Physics Teaching Major vs Physics Major

One thing that’s been on my mind is the extent to which our physics teaching majors are or are not developing identities as physicists/physics majors. Coupled with this issue of identity development is the concern that our physics teaching majors are not strongly integrated socially and academically with the rest of the physics majors.

There are a couple of factors driving this:

Physics teaching majors are not merely physics majors. They are also MTeach students. MTeach has a strong presence in their undergraduate trajectory. More specifically, students in a particular cohort are likely to take eight courses together to fulfill their minor in secondary education. MTeach has a very nice informal gathering space, where MTeach students hang out, get work done, etc. It’s a place where students are forging their sense of belonging in a community and developing identities as math and science teachers.

Most, but certainly not all of other physics majors, go through the calculus-based introductory physics sequence. In their sophomore year, most physics majors take a year of modern physics and a year of theoretical physics (i.e., math methods). So in the first two years of the program, a cohort of physics majors will have taken 6 physics courses together. Being in those courses and hanging out /working in the physics majors lounge working is partly where physics majors forge their sense of belonging to the community and develop identifies as physics majors / physicists.

Most of our physics teaching majors, however, are going through the algebra-based physics course, not the calculus-based course with the physics major cohort. For some, this is because they decide they want to pursue physics teaching only after taking our algebra-based physics course. For those who know early on they want to pursue physics teaching, it’s likely they don’t take the calculus-based course because they haven’t taken calculus yet, and are advised to take the algebra-based course. And while the graduate school track physics major concentrations require that students take the sophomore year theoretical physics course, physics teaching majors don’t have to take theoretical physics if they take both linear algebra and differential equations from the math department. So far, very few physics teaching majors take theoretical physics.

What does this mean for our physics teaching majors? In the first two years that our physics teaching majors are in the program, they take only two physics courses with other physics majors–the year of modern physics in their sophomore year. They don’t become integrated deeply at all into the a cohort of physics majors, because they weren’t in the same courses freshman year and then they don’t struggle through the very challenging calculus-based physics and theoretical physics course with the rest of the physics majors. Most of the physics majors go onto take a demanding course load in their junior and senior years, including a mix of required and elective courses, including some courses that verge on graduate level work like courses in quantum field theory, general relativity, etc. Physics teaching students take a few more required physics courses at the upper-level (e.g., thermodynamics), but they have less required physics content courses (in part) because they are required to take a sequence of physics teaching courses offered in the department. This is just to say that, even in their junior and senior years, physics teaching majors are unlikely to have social or academic interactions with the rest of the physics majors. And while they could elect to take more upper-level physics electives, they are not likely to, in part due to peer groups but also because many physics teaching majors are dual certifying in mathematics, so they are busy taking other content course in the math department and their education courses which required a lot of field experience time.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and then it really hit me hard last night when only one physics teaching major came to the annual physics department pot-luck / party / gathering. Not surprisingly, the one physics teaching major that came is quite socially integrated into the physics major cohort, chose to do research in physics not physics education, and elected to take theoretical physics even though it’s not required.

I’m not quite sure what this all means yet, and there’s other issues at play that I haven’t described, but I’m thinking hard about this. The issue of navigating multiple communities is complex, and I’m hoping by choosing to write about some of this that I will develop some insight into what this all means.



9 thoughts on “Physics Teaching Major vs Physics Major

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  1. It seems like much of the discussion around physics identity focuses on solving physics problems. I think taking “physics” courses and solving “physics” problems is certainly a huge factor in developing an identity as a physicist but what other aspects could/should play a role in developing that identity?

    One of the things that has always irked me is how so many people earn a degree in physics but then never refer to themselves as physicists after college. It seems that unless you are a college faculty member or work at a national lab, you are more likely to refer to yourself as a teacher or engineer or programmer etc. rather than a physicist. It seems that we would have an easier time convincing students to major in physics, companies to hire physicists, and the public to support physics if we did a better job of identifying ourselves outside of labs and universities.

    We always claim that physics teaches you to think and prepares you to do anything. If that’s true, then your identity as a physicist should not be tied to whether you use Schrodinger’s equation on a weekly basis. I certainly see the importance and relevance of the classes and study spaces you mention. I’m just curious if you have any thoughts about how we might broaden the “definition” of a physicist.

