers and percentages of students who study physics for another decade or two, we might not be able to use their physics enrollment alone to rank Carlos and Natasha among their high school classmates. On the other hand, we will be quite confident that Carlos and Natasha will be better citizens for having studied physics. In addition, our educational system and our discipline will be stronger because so many more students will have studied physics, the most basic of the sciences.