I was chatting with my son Miguel, a physics professor, recently and asked about his current work. He mentioned that his department (at the University of Washington main campus in Seattle) is struggling to deal with the increase in enrollment in physics classes. When I asked how much it had grown, he said that the number of physics majors had tripled in the last decade. Right now the number of students taking physics courses is limited by space in lecture halls and labs. I was stunned. It got me to wondering if this was true nationwide.
At first I thought this might be a special situation in Washington, since among the companies here include Boeing, Amazon, Micosoft, Twitter, Snapchat and Dropbox. And it turns out that the University of Washington (“U Dub” if you live in Pacific Northwest) now graduates more physics majors than any university in the country. In 2017, the most recent data I could find, UW graduated 141 physics majors. (Don’t these young people understand that physics is really hard?)
It turns out that, although UW is a bit of an outlier, physics enrollements have been growing nationally. Take a look at the chart below:
STEM, in case you are not familiar with the term, is the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Physics, along with math, lies at the core of STEM. For example, engineers in all sorts engineering fields need both math and physics. So on top of the explosion in physics majors, the physics department is trying to teach introductory courses needed for other majors.
STEM majors have been growing overall, but not as rapidly. In 2000, the number of undergraduates planning to major in a STEM field was about a third. By 2016 that had risen to 45 percent (according to the National Science Board).
Among the data that leaps off the chart above is the small number of women in physics. This is especially interesting given that the majority of undergraduate students are women. That, along with minority student enrollment in the sciences, is a topic for another blog. So, too, is the stunning contrast between this surge in science in higher education and the appalling ignorance of basic science among the general public.
I imagine that if I were a high school graduate heading off to college, I would be considering a science major. Not only are the job prospects excellent, but there is a lot of exciting stuff happening. While I would argue that the greatest challenges facing humanity are cultural rather than technical, there are fascinating developments in all areas of science. We live in a golden age of science.
The renewed interest in science does not trouble me. What does trouble me is the related decline in interest in the humanities and the social sciences. What will this mean in a generation or two?
Take, for example, the pressing urgency of global warming and climate change. Right now the greatest barriers to saving our planet from catastrophic are not technical. We have enough technology right now. The great barriers are cultural and political.