Physics at the Crossroads

Innovation and Revitalization in Undergraduate Physics-Plans for Action Executive Summary

On September 20-22, 1996, the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) sponsored a conference to articulate issues and raise questions about undergraduate physics education innovation and revitalization. In the light of statistics showing the number of physics bachelors degree recipients at a 37-year low and informed by the recent National Science Foundation comprehensive review of undergraduate science education, the participants considered whether the physics community needs and is ready for a broad-based effort analogous to the calculus reform movement in mathematics and similar nationwide efforts now underway in chemistry and engineering. The participants concluded that the situation in physics is somewhat different from that of the other undergraduate science and mathematics fields. Rather than calling for just large-scale curriculum development projects, the participants recommend a plan of action to create an infrastructure to provide rapid and wide-spread dissemination of innovations in undergraduate physics education, to develop the scholarly basis for designing and assessing changes in physics education, and to provide mechanisms to assist departments in implementing these innovations. In short, we propose a program that will focus on continuous improvement in undergraduate physics education, rather than on local, short-term projects.

The plans for action include the development of

  • mechanisms for broad dissemination of existing curricular and pedagogical innovations.
  • a set of "best practices" in curriculum development and teaching strategies grounded in rigorous physics education research.
  • guidelines (and case histories) for departmental implementation of innovations.
  • plans for working with funding agencies to provide programs to assist physics departments undertaking substantial undergraduate education innovations including the establishment of a network for physics departments.
  • strategic plans for the support of physics education research to provide the scholarly basis for designing and assessing improvements in undergraduate physics education.
  • plans for embedding the proposed actions in a program of continuing review, innovation, evaluation, redesign, and improvement of physics teaching.
  • formal structures for long-term planning and for assessment of new programs in undergraduate physics.

Immediate action plans:

  • Establish an 8-10 member Steering Committee to work with the AAPT, the American Physical Society (APS) and funding agencies to initiate the plans outlined above.
  • Circulate this report broadly in the physics community and obtain feedback and comments on the proposed action plans.
  • Work with AAPT and APS on the 1997 Physics Department Chairs Conference, which will focus on undergraduate physics education.
  • Work with the AAPT Electronic Services Advisory Group to establish a web site as an initial step in the dissemination program, eventually to be linked with the NSF National (Electronic) Science Library.
  • Work with NSF and other funding agencies to develop plans for a later, larger meeting (perhaps 100 participants) to develop the plans for action and to design programs to implement them.


The Report

I. Introduction
Melba Phillips: "The problem with physics education problems is that they don't stay solved." John Russell: "All reform is ultimately local."

Physics finds itself at a critical juncture. Physics research is flourishing, vibrant, and alive, but the availability of governmental, private-sector, and institutional funding for research is changing dramatically. The academic and basic research job market in physics is in bad shape. Critics of higher education and even some of our scientific colleagues question the value of introductory physics courses just when many innovations in undergraduate teaching are bearing fruit and physics education research is beginning to provide a scholarly basis for teaching and learning. At the same time, we find disturbing statistical trends in undergraduate physics. The number of bachelors degrees awarded in physics in the United States has declined 15% in the last six years, reaching a 37-year low [Ref. 1]. Of the 300,000 students taking introductory physics, fewer than 5% ever take another physics course. The physics community needs to make an important decision: take the road that rises to meet these extraordinary challenges or continue down the path of business-as-usual, which may well lead to a dramatic reduction in resources allocated for both education and research in physics. Undergraduate physics will play a critical role in tackling the challenges physics faces.

During the weekend of September 20-22, 1996, twenty-two physicists and three guests from other disciplines met at the American Center for Physics for a conference "Planning the Revitalization of Undergraduate Physics," sponsored by the American Association of Physics Teachers. This document summarizes the conclusions of the conference and the suggested plans for action.

After examining the goals of undergraduate physics education in the light of several recent commentaries on undergraduate science education [Ref. 2, 3], we ask the difficult question: Is the physics community meeting its own widely-shared goals for undergraduate education? We believe not. We examine why we are convinced that now is the ideal (and necessary) time for wide-spread efforts to revitalize undergraduate physics education. We conclude with plans for action.

