A Call For Changes in Undergraduate

Physics Education

Paul Black, King's College London, UK

Donald Holcomb, Cornell University, USA

Hans Jodi, University of Kaiserslautern, Germany

Leonard Jossem, Ohio State University, USA

Ramon Lopez, University of Maryland, USA

Fatima Matar, University of Bahrain, Bahrain

John Rigden, American Institute of Physics, USA

Jan Smit, Potchefstroom University, South Africa

James Stith, Ohio State University, USA

Yun Ying, Southeast University, PR China

Approximately 280 physicists from 28 countries met during the International Conference on Undergraduate Physics Education (ICUPE) from 31 July to 3 August 1996 in College Park, Maryland. The conference was organized around three themes:

Each of the three themes were considered in terms of three implicit questions: From the opening moments of the conference it was recognized that while the past 50 years represented a unique period in the history of physics, these years had left physicists unprepared for the realities of the present environment. Coming out of the past half century, physicists are looking at new social and political priorities throughout the world. The competition for budgetary resources is keen in every nation and, compared with the past five decades, support for physics research is harder to come by. If our professional perceptions and expectations are to have contemporary usefulness, they must be recalibrated. Fortunately, as it emerged from the conference, there is a basis for guiding the recalibration and the message from the conference. taken as a whole, was a clear call: get on with making the changes in the undergraduate physics program needed to match the new environment.

The explicit goal of the undergraduate major curriculum in physics is to prepare students for graduate study in physics. More specifically, to prepare students to pursue the Ph.D. in physics. This goal determines what physicists teach (the courses required and their content) and how physicists teach (pedagogical methods employed to present the content). This goal needs close scrutiny and review by the physics faculties of universities.

We need to change how we conceptualize the undergraduate major and undergraduate physics education more generally. This need is underscored when one examines the choices made by baccalaureate physicists. While the numbers vary from nation to nation, it is generally true that only a small fraction of the students who take the calculus-level introductory physics course go on to major in physics and only a small fraction of the students who major in physics go on to earn a Ph.D. in physics. The numbers for the United States are instructive:
Fraction of students in the calculus-level

 introductory physics class that major in physics 

1 of 33
Fraction of students who major in physics that go

 on to graduate school in physics and obtain a Ph.D. 

1 of 7
The numbers above show that less than 1 out of 200 students taking the calculus-level introductory physics course in the United States goes on to complete a Ph.D. in physics.

If physics baccalaureates do not go to graduate school in physics, where do they go? Again, numbers from the United States provide one answer. Over the past 40 years, approximately 200,000 baccalaureates in physics have been granted by institutions in the United States. About 20% of these 200,000 baccalaureates use their physics major as the foundation for farther study in another field: they either go to graduate school (computer science and engineering are common) or to a professional school (medicine, law, and business are common). About 40% of graduates take their physics degree and enter the workplace. About 30% continue their physics education in graduate school and somewhat less than half of these earn the Ph.D. in physics. (The remaining 10% do a variety of things.)

Over 60% of those physics baccalaureates who begin their working careers upon graduation go into the industrial sector. Within industry, physics baccalaureates can be found in many settings. Their job titles typically do not identify them as physicists, but rather as engineers, computer specialists, etc. Other graduates from physics departments take government positions or enter the teaching profession.

Fully two-thirds of the students who complete an undergraduate degree in physics pursue careers other than physics. Only 1 out of 7 students goes on to earn a Ph.D. in physics. These numbers reflect the past and present in the United States.

There is remarkable similarity between the numbers above, based on U.S. data, and data collected in the United Kingdom. In a study of the careers pursued by physics majors graduating with the class of 1980, it was found that 34% of the 1980 baccalaureates continued their education while 66% entered the workplace. Approximately 75% of those "working" graduates began their careers in industry and, as is the case in the United States, they filled positions with titles other than physicist.

Yet, in spite of these numbers from both the U.S. and the U.K., the undergraduate physics major and, to a lesser extent, the introductory course in physics are designed and the courses are taught as though all students are going to earn a Ph.D. and become research physicists. To put it another way, the needs of the majority of students, those who enter the workplace with their physics baccalaureate, are not explicitly considered in either course or curricular design.


With the decline in the support for basic research, the health of physics departments may in the future depend more on the undergraduate program than has been the case in the past; thus, it behooves physics faculty to effectively serve the majority of students who pursue careers other than one in basic research. Physics faculty can take one step quite simply: begin to regard physics baccalaureates as fellow professionals. The baccalaureate in engineering, for example, is considered a terminal degree and those holding an engineering baccalaureate are regarded as professional engineers. Engineering baccalaureates belong to professional engineering societies and associations both as members as well as in leadership roles. The same can be and should be true in physics.

