In order to provide insight into current physics teaching practices and recommended reforms, we outline the history of physics education in the United States—and the accompanying pedagogical issues and debates—over the period 1860–2014. We identify key events, personalities, and issues for each of ten separate time periods, comparing and contrasting the outlooks and viewpoints of the different eras. This discussion should help physics educators to (1) become aware of previous research in physics education and of the major efforts to transform physics instruction that have taken place in the U.S., (2) place the national reform movements of today, as well as current physics education research, in the context of past efforts, and (3) evaluate the effectiveness of various education transformation efforts of the past, so as better to determine what reform methods might have the greatest chances of success in the future.

1.
One of the most recent examples of this theme can be found in the report by the
National Research Council
,
Adapting to a Changing World—Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education
(
National Academies Press
,
Washington, DC
,
2013
).
Also see
D. E.
Meltzer
and
R. K.
Thornton
, “
Resource Letter ALIP-1: Active-Learning Instruction in Physics
,”
Am. J. Phys.
80
,
478
496
(
2012
).
2.
Hundreds of relevant reports published since 1880 are cited in
D. E.
Meltzer
, “
Resources for the education of physics teachers
,” in
Transforming the Preparation of Physics Teachers: A Call to Action. A Report by the Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics (T-TEP)
, edited by
D. E.
Meltzer
,
M.
Plisch
, and
S.
Vokos
(
American Physical Society
,
College Park, MD
,
2012
), pp.
83
123
.
A helpful general reference that contains lengthy discussions related to the history of physics education is
G. E.
DeBoer
,
A History of Ideas in Science Education: Implications for Practice
(
Teachers College Press
,
NY
,
1991
).
3.
C. R.
Mann
,
The Teaching of Physics for Purposes of General Education
(
Macmillan
,
NY
,
1912
).
4.
G. P.
Quackenbos
,
Natural Philosophy
, revised edition (
Appleton
,
NY
,
1871
).
5.
J. D.
Steele
,
Fourteen Weeks in Physics
(
A. S. Barnes
,
NY
,
1878
).
6.
W. C.
Kelly
, “
Physics in the public high schools
,”
Phys. Today
8
(
3
),
12
14
(
1955
).
7.
F. W.
Clarke
, A Report on the Teaching of Chemistry and Physics in the United States [Circulars of Information of the Bureau of Education, No. 6—1880] (Government Printing Office, Washington [DC], 1881).
8.
C. K.
Wead
, Aims and Methods of the Teaching of Physics [Circulars of Information of the Bureau of Education, No. 7—1884] (Government Printing Office, Washington [DC], 1884).
9.
A. P.
Gage
,
A Textbook on the Elements of Physics for High Schools and Academies
(
Ginn, Heath, and Co.
,
Boston
,
1882
).
10.
E. H.
Hall
,
Descriptive List of Elementary Exercises in Physics, Corresponding to the Requirement in Elementary Experimental Physics for Admission to Harvard College and the Lawrence Scientific School [92 pages]
(
Harvard University
,
Cambridge, MA
,
1897
). (Original 4-page edition published in 1886 as Provisional List of Experiments in Elementary Physics for Admission to College in 1887, next in 1887 as a 52-page pamphlet entitled Descriptive List of Experiments in Physics Intended for Use in Preparing Students for the Admission Examination in Elementary Experimental Physics, then in revised form in 1889 as an 83-page pamphlet entitled Descriptive List of Elementary Physical Experiments Intended for Use in Preparing Students for Harvard College.)
11.
E. H.
Hall
and
J. Y.
Bergen
, A Textbook of Physics, Largely Experimental: On the Basis of the Harvard College
Descriptive List of Elementary Physical Experiments
” (Henry Holt, New York, 1891) (second edition: 1897; third edition: 1905).
12.
National Educational Association, Report of the Committee on Secondary School Studies Appointed at the Meeting of the National Educational Association July 9, 1892, With the Reports of the Conferences Arranged by this Committee and held December 28–30, 1892. [“Report of the Committee of Ten”] (Government Printing Office, Washington [D.C.], 1893); pp. 25–27, pp. 117–127 (“Physics, Chemistry, and Astronomy”).
13.
National Educational Association, Report of Committee on College-Entrance Requirements, July 1899 [Appointed by Departments of Secondary Education and Higher Education at Denver Meeting, July, 1895] (National Educational Association, 1899); pp. 25–26 (“Physics”); pp. 180–183 ([Report on] “Physics”).
14.
For example,
H. S.
Carhart
and
H. N.
Chute
,
The Elements of Physics
(
Allyn and Bacon
,
Boston
,
1892
).
15.
For example, see the descriptions of laboratory exercises in
E. M.
Avery
,
School Physics: A New Text-book for High Schools and Academies
(
Sheldon and Co.
,
NY
,
1895
),
and compare to the generally less-detailed descriptions in the earlier edition,
E. M.
Avery
,
Elements of Natural Philosophy: A Textbook for High Schools and Academies
(
Sheldon and Co.
,
NY
,
1885
).
16.
College Entrance Examination Board
,
Seventh Annual Report of the Secretary: 1907
(
CEEB
,
NY
,
1907
), p.
42
.
17.
See, for example,
H. L.
Terry
, “
The new movement in physics teaching
,”
Educ. Rev.
37
,
12
18
(
1909
);
H. L.
Terry
, “
Four instruments of confusion in teaching physics
,”
Science
31
,
731
734
(
1910
). See also Ref. 3.
[PubMed]
18.
C. R.
Mann
,
C. H.
Smith
, and
C. F.
Adams
, “
A new movement among physics teachers
” [Circular I],
Sch. Rev.
14
,
212
216
(
1906
).
19.
N. M.
Butler
,
E. A.
Strong
,
J. F.
Woodhull
,
H.
Crew
,
H. L.
Terry
,
H. N.
Chute
,
G. S.
Hall
,
A. A.
Michelson
,
J. M.
Baldwin
,
G. R.
Twiss
,
R. A.
Millikan
,
L. B.
Avery
, and
J.
Dewey
,
“Symposium on the Purpose and Organization of Teaching Physics in Secondary Schools,”
N. M.
Butler
,
E. A.
Strong
,
J. F.
Woodhull
,
H.
Crew
,
H. L.
Terry
,
H. N.
Chute
,
G. S.
Hall
,
A. A.
Michelson
,
J. M.
Baldwin
,
G. R.
Twiss
,
R. A.
Millikan
,
L. B.
Avery
, and
J.
Dewey
,
Sch. Sci. Math.
8
(
9
),
717
728
(
1908
);
N. M.
Butler
,
E. A.
Strong
,
J. F.
Woodhull
,
H.
Crew
,
H. L.
Terry
,
H. N.
Chute
,
G. S.
Hall
,
A. A.
Michelson
,
J. M.
Baldwin
,
G. R.
Twiss
,
R. A.
Millikan
,
L. B.
Avery
, and
J.
Dewey
,
Sch. Sci. Math.
9
(
1
),
1
7
(
1909
);
N. M.
Butler
,
E. A.
Strong
,
J. F.
Woodhull
,
H.
Crew
,
H. L.
Terry
,
H. N.
Chute
,
G. S.
Hall
,
A. A.
Michelson
,
J. M.
Baldwin
,
G. R.
Twiss
,
R. A.
Millikan
,
L. B.
Avery
, and
J.
Dewey
,
Sch. Sci. Math.
9
(
2
),
162
172
(
1909
);
N. M.
Butler
,
E. A.
Strong
,
J. F.
Woodhull
,
H.
Crew
,
H. L.
Terry
,
H. N.
Chute
,
G. S.
Hall
,
A. A.
Michelson
,
J. M.
Baldwin
,
G. R.
Twiss
,
R. A.
Millikan
,
L. B.
Avery
, and
J.
Dewey
,
Sch. Sci. Math.
9
(
3
),
291
292
(
1909
).
20.
Science instruction through the use of “projects” is discussed, for example, by
J. F.
Woodhull
, “
General science: Summary of opinions under revision
,”
Educ. Rev.
48
,
298
300
(
1914
).
21.
For example:
W. E.
Tower
, “
An experiment: The teaching of high school physics in segregated classes
,”
Sch. Sci. Math.
11
,
1
6
(
1911
).
22.
J. F.
Woodhull
, “
General Science
,”
Sch. Sci. Math.
13
,
499
500
(
1913
); also see Ref. 20.
23.
R. A.
Millikan
, “
The elimination of waste in the teaching of high school science
,”
Sch. Sci. Math.
16
,
193
202
(
1916
).
24.
C. R.
Mann
and
G. R.
Twiss
,
Physics
, revised edition (
Scott
,
Foresman, Chicago
,
1910
).
25.
C. R.
Mann
, “
What is industrial science?
,”
Science
39
,
515
524
(
1914
).
26.
National Education Association,
Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education: A Report of the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, Appointed by the National Education Association
(Department of the Interior, Washington, DC,
1918
).
27.
National Education Association, Reorganization of Science in Secondary Schools: A Report of the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, Appointed by the National Education Association [G. R. Twiss, Chairman of the Physics Subcommittee] (Department of the Interior, Washington, DC, 1920), pp. 49–60, “IV. Physics” and pp. 61–62, “Appendix. The Science Teacher.”
28.
W. L.
Eikenberry
, “
Some facts about the General Science situation
,”
Sch. Rev.
23
,
181
191
(
1915
); see p. 190.
29.
E. R.
Downing
, “
Nature-study and high-school science
,”
Sch. Rev.
23
,
272
274
(
1915
); see p. 273.
30.
W. L.
Eikenberry
,
The Teaching of General Science
(
University of Chicago Press
,
Chicago
,
1922
), p.
40
.
31.
G. R.
Twiss
, “
The reorganization of high school science
,”
Sch. Sci. Math.
20
,
1
13
(
1920
).
32.
The war work of the physicists in World War I and the vast expansion in post-war research funding and professional opportunities opened to them is discussed by
D. J.
Kevles
,
The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America
(
Harvard U.P.
,
Cambridge, MA
,
1995
), Chaps. IX–XV. Both Millikan and Mann, along with many other physicists, were drawn into government work for an extended period.
33.
O. F.
Black
,
The Development of Certain Concepts of Physics in High School Students: An Experimental Study
(
Die Weste
,
Potchefstroom, South Africa
, n.d. [
1930
]);
J. W.
Clemensen
,
Study Outlines in Physics: Construction and Experimental Evaluation
, Issue 553 of Contributions to Education, Teachers College, Columbia University (
Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University
,
New York
,
1933
);
W. A.
Kilgore
,
Identification of Ability to Apply Principles of Physics
, Issue 840 of Contributions to Education, Teachers College, Columbia University (
Teachers College, Columbia University
,
New York
,
1941
).
One of the very few studies of college physics education was:
A. W.
Hurd
,
Problems of Science Teaching at the College Level
(
University of Minnesota Press
,
Minneapolis
,
1929
), especially pp.
75
88
, Part III, “Studies in department of physics,” and pp. 161–184, Part V, “A supplementary study in the teaching of college physics.”
34.
Several reports were published; the first was: Educational Committee of the American Physical Society [A. Wilmer Duff, Chairman], The Teaching of Physics, with Especial Reference to the Teaching of Physics to Students of Engineering [Presented to the Council Feb. 24, 1922. Ordered printed April 21, 1922] (American Physical Society, 1922).
35.
See, for example:
M.
Phillips
, “
Paul E. Klopsteg: Founder of AAPT
,”
Phys. Teach.
15
,
212
214
(
1977
);
J. B.
Guernsey
, “
Homer L. Dodge - First president of AAPT
,”
Phys. Teach.
17
,
84
93
(
1979
).
36.
For example,
K.
Lark-Horovitz
, Chairman, “
Report of the Committee on the Teaching of Physics in Secondary Schools
,”
Am. J. Phys.
10
,
60
61
(
1942
);
K.
Lark-Horovitz
, “
On the preparation and certification of teachers of secondary school science
,”
Am. J. Phys.
11
,
41
42
(
1943
).
37.
Reference 32, Chaps. IV and XXII.
38.
H.
Krieghbaum
and
H.
Rawson
,
An Investment in Knowledge: The First Dozen Years of the National Science Foundation's Summer Institutes Programs to Improve Secondary School Science and Mathematics Teaching, 1954–1965
(
New York U.P.
,
NY
,
1969
), Chaps. 5 and 12.
39.
G. C.
Finlay
, “
The Physical Science Study Committee
,”
Sch. Rev.
70
(
1
),
63
81
(
1962
).
40.
G.
Holton
, “
The Project Physics Course, then and now
,”
Sci. & Educ.
12
,
779
786
(
2003
).
41.
See, for example,
W. W.
Welch
, “
The impact of national curriculum projects: The need for accurate assessment
,”
Sch. Sci. Math.
68
,
225
234
(
1968
).
42.
R. E.
Stake
,
J. A.
Easley
, Jr.
, et al,
Case Studies in Science Education, Volume II: Design, Overview, and General Findings
(
Center for Instructional Research and Curriculum Evaluation, and Committee on Culture and Cognition, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
,
1978
), Chap. 12.
43.
M.
