Guide to Courses for Non-STEM Majors

Version 1. January 28, 2022

Physics courses for non-STEM majors can serve a broad range of students and take a variety of forms, including general education courses for students pursuing a variety of majors or specialty courses for students from a particular non-STEM discipline. Because such courses can take many forms, this section focuses on general principles for designing courses that meet the needs of your institution and a broad range of students, rather than the structure or content of any particular course. This section provides guidance on learning about your students and the degree programs they are enrolled in and on designing courses that support students and connect physics to topics and issues they care about. This section also contains specific guidance on designing courses for elementary education majors. Non-STEM major courses can include a wide variety of topics and approaches, and some practices may not apply to specific course offerings. The recommendations on course content are intended to provide options to choose among, and should not all be applied to a single course. These courses may fulfill general education requirements as lower-division courses or, at some institutions, as upper-division general education science courses. Some institutions require a laboratory component for these courses. See the section on Instructional Laboratories and Experimental Skills for guidance on designing and evaluating laboratory experiences. See the section on High School Physics Teacher Preparation for guidance on preparing future high school physics teachers. If you have introductory physics courses that serve both STEM majors and non-STEM majors, see the sections on Introductory Courses for Life Sciences Majors and Introductory Courses for STEM Majors for additional guidance.

Benefits

These courses provide opportunities for non-STEM majors to experience the joy of physics, gain an appreciation for its aesthetic beauty, see how it connects to things they care about and experience in their everyday lives, and apply it to their work in their own disciplines. These courses can also expand students’ skills in data literacy, communication, critical thinking, evidence-based reasoning, and more. Non-STEM major courses can provide a valuable service to your institution by supporting a broad education and fulfilling students’ general education science requirements. Ensuring that these courses serve the needs of your institution and its students can significantly increase your department’s total enrollments. For some departments, these courses can provide an opportunity to recruit students who have not yet discovered physics and/or have been excluded from science, but who might thrive as physics majors. Courses designed for elementary education majors provide a powerful opportunity for these future teachers, who will impact thousands of students, to deepen their understanding of the principles of scientific inquiry.

Effective Practices

  1. Strategically develop your department’s courses for non-STEM majors

  2. Pedagogically support a broad range of students

  3. Use courses for non-STEM majors to connect physics to topics and issues your students care about

  4. Consider offering a physics or physical science course tailored to the needs of elementary education majors

Programmatic Assessments

The Cycle of Reflection and Action

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1738311, 1747563, and 1821372. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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