Teaching & Learning Update

Interest in Physics Growing Steadily at Secondary Level

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The number of students taking high school physics continues to climb, and that growth is occurring across a broad spectrum of courses with different levels of rigor, new research shows.

About 1.1 million students in 2005 took at least one physics course before they graduated, an 18 percent increase from four years earlier, according to estimates collected by the American Institute of Physics. In addition, 31 percent of seniors in public schools took or were enrolled in a physics course, compared with 28 percent four years before, according to the AIP, located in College Park, Md.

Enrollment in Physics Courses in U.S. High Schools

*Click image to see the full chart.

The biggest growth is occuring in “conceptual” physics courses, or classes that rely on less advanced mathematics, said Michael Neuschatz, a senior research associate at the AIP’s statistical-research center. The percentage of students taking a conceptual-physics course rose from 11 percent to 14 percent from 2001 to 2005. But the proportion of students enrolled in both honors and advanced classes in the subject also climbed during that period, Mr. Neuschatz said.

“It’s not being done at the expense of more advanced physics,” he said in an interview, referring to the growth in conceptual courses. “There has been a broadening of the curriculum.”

He presented the research at a joint meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers and the American Astronomical Society, held in Seattle this month.

The growth in conceptual physics, Mr. Neuschatz added, is taking place among students throughout high school, not just freshmen. Only a small percentage of the overall 9th grade population—about 5 percent combined in public and private schools—takes physics first, he noted.

Vol. 26, Issue 20, Page 12

Published in Print: January 24, 2007, as Interest in Physics Growing Steadily at Secondary Level
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