Neuschatz
and
M.
Covalt
,
Physics in the High Schools: Findings from the 1986–1987 Nationwide Survey of Secondary School Teachers of Physics
(
American Institute of Physics
,
NY
,
1988
), pp.
8
and 41–42.
44.
R.
Resnick
and
D.
Halliday
,
Physics for Students of Science and Engineering
(
Wiley
,
NY
,
1960
).
45.
For further discussions of the new textbook and other developments in college-level physics teaching during this period, see, for example,
R.
Resnick
, “
Retrospective and prospective
,” in
Conference on the Introductory Physics Course, on the Occasion of the Retirement of Robert Resnick
, edited by
J.
Wilson
(
Wiley
,
NY
,
1997
), pp.
3
11
;
A. B.
Arons
, “
Improvement of physics teaching in the heyday of the 1960's
,”
Conference on the Introductory Physics Course, on the Occasion of the Retirement of Robert Resnick
, pp.
13
20
;
C. H.
Holbrow
, “
Archaeology of a bookstack: Some major introductory physics texts of the last 150 years
,”
Phys. Today
52
(
3
),
50
56
(
1999
).
46.
A broad overview of the early work carried out by the Commission is in
W. C.
Michels
, “
Progress report of the Commission on College Physics (June 1960 through May 1962)
,”
Am. J. Phys.
30
,
665
686
(
1962
).
47.
Commission on College Physics
, Preparing High School Physics Teachers [Report of the Panel on the Preparation of Physics Teachers of the Commission on College Physics, Ben A. Green, Jr., et al.] (Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, 1968), ERIC Document ED029775.
48.
Physics Survey Committee
, National Research Council, “
Physics in education and education in physics
,” in
Physics in Perspective,
Vol. I (
National Academy of Sciences
,
Washington, D.C.
,
1972
), pp.
723
805
.
49.
For example,
L. C.
McDermott
, “
Combined physics course for future elementary and secondary school teachers
,”
Am. J. Phys.
42
,
668
676
(
1974
).
50.
L. C.
McDermott
,
L. K.
Piternick
, and
M. L.
Rosenquist
, “
Helping minority students succeed in science: I. Development of a curriculum in physics and biology; II. Implementation of a curriculum in physics and biology; III. Requirements for the operation of an academic program in physics and biology
,”
J. Coll. Sci. Teach.
9
,
135
140
(
1980
); 201–205 (1980); 261–265 (1980).
See also
L. C.
McDermott
,
M. L.
Rosenquist
, and
E. H.
van Zee
, “
Strategies to improve the performance of minority students in the sciences
,” in
Teaching Minority Students
[New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 16], edited by
J. H.
Cones
, III
,
J. F.
Noonan
, and
D.
Janha
(
Jossey-Bass
, San Francisco,
1983
), pp.
59
72
.
51.
For example:
M. L.
Rosenquist
and
L. C.
McDermott
, “
A conceptual approach to teaching kinematics
,”
Am. J. Phys.
55
,
407
415
(
1987
).
52.
D.
Hestenes
, “
Wherefore a science of teaching?
,”
Phys. Teach.
17
,
235
242
(
1979
).
53.
F.
Reif
,
J. H.
Larkin
, and
G. C.
Brackett
, “
Teaching general learning and problem-solving skills
,”
Am. J. Phys.
44
,
212
217
(
1976
).
54.
D. E.
Trowbridge
and
L. C.
McDermott
, “
Investigation of student understanding of the concept of velocity in one dimension
,”
Am. J. Phys.
48
,
1020
1028
(
1980
);
D. E.
Trowbridge
and
L. C.
McDermott
, “
Investigation of student understanding of the concept of acceleration in one dimension
,”
Am. J. Phys.
49
,
242
253
(
1981
).
55.
L.
Viennot
, “
Spontaneous reasoning in elementary dynamics
,”
Eur. J. Sci. Educ.
1
,
205
221
(
1979
).
56.
I. A.
Halloun
and
D.
Hestenes
, “
The initial knowledge state of college physics students
,”
Am. J. Phys.
53
,
1043
1055
(
1985
).
57.
R. K.
Thornton
and
D. R.
Sokoloff
, “
Learning motion concepts using real-time microcomputer-based laboratory tools
,”
Am. J. Phys.
58
,
858
867
(
1990
).
58.
P. W.
Laws
, “
Calculus-based physics without lectures
,”
Phys. Today
44
(
12
),
24
31
(
1991
).
59.