II. The Goals of Undergraduate Physics Education-The Context
Over the last several years, both government and non-governmental organizations have produced a flurry of studies and exhortations for more effective science teaching and learning [Ref. 2 and 3, and the references cited therein]. For example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in motivating its "Project 2061" [Ref. 4], put forth a set of criteria for effective use of scientific knowledge called "Habits of the Mind." These criteria seem to the authors of this document to be an excellent summary of the capabilities that physicists and other scientists have traditionally hoped students, both majors and non-majors, will acquire in undergraduate physics programs:

  • To put scientific training effectively to work, a student must have the knowledge, the quantitative, communication, manual and critical-thinking skills, and the attitudes and inclinations necessary for effective problem-solving.
  • To develop intuitive feelings for what is reasonable and to recognize the use of vague and poorly substantiated arguments, a student must be able to link quantitative competence and estimation skills with learning about the real world.
  • To use scientific knowledge productively, a student must have the ability to communicate clearly, convincingly, and accurately.

As physicists, we have historically prided ourselves on having a "can do" attitude. Ideally, our students acquire both this attitude and the skills necessary to support it. We believe they can develop an intellectual flexibility that permits them to tackle problems that have not necessarily appeared explicitly in their previous education. This claim resonates with the challenges presented in the Project 2061 report.

In the fall of 1996, the National Science Foundation released the results of a comprehensive review of undergraduate science, mathematics, engineering and technology (SME&T) education [Ref. 2]. (The last such study was done ten years ago.) The primary imperative of the "Shaping the Future" report is that

"...all students [should] have access to supportive, excellent undergraduate education in SME&T, and all students [should] learn these subjects by direct experience with the methods and processes of inquiry."

"All" in this case includes not only our physics majors, but also students in our service courses, including engineers, pre-medical students, and pre-service teachers. "All" also means that we need equal access to SME&T education for women, minorities, and others underrepresented in the scientific community. The "Shaping the Future" report will guide both the NSF and administrators in colleges and universities across the country in examining undergraduate science education programs in the years to come. This examination presents an important challenge to the physics community: Are our programs accessible to and effective for all students and do they provide students with direct experience with methods and processes of inquiry?

III. The Situation in Physics
We believe that there is a considerable gap between what we as physicists declare as our goals for undergraduate physics education and what our students take away from their undergraduate courses. That gap leads us to question if the physics community is at present prepared to meet the challenges set forth in the many reports on undergraduate science education without substantial changes in how we approach undergraduate physics. The recommendations in these reports are important both for students who take only introductory physics and for those who go on to major in physics.

The 300,000 students taking introductory physics each year in two- and four-year colleges and universities are the people who will become the leaders of the next generation in science and technology (engineers, physicians, chemists, biologists, technically-oriented business people, lawyers, and legislators) and, perhaps most important of all, those who will be the K-12 teachers educating the succeeding generations of students. For 95% of the students taking introductory physics, the so-called "introductory course" is their terminal course in physics. We have but one chance to reach them.

A. Introductory Courses
Why are we skeptical about what goes on in introductory physics teaching and learning?

  • Studies of a wide-range of introductory physics courses show that most students depend on rote learning and rote problem solving, without having developed the conceptual understanding and flexible problem solving skills that all scientists value [Ref. 5-7].
  • Consequently, and most importantly, the students leave physics with no confidence that they have acquired working tools which CAN be flexibly put to use. They sense that they lack the flexible knowledge and skills required to meet the goals stated above in Part II.
  • Many of our customers (engineering and other science faculties) are losing confidence that we are educating their students effectively. Introductory physics is often viewed as a rather high hurdle over which their students must jump. Furthermore, this hurdle is viewed as being constructed of materials only peripherally relevant to the students' needs.
  • There is widespread demoralization among physics faculty members themselves. They are teaching as they were taught; yet the students don't seem to be learning. "I work very hard at this, and the right things don't seem to be happening. If only the students were better prepared or worked harder." Or, we often hear "I am teaching the way I learned physics. Why can't today's students learn the same way?"
  • Physicists know the field of physics to be vibrant, dynamic, and alive, with many important applications to understanding both the natural world and technology. Unfortunately, this view is not often translated into the classroom. The extent of this gap is a measure of the need for renovation and revitalization of our physics courses.
  • Women and minorities continue to be severely underrepresented in physics. In 1995 women made up only 17% of the students receiving bachelors degrees in physics. Minorities constituted only 10% [Ref. 1]. Physics, if it is to maintain its vitality in the long term, must make use of the full spectrum of the nation's talent.

B. Programs for Physics Majors
A majority of physics majors go into jobs that do not carry the label "physicist" and that do not directly involve physics research or development work [Ref. 1]. We have known this for years, but we continue to educate students as if all of them were gong to research jobs or graduate school. Typical undergraduate physics curricula have not changed substantially in 30 years. Strengthening the preparation of physics majors for the "can do" attitude we prize so highly is quite consonant with the changes necessary for the vast majority of students who currently leave physics after the introductory course. These changes also aid those students who choose to pursue graduate degrees in physics or closely related fields.

