Guide To Courses for Non-STEM Majors

Version 2021.1

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.


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.

The Cycle of Reflection and Action

Effective Practices

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

Programmatic Assessments

See Resources in the section on Implementing Research-Based Instructional Practices for resources for teaching physics courses for non-STEM majors and beyond.

See Resources in the section on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion for resources for using inclusive pedagogy and equitable practices in physics courses for non-STEM majors and beyond.

  • The ComPADRE website includes a variety of resources for implementing research-based practices in physics classes, including PhysPort, which provides overviews of research-based teaching methods and materials, open-source curricula, expert recommendations, and assessments for physics courses for non-STEM majors.
  • The American Journal of Physics contains a number of “Resource Letters,” which provide compendiums of links and resources on teaching courses for non-STEM majors.  Examples include Resources for Teaching Environmental Physics, The Manhattan Project and Related Nuclear Research, Musical Acoustics, The Physics of Dance, and Physics of Sports.
  • Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC): a partnership between


    American Physical Society. Website



    American Association of Physics Teachers. Website

    to help universities improve their physics teacher education programs through funding opportunities, conferences, research, information, and a national network of institutions engaged in physics teacher preparation. Includes resources for developing courses for elementary education majors.
  • Research-based courses and course materials for elementary education majors:
    • Physics by Inquiry (PBI): A laboratory-based guided-inquiry curriculum designed to support preservice and inservice K-12 teachers in developing deep understanding of physics content and scientific reasoning skills. Students make observations, develop physical concepts, use and interpret scientific representations, and construct predictive explanatory models.
    • Next Generation Physical Science and Everyday Thinking (Next Gen PET): A guided-inquiry conceptual physics course designed to support future elementary school teachers and other students in developing a deep conceptual understanding of big ideas in physics through small groups, whole-class discussion, and laboratory work. Incorporates activities that focus on the nature of science and the nature of learning.
    • Powerful Ideas in Physical Science (PIPS): A six-volume inquiry-based curriculum from


      American Association of Physics Teachers. Website

      for future elementary school teachers that enables pre-service teachers to experience a hands-on, inquiry-based learning experience that models the way their students should experience science learning.
    • Responsive Teaching in Science: A set of resources for responsive teaching, a practice for teaching elementary school science, in which a teacher’s next moves are based on students’ emerging ideas and informed by specific learning goals. Resources include curricula for elementary school classrooms and professional development materials that can be used in physics courses for elementary education majors, including annotated videos of responsive teaching in elementary classrooms.
    • Composing Science: A set of resources, including lesson plans, for a physics course for elementary education majors that is focused on writing in science. These resources supplement a book filled with examples, techniques, and strategies for engaging students in writing about science in ways that both generate and communicate ideas. Book citation: L. Atkins Elliott, K. Jaxon, and I. Salter, Composing Science: A facilitator’s guide to writing in the science classroom, Teachers College Press (2016).
    • Case Studies of Students Doing Science: Videos of students doing science in classrooms ranging from the elementary to the college level, collected by the Tufts University Department of Education.

There is evidence on the effectiveness of particular curricula [1 and 2] and approaches [3 and 4] for teaching elementary education majors, and on the effectiveness of practices used in particular courses for broad audiences [5]. There is also some research on the beliefs and characteristics of non-STEM major students with respect to their understanding of and attitudes towards science [6]. However, because the goals of courses for non-STEM majors vary so widely, and because these goals (e.g., developing critical thinking skills and an awareness for how physics connects to everyday life, rather than learning particular physics content) are often very difficult to assess, there is very little research on the effectiveness of general practices for teaching non-STEM majors. See Evidence in the section on Implementing Research-Based Instructional Practices for evidence of the benefits of active learning in courses for non-STEM majors and beyond.

  1. B. Lindsey, L. Hsu, H. Sadaghiani, J. Taylor, and K. Cummings, “Positive attitudinal shifts with the Physics by Inquiry curriculum across multiple implementations,” Physical Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research 8(1), 010102 (2012).
  2. S. Robinson, V. Otero, and F. Goldberg, “Design principles for effective physics instruction: A case from physics and everyday thinking,” American Journal of Physics 78 (12), 13 (2010).
  3. A. D. Robertson, R. Scherr, and D. Hammer, editors, Responsive Teaching in Science and Mathematics, Routledge (2015).
  4. I. Y. Salter and L. J. Atkins, “Student-Generated Scientific Inquiry for Elementary Education Undergraduates: Course Development, Outcomes and Implications,” Journal of Science Teacher Education 24(1) 157–177 (2013).
  5. E. E. Prather, A. L. Rudolph, G. Brissenden, and W. M. Schlingman, “A national study assessing the teaching and learning of introductory astronomy. Part I. The effect of interactive instruction,” American Journal of Physics 77(4), 320–330 (2009).
  6. S. Cotner, S. Thompson, and R. Wright, “Do Biology Majors Really Differ from Non–STEM Majors?CBE—Life Sciences Education 16(3), ar48 (2017).
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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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