falling numbers in physics – what do teachers think?

 A topic that gets quite a frequent airing in our tearoom is the decline in the number of students taking physics. This issue isn’t peculiar to my institution – a quick look at the literature indicates that it’s a global problem**. The question is, what can be done about this? It’s a question that Pey-Tee Oon & R.Subramaniam (2010) set out to answer.

They identified (from the science education literature) several reasons why students don’t like physics: it’s perceived as boring, with signficant mathematical demands; the passive teaching methods used in mnay classrooms are off-putting; and the curriculum is crowded. They also noted that teachers‘ perceptions  are important as they can affect students’ subject choices, and so they sought the help of physics teachers in Singaporean secondary schools, noting that

[physics] teachers are in a position to this debate [around declining interest in studying physics at university] as the intent to study or not to study physics is made by students at the school level – the influence of physics teachers on students taking physics cannot thus be underestimated.

 In addition to collecting data on teaching experience and educational background, Oon & Subramaniam asked the teachers (all 166 of them) for suggestions on how this might be turned around:

Suggest one way in which more students can be encouraged to study physics at the university.

Several key points came up again and again in the teachers’ responses to that open-ended question: reviewing the current school physics curriculum, "making the teaching of physics fun", improving graduates’ career prospects, publicising career opportunities, and running enrichment programs.

Now, the NZ physics curriculum was recently redeveloped, as part of the rewriting of the National Curriculum document; more recently, the Achievement Standards were rewritten to align them more closely with that document. So, if that redeveloped curriculum doesn’t "go beyond the classical topics and include more modern topics which are related to current applications" (& Marcus can probably give more informed comment on that than I can), then we may have missed the boat on that one. Of course, the teachers’ suggestion that more modern topics be included means that – when we do get the chance to spring-clean – that it may be necessary to drop some ‘traditional’ content. Otherwise we’d simply be cramming the curriculum ever fuller – and the perception of an overloaded curriculum can make the subject seem more difficult (a problem that Biology shares), and which other research has found to be a definite turn-off for students. There’s also the ‘fun’ aspect to consider – how do we address that?

It’s hard to see how the universities can improve physics graduates’ career prospects (something that probably needs a push at government level, if the government of the day is serious about the importance of studying the sciences) but we can certainly help to promote those options that are available. Among other suggestions, the teachers thought that the following could help: careers talks emphasising the value of physics, roadshows fronted by high-profile research scientists, better marketing by university physics departments, and enhanced career guidance (at both secondary and tertiary level). On the career front, Oon & Subramaniam point out that "Wall Street has a high concentration of physicists", which suggests that career opportunities are more diverse than many students might think.

As for physics enrichment programs – again, a significant majority of the teachers surveyed felt that the following steps would be valuable:

  • creating opportunities for physics researchers and lecturers to go into schools to promote the subject;
  • running workshops in schools to raise awareness of the importance of this subject;
  • offering ‘popular’ physics seminars; 
  • running on-campus physics enrichment camps;
  • and developing outreach programs supporting and promoting physics.

 The teachers felt that university-level teaching also needs a review (ie, the problem of declining enrolments won’t be solved solely by changes in & support for physics teaching in schools):

One of the most striking findings from this study is the urge by teachers for a rebranding of the university physcis curriculum. Creating innovative interdisciplinary programs at the undergraduate level – for example, marrying physics with other disciplines (eg, finance, management etc) to meet the growing needs of current market demand, deserves consideration… For example, students can gain scientific training in physics and technical skills in finance if physics is integrated with finance… It is a win-win solution with minimum sacrifice… [that] will not only increase the employability of physics graduates but will also further the attractiveness of undergraduate physics programs.

The researchers note that such interdisciplinary programs are already being offered at some overseas instititutions, and certainly we are beginning to see an increasing emphasis here in New Zealand on the value of interdisciplinarity.

Oon & Subramaniam have definitely provided some food for thought. And given the nature of the problem, perhaps it’s time for physicists around New Zealand to work together to address it?

P-T Oon & R.Subramaniam (2010) Views of physics teachers on how to address the declining enrolment in physics at the university level. Research in Science and Technological Education 28(3): 277-289. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02635143.2010.501749

** Having said that, Michael Edmonds has just drawn my attention to this talk (shown on Youtube) by UK physicist, Professor Brian Cox.

10 thoughts on “falling numbers in physics – what do teachers think?”

  • Just while I remember Anthene Donald, a professor of biophysics (at Cambridge), has written articles that touch on this, mostly at a university level, but there might be stuff there that’s relevant.
    Why is it Different for Girls?
    Falling Down the Cracks: The Challenge for Interdisciplinary Science
    There’ll be more in her older posts, but you’ll have to dig them out – I’m off to bed! 🙂

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    A complaint of USA students about physics is that there was too much focus on problem solving. I am fairly sure physics was the first university discipline to start curving grades.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    By curving, probably the same as scaling, I mean taking the raw grade data and fitting it to a curve such that given percentages of the class make particular grades. Maybe the top 10% get an A, the next 20% get a B, 30% get a C, and so on. In other words the numerical grade has no meaning other than rank in class. I think numerical grades have been so bad in physics in comparison to other disciplines, that physics was first to start curving, but I don’t know this is true.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    When I was working at another uni, back in the mid 90s, we were certainly expected to fit grades to the ‘top 10% get an A’ curve, but I don’t know if they still follow that model. We certainly don’t (in the sciences anyway – that’s the only area I’m familiar with) fit grades to a curve like that.
    Maybe we should be looking at standards-based assessment?

  • Yes, I’ll get around to writing something about this soon. One of the things I’ve found is that physics students have very little idea of what they can do with a physics degree. Those few students we get tend to be there because they like the subject, not because they’re attracted by the plethora (if you’re not in NZ) of different career options available, many of which one wouldn’t immediately think require physics.
    That said, from a NZ point of view, physics opportunities here are quite limited – my view is that this is because NZ industry is short-sighted and by and large uninterested in doing research. (They’re probably taking their lead from the government.) There are a few notable exceptions – e.g. Fisher and Paykel Healthcare. My experience in the UK is that every industry employs physicists – but in NZ I don’t see it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *