Award for Improving Undergraduate Physics Education Awardees

Recognizing Departments

Application Deadline: July 15
Gray Arrow Nominating a Physics Program


California State University, Long Beach
The Department of Physics and Astronomy at California State University Long Beach has been engaged in a decade-long campaign to strengthen its programs. Total production of undergraduate physics degrees has increased from 3 in 2007 to 25 in 2014 and an estimated 35 in the 2015 academic year. 30% of degrees are awarded to under-represented minorities (URMs), and they have no achievement gaps in graduation rates between URM and majority students, nor between men and women. Implementing many of the recommendations of the SPIN-UP report, such as innovative curricula and SCALE-UP classrooms, has improved their undergraduate curriculum with a measurable increase in the graduation rates of students taking introductory physics. In addition, adopting the Colorado Learning Assistant model has allowed the department to use their upper-division students to improve their lower-division courses while also providing valuable training for their majors. Students who complete the LA training course have significantly elevated graduation rates. In summary, the Department of Physics and Astronomy at CSULB has made significant, research-based and quantitatively assessed improvements throughout their program and achieved a transformative increase in the number of physics degrees awarded at the University, particularly to URM students, along with improved education of not only their majors but all STEM students.

Western Washington University
Western Washington University (WWU) is a regional comprehensive university with about 15,000 students located in Bellingham, WA. The Department of Physics & Astronomy at WWU is dedicated to strong undergraduate education with emphasis on student-centered teaching practices and an exceptional research experience. The 14 faculty members serve over 5000 students annually, including about 120 physics majors, a significantly increased the number of majors from Spring 2002. The success in growing the major is attributed to the establishment of strong community within the department, that welcomes students and engages them in close collaboration with faculty not only in coursework, but also in meaningful research, teaching, and outreach experiences. Each year, the department awards 20 or more B.S. degrees in Physics, ranking nationally in the top 1% among physics departments exclusively offering baccalaureate degrees. Faculty professional development emphasizing research-based teaching has led to demonstrable increases in student learning, measured, for instance, in above average gains on standardized tests in core disciplines of physics. WWU Physics majors work closely with faculty on original research in the fields of Astronomy, Condensed Matter Physics, and Physics Education, often supported by external grants and leading to peer-reviewed publications with undergraduate students as co-authors. As some of the statistics show WWU Physics majors graduates are well prepared for graduate education or entrance into STEM professions.


Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne
The Department of Physics at the Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) has shown a strong enrollment increase during the past six years (275%) based on a coherent effort by their faculty and commitment to their students and community. Their approach is based on using interactive engagement pedagogy in the classroom, innovation in laboratory experiences, computational physics and research oriented senior thesis. Seven years ago the Department of Physics was small, in fact the smallest on campus and on the verge of termination. Then the faculty decided to adopt drastic changes and create an exemplary physics program using social media as a communication aid with different Facebook groups such Women in Physics, SPS, research groups, and specific class groups to allow students to openly discuss their classwork and research with advisors and fellow students, providing a forum to share their successes and help others. The department has created new concentrations also allowing students to design their own concentration with courses outside of physics (for example pre-law or chemical physics). The faculty are strongly engaged in obtaining external funds for new methods aimed at increasing student participation in the departments activities.

Middle Tennessee State University
Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) is a comprehensive regional university offering a B.S. as their highest degree in physics. Formerly a “low-producing” department, the MTSU Department of Physics and Astronomy has consciously adopted a mission to provide exceptional classroom experiences, career-focused courses and pathways, and intensive research opportunities to prepare students for targeted careers. The department has over the past half-decade successfully refocused its degree programs and course offerings to emphasize the possibilities inherent in a wide range of career choices beyond graduate programs in physics, including teaching careers, and teaches the skills necessary to attain them, including freshman career seminars, required capstone research experiences, and a senior-level career skills course. MTSU is among the most successful PhysTEC sites and became a UTeach replication site, in addition to thoughtfully reforming its entire curriculum in accord with research-based pedagogies, dramatically reducing DFW rates in introductory courses, and improving recruiting and retention at all levels of the curriculum, resulting in a significant increase in graduation rates.

North Carolina State University
The Department of Physics at North Carolina State University (NCSU) has gone through significant changes and transformations in its program such as the implementation of aspects of physics education that not only has increased the number of physics majors in their undergraduate program, but also has enhanced learning to all the students that the department has served. They focused on improving students understanding of physics, encouraging under-represented population, enabling K-12 teaching careers, expanding undergraduate research opportunities, introducing career preparation and recognizing student success. NCSU is a PhysTEC site and the success of these implementations also lead eight of their current faculty to become members of the NCSU Academy of Outstanding Teachers, and three being recognized with the highest honor for teaching in the UNC System, the Board of Governor’s Award for Teaching Excellence. Three faculty have also received Pegram Medals for Excellence in Education from the Southeastern Section of the APS. Two were CASE North Carolina Professors of the Year. Their faculty have won national (2011 McGraw Prize in Education) and local (2010, 2011 Martin Award for Teaching Excellence) awards for innovative approaches to teaching physics.