R. R.
Hake
, “
Promoting student crossover to the Newtonian world
,”
Am. J. Phys.
55
,
878
884
(
1987
);
A. Van
Heuvelen
, “
Learning to think like a physicist: A review of research-based instructional strategies
,”
Am. J. Phys.
59
,
891
897
(
1991
);
A. V.
Heuvelen
, “
Overview, Case Study Physics
,”
Am. J. Phys.
59
,
898
907
(
1991
).
60.
Physics Nobel laureate Ken Wilson was among those who helped to develop and implement inquiry-based physics courses for K-12 teachers:
K. G.
Wilson
, “
Introductory physics for teachers
,”
Phys. Today
44
(
9
),
71
73
(
1991
). Also see
D.
Zollman
, “Learning cycles for a large-enrollment class,”
Phys. Teach.
28
,
20
25
(
1990
).
61.
National Commission on Excellence in Education
, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. A Report to the Nation and the Secretary of Education, United States Department of Education (
National Commission on Excellence in Education
,
Washington, DC
,
1983
).
62.
S.
White
and
C. L.
Tesfaye
,
High School Physics Courses & Enrollments: Results from the 2012–2013 Nationwide Survey of High School Physics Teachers
(
American Institute of Physics
,
College Park, MD
,
2014
), pp.
1
3
.
63.
C. L.
Tesfaye
and
S.
White
, High School Physics Textbooks: Results from the 2008–2009 Nationwide Survey of High School Physics Teachers (
American Institute of Physics
,
College Park, MD
,
2010
), p.
2
; L. Lederman, “Revolution in science education: Put physics first!,”
Phys. Today
54
(
9
), 11–12 (2001).
64.
P. G.
Hewitt
,
Conceptual Physics: A High School Physics Program
(
Addison-Wesley
,
Menlo Park, CA
,
1987
);
P. G.
Hewitt
,
Conceptual Physics: A New Introduction to Your Environment
(
Little, Brown, & Co.
,
Boston
,
1971
).
65.
National Science Board
,
Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 [NSB 12-01]
(
National Science Foundation
,
Arlington, VA
,
2012
), p.
1-18
.
66.
Project 2061, American Association for the Advancement of Science
,
Benchmarks for Science Literacy
(
Oxford U.P.
,
NY
,
1993
).
67.
National Research Council
,
National Science Education Standards
(
National Academy Press
,
Washington, DC
,
1996
).
68.
R. R.
Hake
, “
Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses
,”
Am. J. Phys.
66
,
64
74
(
1998
).
69.
Reference 2, p. 17.
70.
See Ref. 2, pp. 60–61, Appendix C.1; J. Jackson, personal communication (
2014
).
71.
S.
White
and
C. L.
Tesfaye
,
Who Teaches High School Physics? Results from the 2008-09 Nationwide Survey of High School Physics Teachers
(
American Institute of Physics
,
College Park, MD
,
2010
).
72.
M.
Neuschatz
,
M.
McFarling
, and
S.
White
,
Reaching the Critical Mass: The Twenty Year Surge in High School Physics; Findings from the 2005 Nationwide Survey of High School Physics Teachers
(
American Institute of Physics
,
College Park, MD
,
2008
), p.
19
.
73.
See Ref. 62, p. 1.
74.
T. D.
Snyder
and
S. A.
Dillow
,
Digest of Education Statistics 2012 [NCES 2014-015]
(
National Center for Education Statistics
,
Washington, DC
,
2013
), pp.
189
and
252
; see also <http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d13/tables/dt13_219.10.asp>.
75.
National Research Council
, Committee on High School Science Laboratories: Role and Vision,
America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science
, edited by
S. R.
Singer
,
M. L.
Hilton
, and
H. A.
Schweingruber
(
National Academies Press
,
Washington, DC
,
2006
).
76.
NGSS Lead States
,
Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States
(
National Academies Press
,
Washington, DC
,
2013
), Vols. 1 and 2.
77.
I. V. S.
Mullis
 et al,
Mathematics and Science Achievement in the Final Year of Secondary School: IEA's Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)
(
Boston College
,
Chestnut Hill, MA
,
1998
).
78.
OECD
,
PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do—Student Performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science
(
OECD Publishing
,
Paris
,
2010
), vol. I.
79.
Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century: An Agenda for American Science and Technology
,
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The authors have developed a graduate-level course focused on the history discussed in this paper. The course includes extensive, annotated reading lists, suggested discussion questions and assignments, and other guidance for potential instructors. See
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