Physics first aid

How to halt the sharp decline in the numbers of physics students? Lucy Ward reports on a crisis
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Physicists are clever people. They can see into space, split atoms, even offer up an (albeit brief) history of time. Yet, as the 21st century approaches, one problem still stumps them: how to halt the decline in their own subject.

You do not need the brain of Stephen Hawking to appreciate the problems facing physics education in Britain. So far this academic year, four universities have wielded the axe over physics departments, with two - Coventry and the University of East Anglia - opting to end undergraduate courses. De Montfort, in Leicester, has merged its physics and chemistry departments, while London's Birkbeck College proposes to shut its physics department altogether.

All four have pointed to falling numbers of applicants for undergraduate degree places, combined with growing concern over the level of cross-subsidy from other departments for the comparatively costly courses.

Many track the drop in applications to a national decline in A-level physics, from almost 50,000 candidates in 1989 to just over 32,000 last year - a fall of one-third in less than a decade.

A survey by Brunel University last year revealed that physics, engineering and languages were struggling to compete for the brightest A-level students, many of whom were being won over by the charms of business studies and psychology.

Confronted with such evidence, physicists have pointed out that their subject has continued in the last few years to attract a steady number of undergraduates - around 2,900 annually - although expansion in higher education means physics students have declined as a proportion of the total.

Though small physics departments - Coventry's has just 11 first-year students this year - are vulnerable, nationally the courses are exceeding their target intake and physics research remains strong, if under-funded.

The physics establishment may be keen to dismiss reports of the subject's demise, but it has had to acknowledge signs of sickness. The Institute of Physics, which ran a campaign at the start of the decade to persuade universities to review undergraduate physics, is now about to launch a new project taking a fundamental look at the subject at A-level.

Catherine Wilson, who is heading the project, believes that there are as many explanations for the fall in A-level physicists as there are people with opinions on the subject. Some are obvious, such as that physics is undeniably difficult, with some research showing that it is harder to gain top grades than in other subjects. Where a university course does not specify physics A-level, many students may opt for an "easier" subject, particularly in the light of ever-expanding choice.

Employment prospects may also have an influence, with some pupils failing to spot the breadth of job opportunities available to physics graduates - an error the institute is keen to correct. The career options, in fact, are so diverse that too few physicists choose to go into teaching, leading to a worrying lack of good teachers that may have a knock-on effect.

Professor Alan Smithers, of Brunel University's Centre for Education and Employment Research, believes that the decline is linked to the introduction of the new double-award science GCSE. Although the qualification, worth two GCSEs, ensures that virtually all children now continue with some physics up to age 16, he suggests that many are put off by the jump to the more severely academic A-level.

Amidst the theories, one key factor seems to emerge which influences all the others. Teenagers considering A-level physics, or even degree courses, fail to see a link between the content and its application. They cannot see a connection either with the world of work, or with the kind of headline-making physics that has caught their imagination.

Catherine Wilson acknowledges that pupils are searching for relevance. "Too often the applications - for example, the medical and environmental uses of physics - are tacked on the end, and teenagers don't recognise the subject as the whiz-bang physics they see and like on TV. There is too much jam tomorrow in physics, because teachers feel they must get the basics across first."

The new A-level physics project is aimed at tackling precisely this problem. It will seek to whittle down the sheer volume of topics covered, leaving room for some of the challenging but exciting subjects, such as chaos theory and even quantum physics. Updating the curriculum, cutting out some of the basics, is likely to put the onus on universities to fill in a few gaps, but for many the pay-off will be higher numbers of keener students. Dr Fred Loebinger, head of admissions at Manchester University's flourishing physics department, would gladly accept the exchange. "You either turn them on, and they arrive less well prepared, or you force all the basics on them at school and risk turning them off. I believe it's possible to inject a bit more wonder without sacrificing rigour."

Alongside its overhaul of the post-16 syllabuses, the physics establishment is having to wake up to the realities of marketing. Universities run taster courses for sixth formers, open Internet web sites and send teams of youthful PhD students to run projects in schools. The Institute of Physics is milking its band of trendy physicists for all it is worth, anxious to show that science can be hip.

Much is under way, but the results will take time to filter through, and some small university departments do not have time on their side. At least now, though, physicists are coordinating their efforts, determined to ensure that the fate of their subject does not rest, as chaos theory suggests, on the flap of a butterfly's wingn