It is our conviction that restructured curricula based on already existing innovations in content and pedagogy, designed to provide a flexibly educated physics major can permit physics major programs to serve a substantially larger number of undergraduate students preparing for careers dominated by technology and information processing. More students should see physics as an attractive undergraduate major, useful to them in a wide variety of endeavors.

IV. Reasons for Major Innovation and Revitalization Now
We believe that the physics community is about ready to adopt wide-spread innovations and changes in the undergraduate physics program. Although many in the community have recognized for years the problems outlined above, we have a confluence of events that argues for action now. The critical ones are the following:

  1. We now have substantial evidence that interactive-engagement teaching techniques [Ref. 5-7, 9-18] surpass the standard passive lecture in developing conceptual understanding for students in introductory physics courses while still supporting and even often enhancing traditional problem-solving skills. These methods also improve the students' attitudes toward the course, toward the instructor, and toward physics. Prof. Richard Hake of Indiana University has gathered the results of testing over 6000 students in introductory physics courses at a wide range of institutions [Ref. 8]. His analysis demonstrates the effectiveness of interactive-engagement teaching techniques. (Such techniques have also been applied to graduate-level physics courses [Ref. 19].) The challenge now is to develop these tools for universal use and to provide mechanisms for their wide-spread dissemination.
  2. New textbooks incorporating both content changes and pedagogical innovations supported by the results of physics education research are now being published [Ref. 20].
  3. The mathematics, chemistry, and engineering communities have begun substantial undergraduate reform efforts. Working with these disciplines, the physics community can improve the education of both its own majors and students going on in other scientific and technical fields.
  4. There is increasing pressure from both the higher education community and from the public to provide more effective undergraduate science education [Ref. 2-4]. By meeting this challenge head on, the physics community can establish its leadership in the improvement of undergraduate science education.

V. Plans for Action
From the study of physics education and the physics education research literature, we believe that the physics community has at hand most of the tools needed to revitalize undergraduate physics education: to have all students taking physics improve their conceptual understanding of physics, enhance their critical thinking, problem-solving, and experimental skills, and increase their enthusiasm for science and for learning. We believe that such a revitalized curriculum will be attractive to a wider range and larger number of students.

As noted above, the following recommendations recognize that for the past 20 years there have been substantial curriculum development and physics education research projects. We are not suggesting another round of large-scale curriculum development projects (though we recognize that some such projects may well be needed and that funding for small-scale course and curriculum development projects will need to increase as more colleges and universities adopt and adapt innovative materials and pedagogy). Our suggestions for action call for a wide-spread effort to disseminate information about innovations already in existence as well as about newly developing tools. We also need to develop mechanisms that assist physics departments in their implementation of changes in undergraduate physics education. In short, we call for a structural change in the way we approach undergraduate physics: a change from a "one shot, one size fits all" view to a view that builds an infrastructure for continuing review, innovation, assessment, redesign, and improvement of physics teaching. Above we cited Melba Phillips famous remark: "The problem with physics education is that the problems don't stay solved." This bit of wisdom contains two truths: educational solutions that work don't get propagated effectively, and situations change; so the old solutions no longer apply.

More recently John Russell (Chair of the APS College-High School Interaction Committee) noted that nationwide efforts at reshaping science education will founder unless there is strong and on-going local departmental support. Several of our recommendations focus on developing and sustaining that departmental role.

Many national committees and reports urge faculty to shift their attention from teaching to learning. [Ref. 2-4]. We recall John Dewey's maxim that if there is no learning there has been no teaching. We need continually to improve our understanding of the processes by which students learn, but we need also to improve our understanding and our practice of the processes involved in teaching. This must be an on-going activity that will help faculty at all levels to be better teachers. We urge an emphasis on both student and instructor, on both learning and teaching. They are not independent of one another.

Specific Plans
We expect to establish a Steering Committee of 8-10 physicists working in close collaboration with the AAPT Executive Board, the AAPT staff, the APS Education Officer, the APS Committee on Education, and the APS Forum on Education to launch the following activities:

