Physics in a New Era, An Overview

Physics in a New Era, An Overview

Physics in a New Era is the final report of the NRC’s six-volume decadal physics survey. The book reviews the frontiers of physics research, examines the role of physics in our society, and makes recommendations designed to strengthen physics and its ability to serve important needs such as national security, the economy, information technology, and education.

Summery of Part II: Physics and Society

Physics education at all levels must focus on producing a scientifically literate public and a technically trained workforce. High-quality physics courses are an essential component of science education. They are one of the best avenues to providing the public with the knowledge to make informed scientific decisions, as well as providing technical training for the modern workforce. In addition, these courses are crucial for attracting and retaining capable American students for further study in physics.

Introductory course offerings need to be improved. Educators should take note of innovative teaching methods that have been shown to be effective. Introductory courses are the last exposure to physics that most university graduates will have, so they must lay the physics foundation for further technical training in all areas. For those continuing in physics, the courses must engage students, decrease attrition, and attract new recruits. Courses should be revised so they introduce students to concepts and questions of modern physics, make increased use of advanced computing and communication technologies, and incorporate active physics engagement techniques.

Advanced undergraduate and graduate curricula should reflect physics as it is currently practiced, making appropriate connections to other areas of science, to engineering, and to schools of management. High-quality undergraduate research opportunities are an important tool for introducing students to modern physics practice. Physics education needs to reflect the career destinations of today’s students. Only a third of all physics majors pursue graduate degrees in physics, and of those who do, nearly three-quarters will find permanent employment in industry. The undergraduate and graduate curricula must satisfy the educational needs of these students.

The education of K-12 teachers benefits greatly from the involvement of professional physicists. Physics departments can become more involved in the training of high school teachers by offering courses that are geared to the education of future physics teachers and by creating and conducting outreach programs. This conclusion is supported by the broader physics community through the resolutions of the American Physical Society, the American Association of Physics Teachers, and the American Institute of Physics. Achieving each of these goals will be difficult, requiring changes in university physics departments, encouragement from university administrations, and support from state and local education boards.

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