    1. I was at the APS physics chairs conference this past summer, and we talked a little about the notion of identity in the context of what the common core physics major classes should be. I was arguing for someone who can model the physical world, others argued that you need to be facile in theoretical mechanics, quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, and statistical mechanics (ie, a full-blown BS degree if not an advanced degree). I like mine because it would help Brian’s issue with identity.

      One other idea: Physics Talent Show. We have that once a year and it’s really helped pull all our majors together, at least socially.

    2. I disagree with ambarr512. I was a math major (BS and MS), but am not now a mathematician. A physics teacher may or may not be a physicist, just as a math teacher may or may not be a mathematician.

      What one studied does not determine one’s identity or profession—it is what you do that counts. A physics major who goes off to play in the stock market is a day trader or stock market analyst, not a physicist.

      Incidentally, I now view myself as an engineering professor and a bioinformatician, not as a mathematician and only marginally as a computer scientist (my degrees are in math and computer science).

      1. I certainly agree that it’s what you do that determines your identity. I’m just wondering where the boundaries should be for “doing physics”. Should there be a definition of doing physics that incorporates not just the type of questions you work on but also using certain types of reasoning and mathematical modeling?

        Maybe the term physicist should be reserved for people that work on what is traditionally considered physics (also a constantly shifting boundary). What I’m interested in is a sense of physics community that extends beyond labs and academia. Something the stock trader would still feel a part of even if he isn’t “a physicist”. I wish I could think of a good example in another field. Maybe something like the military where people maintain that piece of their identity even after they leave active service.

        Gasstationwithoutpumps, I’m curious if your view of yourself as an engineering professor and bioinformatician was something that developed gradually or rather quickly. Was there a period of time where you felt you didn’t have a clearly defined identity or didn’t have a term that fit your identity?

      2. My self-identity has shifted over the years. I went from mathematics student to computer scientist to computer engineer to bioinformatician as my research interests changed. I was a computer science professor, then a computer engineering professor, and now an engineering professor as my teaching broadened to cover more fields. I see myself as an engineering professor (and not an “unmodified” professor) because of the goals of my teaching, more than the subject matter—I’m trying to get students to think like engineers, which means doing design with constraints, pushing the limits of design, and documenting the designs.

        There is a classical “physicist” way of thinking—reducing everything to the simplest model that works—that could be used to characterize physicist-thinking in other fields. But I’m not sure many would be happy to be known as the “spherical cow” people.

  2. The simple fact that the Physics Teaching major doesn’t require the same advanced courses throughout will always separate the students. I identify myself as a teacher in most contexts, but when people ask me for my background I will say I have worked as a physicist. That identification comes from spending a few years doing research in a lab – otherwise I wouldn’t ever say that I was a physicist.
    To further complicate matters, I’m not even teaching physics this year. So at the moment I would just say that I’m a math teacher.

    1. I agree. The fact that the teaching majors aren’t taking most of the courses that the students consider “difficult” quickly creates a two-tier system. It seems that keeping them together, at least through second year, would help them develop together a bit more, but I expect that this might not be an option at many institutions due to local circumstances.

  3. The issue of inclusion is something I think about too. Our physics tracks (teaching, traditional, biophysics, etc) also lead to separation and elitism among our students. I’ve found that a strong SPS club helps to bring in all students (even across academic majors – great ACS chapter here too). Students working together to build the club, arrange activities/seminars, mentor each other, etc leads to better inclusion. Helps with male/female ratio too. Unfortunately, we aren’t ethnically diverse – something to work on!

  4. A fair amount of this separation between the different physics tracks always felt like it boiled down to feelings of superiority/inferiority. Physics in general, or at least the culture I experienced while in school, has a very high opinion of itself in relation to any other field of study (I seem to remember a certain sign on the door saying “In science there is only physics. All the rest is stamp collecting.”). We’re quick to put down the other majors at the school (science or otherwise) and that certainly extends to the field of education. Education as a career is not openly discouraged, but I was often told by friends in the department that they would consider teaching as a last option, only suitable if they couldn’t get into a good grad school, or find another “more appealing,” job. I’m sure they meant well enough by it, but it’s never pleasant to hear that the job you’re pining for is the bottom of the barrel for someone else.

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