  1. Establish a variety of mechanisms for dissemination (with some editorial control) of up-to-date information on innovations in undergraduate physics education, including both curricular content development and improvements in pedagogical methods. These mechanisms should include print media, electronic services, and workshops at national AAPT and APS meetings. As a first step, AAPT will develop a web site (The Physical Sciences Resource Center) with information on undergraduate physics innovations and links to innovators' web pages. These resources may include model curricula, sets of problems and examinations-particularly those that emphasize conceptual understanding and "real world" problem-solving-laboratory experiments, demonstrations, and methods of evaluation of the effectiveness of educational innovations. (On October 19, 1996, the AAPT Executive Board voted to proceed with planning for such a web site.)
  2. Work with the AAPT and the APS in planning the 1997 Physics Department Chairs Conference, which will focus on undergraduate physics education. That conference might develop benchmarks (with case histories) that will help physics departments assess their current undergraduate programs, plan for revitalization and innovation, including the required departmental and institutional support, so that educational efforts of the faculty are recognized and rewarded and the innovations stick. The benchmarks should include suggestions on forging interdisciplinary collaborations in designing these changes. Plans for continuous review, innovation, evaluation, redesign, and improvement of physics teaching are needed. (On October 19, 1996, the AAPT Executive Board voted to begin planning for the Department Chairs Conference. A Steering Committee will soon be in place.)
  3. Articulate a set of principles for curriculum development and teaching strategies including the use of appropriate technology to aid education, based on experience with "what works" and supported by the results of rigorous physics education research. This set of principles should include suggestions for ways to evaluate teaching innovations and to assess the impact of new programs. The principles should be in a form directly usable by all physics faculty members.
  4. Formulate a program that will allow all physics faculty members, whose time is already heavily committed, to learn about and have personal experience with effective practices in undergraduate physics education and their implementation. These may include programs and workshops at national APS and AAPT meetings.
  5. Work with funding agencies and foundations to establish programs to assist departments undertaking substantial innovations and to promote broad-based dissemination of curricula and pedagogical practices, particularly at the introductory level. These curricula and pedagogical practices should be those that will find wide-spread acceptance and be adaptable to a wide range of institutions and to a wide range of educational environments. The programs should include consultations with other disciplines whose students are served by introductory physics courses.
  6. Develop strategic plans for the support of efforts in physics education research to provide the scholarly basis for innovation and revitalization and the means for evaluating the effectiveness of reforms in undergraduate physics education.
  7. Develop a formal structure for long-term planning for undergraduate physics education that engages a broad spectrum of the physics community including physicists in industry and government labs. Professional societies such as AAPT and APS must play an important role here.
  8. Seek support from NSF and other funding agencies for a larger meeting (perhaps 100 participants) to design programs to implement the plans for action.

VI. Final Remarks
The participants in this conference represented a substantial part of the spectrum of the physics community, with a diversity of views, all strongly expressed. We benefited also from learning about the experiences of the representatives of the Chemistry, Mathematics, and Engineering communities in their efforts at revitalization and innovation in their own disciplines. What emerged from the discussion was a clear vision of the need for effective action for innovation and revitalization in undergraduate physics education. This area occupies a central position in physics: it not only has the responsibility of educating the next generation of research physicists, but must contribute in an effective way to the science education of all students This is a major responsibility, which the physics profession cannot escape.

There are a multitude of ways in which this responsibility can be fulfilled, and no single process can speak cogently to all of the needs of all colleges and universities. Nevertheless, we do have at hand tested means for substantial improvements in many areas, and a developing research base for further innovations. We need now better ways of keeping the profession informed on a continuing basis of developments and successful experiments in the field, and of encouraging and supporting the continuing professional growth of all who teach physics. The achievement of the goal of continuous improvement is not an easy task. It will depend on the efforts and cooperation of many persons in many different communities, and on the availability of resources, both human and financial, to initiate and continue the development process. The questions that now need to be answered are the old ones: If not us, who? If not now, when?

N.B. A longer report, giving details of several proposed programs for implementing the action plans, is in preparation.

This report was prepared by Robert C. Hilborn, Chair of the conference, with many contributions and suggestions from (in alphabetical order) Robert Beichner, David Campbell, Richard Hake, David Hestenes, Don Holcomb, Ruth Howes, Karen Johnston, Len Jossem, Priscilla Laws, Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, Ramon Lopez, Lillian McDermott, Mark McDermott, Tom O'Kuma, Joe Redish, Robert Romer, Jim Stith, and Ken Wilson.


