Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Science Education, Mallinson Institute

First Advisor

Dr. Charles Henderson


Currently the production of college graduates with science and engineering degrees is insufficient to fill the increasing number of jobs requiring these skills. This study focuses on physics majors with an in-depth examination of student transitions from high school to college. Many different areas of influence could affect a student's decision to major in physics. The first phase of this study addresses all of the potential areas of influence identified from the literature. The goal was to identify common influences that might be used to increase students' interest in majoring in physics. Subjects (N=35) from the first phase were recruited from physics majors at diverse Michigan colleges and universities. The second phase of this study explored, in more depth, important areas of influence identified in the first phase of the study. Subjects (N=94) from the second phase were recruited from diverse colleges and universities in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio. The interviews were also conducted via email.

Approximately half of the students in the study decided to major in physics while still in high school. Their reasons relate to many of the areas of influence. For example, high school physics teachers were cited as a strong influence in many students' decisions to major in physics. Influential physics teachers were described as being helpful, encouraging and interesting. The teachers also need to be their students' number one cheerleader and not their number one critic.

Some areas of influence were found to be different for males vs. females. A high percentage of all physics majors had influential adults with careers in physical or biological science fields. This percentage was even larger for female physics majors. Female students also showed a greater initial interest in astronomy than the male students. Thus, high school and college physics teachers should seek to expose students to science-related careers and adults with these careers. Astronomy is also an important and often over looked entry into physics.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access