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Undergraduate physics in the age of COVID-19

2 November 2021

New and returning students, particularly those from underrepresented groups, have faced pandemic-related challenges. Departments can take steps to support them during this academic year.

Abdel Adjibade leads a physics lab at Eastern Illinois University in September 2020.
Physics instructor Abdel Adjibade leads a lab at Eastern Illinois University in September 2020. Adjibade taught students how to use a device that would help them conduct experiments from home during the pandemic. Credit: Eastern Illinois University

When the calendar turned to March 2020, US higher education was in the midst of an ongoing evolution. Undergraduate enrollment was continuing its steady climb, as were education costs. Physics departments were seeing an increase in total undergraduate majors, though women, African Americans, and other groups remained underrepresented as compared with the general population.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

Newly acquired data from the Statistical Research Center (SRC) at the American Institute of Physics (AIP) and other sources reveal that the pandemic has left no aspect of higher education unaltered and has resulted in educators having to dynamically modify their expectations for the academic year. (AIP also publishes Physics Today.) The events of the past year and a half have introduced additional shifts to total enrollment and student demographics and have exposed the weaknesses of support structures that are offered to both current and incoming students.

As classrooms approach their new normal this fall, departments striving to provide the best education must be cognizant of the demographic shifts in the entering group of students and the educational reality that current undergraduate students have experienced during the pandemic.

College physics during COVID

Key findings from a 2020–21 American Institute of Physics survey of senior physics and astronomy majors:

  • 72% reported that they believed they learned less because of classes being switched from in person to online
  • 52% reported they felt less confident that they could get full-time employment in their chosen field
  • 42% of the nonwhite students said they were in a worse place financially, compared with 36% of the white students

Trends before COVID-19

According to the annual AIP enrollments and degrees survey, the overall number of students graduating with a physics bachelor’s degree from a US institution has been steadily increasing, from 3649 in 1999 to 9296 in 2020. Over about the same period, the percentages of physics bachelor’s degrees earned by women and African Americans have stayed roughly flat or even decreased, which is evidence of a systemic problem.

Before COVID-19, some models of undergraduate enrollment trends incorporated a decrease in the number of 18-year-olds in the US overall and predicted a relatively large drop in overall undergraduate enrollment by the end of the current decade. Those models also predicted that enrollment changes will not be uniform across institution type. Whereas elite institutions (those with a top 50 national ranking) could expect flat enrollments over the next decade, institutions with rankings of 50–100 and, to a greater degree, institutions ranked 101 and higher should expect large decreases in the number of incoming students. As national population trends differ by region, the impact to physics departments could vary by both prestige of institution and region.

Shifts due to the pandemic

The pandemic caused its own challenges and shifts for colleges and universities. Between fall 2019 and fall 2020, total student enrollment decreased by 2.5%. The shifts were not uniform: Undergraduate enrollment fell 3.6%, with first-time student enrollment falling 13.1%. On the basis of national data, we can conclude that the observed decrease in first-time enrollment is not due to a decrease in high school graduation rates. The impact on public two-year colleges also has been marked, with overall enrollments decreasing by 10%.

Differences are also apparent in overall enrollment demographics. Whereas enrollment for women is down by less than 1%, for men it’s down by 5.1%, exacerbating long-term trends in the college gender gap. Perhaps because they may have been harder hit by the economic impact of the pandemic, fewer low-income students are enrolling. Having those observations in mind when making department-level plans is imperative if undergraduate programs are to respond to incoming students’ changing needs. Physics and astronomy departments must be aware that students who are traditionally underrepresented or struggle to connect to a department’s culture may be even more isolated going forward. Undergraduate student groups and strong faculty–student community building will be more important than ever.

In short, students starting college in fall 2021 will have a different aggregate profile than students in previous classes and may need different resources and support networks to excel.

The student experience

Although some of the educational effects of COVID-19—namely the lack of in-person courses and experiences—are likely to dissipate, the ramifications of extended virtual or hybrid learning on students’ development of career skills and a sense of belonging will be long lasting. Experimental course sequences, which are often built around hands-on skills, public speaking, and group work, have been substantially modified in many departments. In a yet-to-be published 2020–21 AIP survey of physics departments, 31% reported that all lab courses were taught virtually in the fall of 2020; an additional 52% reported that only some in-person activities took place (see figure 1). In another unpublished AIP survey of physics and astronomy majors who were college seniors in 2021, 72% reported that they believed they learned less because of classes being switched from in person to online.

Lab time spent remote, in-person, or hybrid.
Figure 1. Physics labs were often held remotely during the fall 2020 semester. Only 17% of departments held all their labs in person, 52% had some in-person offerings, and the remaining 31% held all their labs remotely. Credit: AIP Statistical Research Center, 2020 Enrollments and Degrees Survey, unpublished data

While working with students this term, faculty members should remember that the pandemic had varying effects on different types of students. For example, a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report has shown that COVID-19 has had a disproportionately negative effect on women in STEMM fields. AIP’s survey of senior physics and astronomy majors similarly shows gender-specific differences in COVID-19 impacts. Compared with men, a greater percentage of women reported being less confident about doing an excellent job on physics assignments, exams, and labs during the pandemic (see figure 2).

AIP’s TEAM-UP report, a 2020 study by a task force focused on increasing the number of African American students earning bachelor’s degrees in physics and astronomy, found that one key factor in their persistence and success is a sense of belonging to the physics community. In AIP’s survey of senior physics and astronomy majors, significantly more nonwhite students than white students reported that their sense of belonging in physics courses or labs decreased during the pandemic (see figure 3). No student of any race or ethnicity should feel that they do not belong, but the greater likelihood of nonwhite students having that experience is especially troubling. Departments should pay special attention to promoting inclusion and consult the TEAM-UP report for recommendations.

