Hot New Trend: High-School Physics!

There's been lots of news from the AAS meeting in Seattle this week, but the best from my perspective is that high school physics enrollments have neevr been higher:

Presenting new data that encourage this outlook, [Michael] Neuschatz [senior research associate at AIP's Statistical Research Center] will show that enrollment in high school physics classes is up and likely to continue increasing. The data show more than 30 percent of high school seniors have taken physics classes, more than ever before. This percentage has been rising steadily since the mid-1980s.

In addition, the percentage of 18-year-olds who have taken physics is also at an all-time high in the nation. In 1930, 29 percent of 18 year-olds in the United States graduated high school, rising to 77 percent by 1970. In 1930, only 15 percent of 18 year-olds took physics. In 2005, says Neuschatz, the figure increased to a high of 25 percent.

Yes, that's right, it's hip to be a physicist. We're the new youth craze-- Britney Spears will give up this pop starlet thing, and return to her roots, Justin Timberlake will be posing with a copy of Physics Today, and J.K. Rowling will be handing in the manuscript of Harry Potter and Halliday and Resnick (in which the young wizard goes to Oxford and discovers that frictionless blocks sliding on inclined planes are every bit as exciting as Quidditch).

Well, OK, maybe not. But a guy can dream, can't he?

Other notable things from the article:

Improving diversity:

Girls and minorities are also enrolling in high school physics classes at higher rates. Female students who made up only 39 percent of high school physics students in 1987 now represent 47 percent. The percentages of African Americans and Latinos taking high school physics classes have more than doubled since 1990, moving from 10 percent of African Americans and 10 percent of Latinos to 23 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

increases in college enrollments:

The number of physics bachelor's degrees earned in the United States is also on the rise, up more than 31 percent since 2000, to more than 5,000 students in 2005. For example, enrollment in physics classes at the University of Washington-Seattle has seen a recent boom, mimicking national trends of increased college physics class enrollment.

and higher higher education:

Physics bachelor's recipients are far more likely to pursue advanced degrees than recipients of non-physics degrees. While 63 percent of non-physics bachelor's degree recipients stop at the bachelor's level, only 39 percent of physics bachelors do not pursue further degrees. Thirty-six percent of physics majors earn master's degrees. Most strikingly, 25 percent of physics bachelor's recipients go on to earn Ph.D.s, compared to three percent of non-physics bachelor's degree recipients. Neuschatz says that he has not seen any other major with a higher percentage of bachelor's recipients going on to earn Ph.D.s.

Of coruse, some of the good news is somewhat illusory. The high proportion of physics majors going on to grad school says as much about the lousy job market for bachelors' degree holders as it does about our ability to instill a real love of the subject. And the increased enrollments at the high school level are partly due to an increase in "conceptual" physics classes, as well as some level of credentialism among high school students, who believe that taking physics is necessary to make their college applications look better.

Still, it's always nice to see more students studying physics, and not just because it means I'll have bodies in my classes in the future. I got into this business because I love the field (God knows, it wasn't for the money), and I like to see more people studying it.

How do we sustain this gain? Of course, they have suggestions:

His suggestions include marketing physics classes to a wider variety of non-science majors and training more physics majors to become high school physics teachers. In 2005, only 33 percent of high school physics teachers had bachelor's degrees in physics or physics education. With enough recruitment, Neuschatz says, the figure could someday rise to 50 percent.

A good plan, but why stop at 50%? Why not 100%? Physics for everyone!

(OK, I'm a little punchy. This does not bode well for my 9am lab...)


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"The data show more than 30 percent of high school seniors have taken physics classes, more than ever before."

This doesn't match with data I've seen elsewhere, probably because the article only seems to look back to ~1930. Prior to this, a much higher percentage of high school students took physics. In 1890, ~23% of high school student were *enrolled in* physics. I wouldn't want to translate this directly into a percentage that took physics at some point in high school, but, for comparison, ~6% were enrolled in physics in 1930, when the AIP graph puts the percentage taking physics at some point in high school as 15%.

An article on this argues that major reasons for the trends in enrollment are:
(1) reordering of the science curriculum (in 1890, physics was generally taken first) causing the steep drop in physics enrollment between 1890 and 1930, and perhaps the slight downward trend from 1930 to the early 1980s.
(2) increasing science requirements for graduation during the 1980s. (biology has reached ~90%, chemistry has doubled to ~60%, and physics has doubled to ~30%)

I agree that the increase is likely to continue, particularly if more states move to requiring 3 years or if physics and biology switch places in the curriculum, as some educators in both subjects advocate.

K Sheppard, DM Robbins, J. Chem. Ed., 82(4), 561, 2005.
K Sheppard, DM Robbins, J. Chem. Ed., 83(11), 1617, 2006.

The fact that more students are taking high school physics has to be good for the field even if more physicists don't result. As voters decide about the teaching of evolution, stem cells and global warming, any occurrence that results in a smidgen more public comprehension of science and math is beneficial for society. I sure hope that the "conceptual physics" courses are good ones!

While I'm sure that the explanations given above for increased enrollment are correct, I do think that there has been a tiny increase in interest among the general public in the last few years. The excitement generated by "battlebot" contests and the "Mythbusters" tv show are examples.