While curricular changes in the undergraduate major may be called for, care and caution are advised. The current physics major does hone skills that physics alumni cite as an asset. Perhaps foremost among these skills is problem solving ability. At the same time, physics alumni in the United States and European industries specifically identify communication and interpersonal skills as very important and the undergraduate physics major does little to develop and strengthen these important skills. The 1995 European study further showed that industrialists identify the following skills, among others, as essential for success: learning to learn, the ability to work in a group, decision-making ability, personal discipline (including learning to learn by oneself), a sense of gaining the competitive edge, and a sense of service to the community

Pedagogical Methods

There is little research to guide course content or curricular design. By contrast, there is an abundance of evidence that calls for changes in pedagogical methods. Each day of the three-day conference research results were described and in addition, there were sample classes that showcased teaching strategies that were in line with the latest research and which were shown to be effective.

Subject-Oriented Learning

Method-Oriented Learning Social Communication Component

As pedagogical research has shown convincingly, the standard end-of-chapter problem as well as the typical exam problems do not provide an accurate indication of actual understanding. Sample classes demonstrated how different types of questions could be used to bring understanding to basic physical ideas. One type of such question is qualitative in nature and has been called a concept question. Some years ago, Ibrahim Abou Halloun and David Hestenes designed a test of mechanics understanding, called the Force Concept Inventory, consisting of qualitative questions. Some of the questions were simple; none of the questions are tricky. The test has been administered widely with similar results: physics students who are successful end-of-chapter problem solvers do not do well. This has led to the organization of classrooms where qualitative questions play an important role. Another type of question demonstrated during one of the ICUPE sample classes was the question which requires the student to make assumptions to arrive at an answer. Order-of-magnitude (or Fermi-type) questions are examples of such open-ended questions. In a similar vein, Victor Weisskopf's "Search for Simplicity" which appeared in the American Journal of Physics in 1985 was cited as a source for discussion questions.

Another pedagogical strategy which was demonstrated and discussed at the conference involved students working in teams. In such cooperative efforts, students discuss physical concepts together and, in the process, teach each other. Common to all these pedagogical strategies is their interactive nature.

Active Learning

One theme that appeared and reappeared throughout the conference was "active learning". Or, to put it another way, pedagogical methods are called for which actively involve every student in the learning process. It was generally accepted that the classroom lecture does not accomplish this objective. Various laboratory-based and computer-based models were demonstrated in which students were working together in very active learning modes.

The active teaching/leaning mode was deemed important for all students: physics majors, engineering students, non-science students, and future teachers. For the latter, future teachers, the active teaching/learning mode was judged particularly important. There is widespread international agreement that children in the elementary school grades learn best by doing. If teachers are to employ active teaching/learning methods in their classrooms, they must have the experience of having been taught and having learned in the same mode. Physics faculty must be models for future teachers.

Understanding the Nature of Science

The active teaching concept took another form which was recognized by virtually all conferees as very important, perhaps even essential. All students, and especially future teachers, need to understand the nature of science. How is science actually done? The means to answer this question and to provide students with an understanding of the nature of science is to involve students in investigations on topics for which the outcomes are not known. Students need to conduct a real investigation; asking appropriate questions, making predictions, engaging in experimentation, collecting data, analyzing data, identifying outcomes, and communicating results to peers.

Use of Technology

Technology can be a vehicle for developing a variety of active teaching/learning methods. Interactive computer activities, for example, is one way to engage students and to bring them actively into the course content. In several countries - for example, Germany, England, the United States - a variety of electronic methods are used.

Course Content

An active teaching/learning style coupled with an independent investigation carries the obvious consequence: a leaner syllabus. The fact that physicists attempt too much in their courses, especially introductory-level courses, was widely recognized. In the United Kingdom, for example, there is the challenge to include at most two-thirds the content currently in the three-year honors physics degree program. In spite of an implied leaner syllabus, the support for an active teaching/learning methodology was prompted by research data that show enhancements, sometimes significant, in student understanding. These results were cited from studies for both small and relatively large class sizes. Thus, less may indeed be more.


In the United States, the number of baccalaureates granted was at a 37-year low. Representatives from other countries, Germany for example, also cited dropping enrollments in physics. This decline coincides with a changing social environment within which physics must adapt. The dominant signal to emanate from ICUPE was that changes are required in undergraduate physics education. The realities of the past are likely to be enhanced in the near term; namely, the majority of physics majors will enter the job market with only their baccalaureate degree. Therefore, it behooves physicists to consider carefully the needs of contemporary employers and to prepare students to be marketable in the competitive employment arena.

A change in attitude about what a physicist is and what a physicist does is needed. In short, we need to professionalize the baccalaureate degree.

Finally, pedagogical changes are called for. Research into the learning process points toward an active teaching/learning environment as more effective. Such active methods will anticipate the work environment that most physics majors will enter upon graduation and the will also better prepare those students who plan a career in teaching. Technology can help, but no one suggested or implied that the changes called for will be easy to make or that they will be easy to implement. Technology does open the door for relatively international cooperation and learning from the experience of others. It was agreed that the consequences of "business as usual" could be dire for the heath of physics departments on campuses around the world.

(To be published in the Proceedings of the International Conference on Undergraduate Physics Education. Used with permission.)