Furthermore, the TEAM-UP report notes that various types of support, including academic and financial, are essential for the persistence and success of African American students. However, in the AIP survey of physics and astronomy seniors, 42% of nonwhite students said that they were in a worse place financially than before the pandemic, compared with 36% of white students. The pandemic also disproportionally affected international students studying in the US: More than 50% said they were financially worse off than before the pandemic.

Pandemic impact on academic confidence of students.
Figure 2. Confidence about performance decreased during the pandemic among physics and astronomy students who were seniors in the 2020–21 school year. Women were more likely than men to report a drop in confidence. All reported differences between groups are significant at p < 0.05. Credit: AIP Statistical Research Center, 2020–21 Senior Survey, unpublished data

In AIP’s survey of senior physics and astronomy majors, students reported decreased departmental support as a result of the pandemic for “the work that I want to do in my community” (see figure 3). That change, which was reported by significantly more nonwhite students than white students, is particularly troublesome because the TEAM-UP study found that a sense of connection between physics and “activities that improve society or benefit one’s community” is essential for African American students. The survey of senior physics and astronomy majors also indicated a statistically significant gender difference, with more women than men saying departmental support for desired community work decreased. Furthermore, significantly more women than men reported that their departments less frequently created a supportive environment during the pandemic than before (see figure 4).

After graduation

Findings from AIP’s SRC show that new physics bachelors who are employed in the private sector report that their most regularly used workplace skills include solving technical problems, working on a team, performing quality control, undertaking design and development, and using specialized equipment. All those skills are honed by experimental courses, group work, and laboratory research. Yet students’ access to peer groups has been limited during the pandemic: 54% of senior physics and astronomy majors said they never or rarely had access to in-person or online study groups with peers. Although not part of the survey data, we know that students have also had limited access to research conferences and few or no opportunities to present their work in person and that they have struggled to network with students and physicists who are not connected to their courses. The AIP senior survey found that higher percentages of nonwhite (compared with white) and women (compared with men) students report that they sought help from another instructor or mentor less often than they did before the pandemic (see figures 3 and 4).

Race/ethnicity differences in reported support from physics departments.
Figure 3. Nonwhite physics and astronomy students who were seniors during the 2020–21 school year were more likely than their white peers to report a decrease in their sense of belonging, their department’s support of their community work, and the likelihood that they would seek help from an instructor or mentor. Credit: AIP Statistical Research Center, 2020–21 Senior Survey, unpublished data

Perhaps because of the lack of networking opportunities, senior physics and astronomy majors reported that since the pandemic began, they felt less confident that they could get full-time employment in their chosen field (52% of respondents) and that they could get accepted to a graduate program in physics or another STEM field (47%). Although reduced confidence in getting a full-time job could stem from concern about pandemic-driven economic changes, lower confidence in being accepted to graduate school could be related to students’ perception that they learned less during remote classes and labs.

What can we do?

The fall 2021 semester has begun with a vastly altered landscape. Enrollments are down, particularly for the types of students who may need additional support. Returning students report that they learned less during the pandemic and encountered fewer opportunities to connect with other students and faculty members and that they harbor concerns about getting a job or being accepted into graduate school. Some pandemic effects were experienced more widely by students from underrepresented groups, who report a reduced sense of belonging, less confidence in their ability to succeed in school, and a worsened financial situation.

Gender differences in reported support from physics departments.
Figure 4. Female physics and astronomy students who were seniors during the 2020–21 school year were more likely than their male peers to report a decrease in the degree that their department creates a supportive environment, in their department’s support of their community work, and in the likelihood that they would seek help from an instructor or mentor. Credit: AIP Statistical Research Center, 2020–21 Senior Survey, unpublished data

Departments can help address those issues in several ways:

  1. Keep in mind the changing demographics of incoming students. Because the numbers of students from some backgrounds are declining, those students from those backgrounds may be more at risk of isolation than ever before.
  2. Aim to provide students with a well-rounded skill set. Students may need additional support to develop skills that they weren’t able to use during the pandemic. Consider adjusting the content of courses as needed.
  3. Create a supportive environment for students from all backgrounds. Take actions that will increase students’ sense of belonging, boost confidence, and build connections among faculty members and students. To this end:
    1. Support vibrant undergraduate groups and undergraduate leadership. Ensure that the department has a strong connection to student groups and leaders.
    2. Build faculty–student community. Faculty members should engage with students and support a sense of departmental camaraderie.
    3. Support undergraduate community service. Look for ways to connect students to opportunities outside the academic institution.
  4. Incorporate suggestions from the AIP TEAM-UP report for increasing belonging, providing academic and personal support, and fostering the success of African American students. Many of the recommendations are broadly applicable to the larger student population.

Awareness of changing enrollment trends, demographics, and student experiences should lead departments to evolve in ways that support students going forward. Thoughtful planning and the realization that departments won’t be able to resume business as usual will help not only students but also departments looking to recruit, retain, and serve physics and astronomy graduates in the post-pandemic world.

Brad R. Conrad is director of the Society of Physics Students and Sigma Pi Sigma. Rachel Ivie is senior research fellow at the American Institute of Physics. Patrick Mulvey is research manager at AIP’s Statistical Research Center. Starr Nicholson is senior research analyst at SRC.

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