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Science-Course Mandates Blamed For Low Participation in Physics

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Low minimum graduation requirements and the traditional science-course sequence are largely responsible for the fact that only one in five high-school graduates takes a course in physics, a survey by the American Institute of Physics concludes.

Although 17 percent of high schools offered no physics courses at all in 1987, the survey found, most of those are relatively small. About 96 percent of high-school students attend schools where physics is offered.

But only 623,600 students--about 20 percent of all high-school seniors--were enrolled in a physics course in 1987, the study found.

Moreover, the physics group says, the gap between schools with high and low physics enrollments appears to be widening.

The "primary mechanism" depressing enrollments, the report suggests, is the tradition of requiring relatively few courses in science for high-school graduation. Despite the recent increases in course requirements, it says, "only a handful of states require as many as three years of science from grades 9 to 12, and virtually no schools require four years."

And, it states, the traditional sequence of science courses--physical science, biology, chemistry, physics--ensured that physics became, "for all intents and purposes, an elective course for those who followed the traditional sequencing."

Low enrollments in the subject, it warns, lead to "vicious circles" that could further reduce enrollments in the future. The lack of teaching opportunities keeps prospective teachers from specializing in physics, it suggests, which leads schools to "draft" teachers from other specializations and further discourages students from taking physics.

The survey, based on a sample of 3,301 physics teachers in 3,472 schools, was aimed at providing data on secondary-school physics instruction for the 89,000-member institute.

While other studies have examined science instruction more generally, the report states, "wide-ranging and in-depth studies of 'specialty' areas with relatively small enrollments like physics are rare."

In examining the qualifications of physics teachers, the survey found that two-thirds of the respondents reported that they held graduate degrees, but only a fourth appeared to have a degree in physics. At the same time, about two-thirds said they were certified in physics.

These responses could be explained, the report suggests, by the fact that most physics teachers also teach other science subjects. Only 13 percent of the respondents taught only physics.

The study also found that:

Some 29 percent of teachers said that insufficient funding for equipment and supplies was their most serious problem, and another 22 percent called inadequate laboratory facilities most serious. Most teachers also said students' mathematics preparation and their lack of interest in the subject was a problem.

Although 75 percent of physics teachers are male, the fact that "women constitute a substantially larger proportion of younger teachers and teachers with less seniority seems to promise that the proportion of female physics teachers should rise steadily over time."

Copies of the report, "Physics in the High Schools," are available from the Education and Employment Statistics Division, American Institute of Physics, 335 East 45th St., New York, N.Y. 10017. Single copies are free.--rr

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