How to get entry into a physics degree (but not necessarily physics)

By Marcus Wilson 03/09/2015


So, I’m now back from a lovely holiday in the UK, following a not-so-lovely period of being sick. Quite possibly I can also get back to blogging. Among the great many emails awaiting for me yesterday were a few about school physics and university physics. They were coming from different sources for different reasons, but there was a co-incidental unifying theme which went along the lines of ‘how well does school physics prepare students for university physics?, and how well does university physics prepare students for a career in science?’. 

First, the school-to-university transition. Here’s a quick little piece by Peter Coles in  Times Higher Education, drawing from an Institute of Physics report on the male-female balance in ‘A’-level physics. A key point he makes is that efforts by universities to recruit more women into physics degrees is rather hampered by the fact that the number of women doing A-level physics (i.e. the ‘pool’ that can be drawn from) hasn’t increased over the last ten years. One can’t admit a student who hasn’t done ‘A’-level physics, and if few of these are women, then the university will inevitably have few women taking the physics degree. 

But, as Peter Coles points out, universities set their own entry requirements. Who says that incoming students need ‘A’-level physics? Does ‘A’-level mathematics in fact provide at least as good, or maybe even better preparation for studying physics at university than ‘A’-level physics? The male-female balance in mathematics is much better than in physics. Many university lecturers very vocally point out that incoming students are very much under-prepared for the mathematical rigour of a physics degree, and would like entry requirements on mathematics ability as well as physics. Peter Coles says they should go ‘the whole hog’, and in fact axe the entry requirement on physics altogether, leaving just the mathematics one. 

An interesting proposal. But it’s not one that sits happily with me, because physics is not mathematics. It is a science. Having done some research on this, I know that the simple statement “physics is a science” is problematic for many students, who are much happier with “physics is applied mathematics”. The experimental side of physics – the observation, making and testing hypotheses with experiments (what Eugenia Etkina was talking about at the recent NZIP conference) is something that many students struggle with. I suspect that this is because it is not well taught. 

Which brings me to the other point. “How well does university physics prepare students for a career in science”. I’ve had some correspondence with the authors of a study that I commented on some time back on ‘virtual labs’ – which found that computer-based lab experiments were just as good in terms of supporting theoretical concepts than actual lab-based experiments, amongst bioscience majors at least. However, what the computer-labs can’t do is to support learning outcomes connected with doing actual experimental physics work, such as learning how to put an experiment together, how to control for different effects, how to assess where equipment is failing and track down systematic uncertainties, and so-forth. These are skills that many (but not all) graduates will need if they have a career in physics. My own experience is that these skills have been learnt outside of the university system, when I’ve actually had to use them in a real situation. I would say very little of the experimental work I did at university was actually particularly useful in preparing me for doing science. But is that just because my university experimental work wasn’t well taught (see the Etkina talk again!)

There are a great many questions here and I don’t pretend to have a great many answers to match, but I do think they are things that we need to think carefully about.