  1. Patrick J. Mulvey and Elizabeth Dodge, "1995 Bachelor's Degree Recipients Report," AIP Publication No. R211.27. (American Institute of Physics, Woodbury, NY, 1996).
  2. Shaping the Future, New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology, Advisory Committee to the NSF Directorate for Education and Human Resources. The report is accessible through the NSF web site: (The report is in the file nsf96139.txt.)
  3. From Analysis to Action, Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology (National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1996). The National Academy Press web site is at
  4. Project 2061: Benchmarks of Scientific Literacy (Oxford University Press, New York, 1993).
  5. Eric Mazur, Peer Instruction: A User's Manual (Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 97).
  6. Lillian C. McDermott, "Guest Comment: How we teach and how students learn-A mismatch?," Am. J. Phys. 61, 295-298 (1993).
  7. Lillian C. McDermott, "How We Teach and How Students Learn.", Ann. New York Acad. Sci. 701, 9 (1993).
  8. Richard R. Hake, "Interactive engagement vs. traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses," submitted to Am. J. Phys. (1996). "Interactive-engagement methods in introductory mechanics courses," preprint. "Evaluating Conceptual Gains in mechanics: A six-thousand student survey of test data," Proceedings of the International Conference on Undergraduate Physics Education, University of Maryland, College Park, MD (1996).
  9. David Hestenes, "Toward a modeling theory of physics instruction," Am. J. Phys. 55, 440-454 987).
  10. Priscilla W. Laws, "Calculus-Based Physics Without Lectures," Physics Today 44 (12), 24-31 (1991).
  11. Lillian Christie McDermott, "Millikan Lecture 1990: What we teach and what is learned - Closing the gap," Am. J. Phys. 59, 301-315 (1991).
  12. Alan VanHeuvelen, "Overview, Case Study Physics," Am. J. Phys. 59, 898-907 (1991).
  13. David Hestenes, "Modeling games in the Newtonian world," Am. J. Phys. 60, 732-748 (1992).
  14. Lillian C. McDermott, Peter S. Shaffer, "Research as a guide for curriculum development: An example from introductory electricity. Part I: Investigation of student understanding," Am. J. Phys. 60, 994-1003 (1992).
  15. Peter S. Shaffer, Lillian C. McDermott, "Research as a guide for curriculum development: An example from introductory electricity. Part II: Design of instructional strategies," Am. J. Phys. 60, 1003-1013 (1992).
  16. Edward F. Redish, "Implications of cognitive studies for teaching physics.", Am. J. Phys. 62, 796-803 (1994).
  17. J. M. Wilson, "The CUPLE Physics Studio," The Physics Teacher 32, 518-523 (1994).
  18. Alan VanHeuvelen, Overview Case Study Physics (Hayden-McNeil Publishing, Inc., Plymouth, MI, 1996). The publisher also handles VanHeuvelen's "Active Learning Problem Sheets."
  19. Bruce R. Patton, "Jackson by Inquiry," APS Forum on Education Newsletter, Summer 1996.
  20. Joseph Amato, "The Introductory Calculus-Based Physics Textbook," Physics Today 49 (12) 46-50 996).

Additional Reading:

  • "Improving the Quality and Effectiveness of Introductory Physics Courses," Am. J. Phys. 25, 417 (1957). Report of the Carlton Conference sponsored by the American Association of Physics Teachers.
  • Arnold Arons, A Guide to Introductory Physics Teaching (Wiley, New York, 1990)
  • Arnold Arons, Teaching Introductory Physics (Wiley, New York, 1996). (A slightly modified version the 1990 book.)
  • Clifford E. Swartz and Thomas Miner, Teaching Introductory Physics, A Source Book (American Institute of Physics, Woodbury, NY, 1996).

Conference Participants:
*indicates Planning Group Member

Professor Robert Beichner
North Carolina State University

Professor David K. Campbell
University of Illinois

*Professor Robert Beck Clark
Texas A&M University

Professor Howard Georgi
Harvard University

Professor Richard Hake
Indiana University

Professor David Hestenes
Arizona State University

*Professor Robert C. Hilborn
Amherst College

Professor Charles Holbrow
Colgate University

*Professor Donald F. Holcomb
Cornell University

*Professor Ruth H. Howes
Ball State University

*Professor Karen L. Johnston
North Carolina State University

Professor Leonard Jossem
Ohio State University

Dr. Bernard V. Khoury
American Association of Physics Teachers

Professor Priscilla Laws
Dickinson College

Professor Diandra Leslie-Pelecky
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Dr. Ramon Lopez
American Physical Society

Professor Lillian McDermott
University of Washington

Professor Mark N. McDermott
University of Washington

Dr. Dwight E. Neuenschwander
American Institute of Physics

Professor Marvin L. Nelson
Green River Community College

Professor Thomas L. O'Kuma
Lee College

*Professor Edward F. Redish
University of Maryland


Professor George Dieter
Clark School of Engineering
University of Maryland

Professor Deborah Hughes-Hallett
Department of Mathematics
Harvard University

Professor John Wright
Department of Chemistry
University of Wisconsin-Madison