Rochester Institute of Technology
Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) is a comprehensive private university offering a B.S. as their highest degree in physics and a Ph.D. degree in Astrophysical Sciences and Technology. Over the past 14 years, the faculty has made a conscious effort to transform a stagnant department with outdated pedagogy into a thriving department. Their success is seen in a tripling of the number of physics majors, from 41 in 2000 to an average 135 for the past few years. Several factors have contributed to this success, including an overhaul of all introductory physics classes to a SCALE-UP-style active-learning environment, special attention for at-risk students, introduction of a freshman “gateway” course on relativity for physics majors, a significant overhaul of the advanced laboratory, establishment of a Learning Assistant program to get majors into the introductory classroom, and initiation of a year-long capstone requirement for seniors. In addition, the department has hired 3 faculty members who specialize in physics education. A commitment to improvement is shared by all faculty members in the department.


FIUFlorida International University
Florida International University has undertaken program-wide initiatives to attract and retain students which has led to impressive growth in the number of physics majors. These include a strong program in Physics Education Research, and associated implementation of research-based curriculum, particularly in the first year. Additionally, several alternate tracks within the physics major have been created, including a physics education track, providing students with several possible career paths after graduation. FIU has been particularly successful in recruitment and training of underrepresented minority students.

James Madison University
James Madison University sustains a thriving physics department that has grown significantly over the past 15 years. The Department of Physics & Astronomy has developed a culture of engaging students in the education process through an emphasis on undergraduate research experiences, personalized attention and advising, hiring for mission, recruiting and outreach efforts, and an ongoing move to research-based pedagogies and assessment. Especially notable are the range of program offerings to serve a broad student population, including tracks in applied physics and technical communication, in addition to strong teacher education efforts as a PhysTEC site.

University of California, DavisUC_Davis_Physics
The University of California, Davis department of physics has created curriculum opportunities involving specializations and multidisciplinary applied degrees coupled with vibrant research options for our diverse student population. The emphasis is on student preparation for STEM careers. UC Davis Physics includes an innovative and collaborative introductory sequence, two distinctive career seminars, a series of research-oriented capstone courses, along with multifaceted opportunities for peer and faculty interactions and creative investigations. Within a decade this approach has doubled the number of physics majors, successfully preparing both incoming first-years and increasing numbers of transfer students for both graduate degrees and professional careers.


Colorado School of Mines
CSMThe Department of Physics at The Colorado School of Mines has substantially transformed itself over the last decade, using an iterative model of innovation, implementation, and assessment. Their dedicated and aggressive approach has transformed all levels of their curriculum, from introductory classes for non-majors to senior level courses and seminars. Over the past decade the number of majors has more than doubled, from 114 students in 2000-2001 to 258 students in 2011-2012, significantly outpacing the overall growth of the student body. They are now one of the top five largest physics departments in the country, graduating on average 56 seniors per year since 2006.

Kettering University
Kettering University’s Physics Department is a distinctive program, with co-op experiences integrated to promote graduates being placed in industry. Kettering has demonstrated excellence by tripling the number of majors over the last ten years as well as by focusing on the assessment of particular elements of the program including course outcomes and evaluation of co-op experiences.


Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
MIT MIT has engineered an impressive transformation of its undergraduate physics curriculum, which currently produces the largest number of bachelor's degrees in physics annually of any university in the United States. The Department has more than doubled the number of majors since 2001, accompanied by a focus on diversity that has resulted in a department in which more than a third of graduating seniors are women. These changes have been accomplished through a focused commitment to creating a program that is flexible, welcoming and respectful of all students, with advising, mentoring and other programs to support students at all levels. The Department has been a consistent innovator in physics education with an emphasis on quality, including the innovative Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) approach to teaching introductory physics to most MIT freshmen. This dual focus on outstanding educational practices and a student-focused departmental culture has resulted in an exceptionally strong undergraduate physics program.

University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse UWL
COE recognizes the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse Physics Department for revitalizing their physics program through widespread student-centric reforms. These reforms have included implementing a revised curriculum at all levels using physics-education research supported methods, increasing undergraduate participation in research, creating a supportive department community through seminars and student organizations, and developing a thriving physics teacher training program. The results of these efforts have been a significant increase in the number of majors, bringing this undergraduate-only program from the brink of elimination to one of the largest physics departments in Wisconsin, national recognition of many of the department programs, and quantifiable success of the students graduating from the program.


The Compass Project at UC Berkeley
The Compass Project, founded in 2006, is dedicated to building a collaborative, diverse and creative community of undergraduate students that will enrich their experience in the physical sciences. Graduate student volunteers coordinate the program and foster an inclusive environment so that incoming undergraduates from groups traditionally underrepresented in the physical sciences may acquire a solid sense of direction. The centerpiece of the Compass Project is the Compass Summer Program, which takes place during the two weeks before the start of the fall semester. The residential, all-expenses-paid program brings together approximately 15 incoming freshmen and six graduate student instructors for intensive research on a physical question – recent examples include “How do wind turbines work?” and “What is the nature of time?” Students work in small groups to design experiments that help answer the question posed. Rather than listening to lectures, students are urged to work collaboratively and learn through discovery. After the summer program, Compass students participate in a semester-long course in problem solving and model building, in which they continue to take advantage of the community they have built in order to help each other become better scientists. Additionally, undergraduates are paired with a graduate student mentor who helps guide them through the rest of their undergraduate experience. Other programs Compass sponsors include a lecture series, office hours for homework help, and community dinners.

Mount Holyoke College
The Mount Holyoke Physics department is an active, friendly, reform-minded community of female undergraduates and dedicated faculty and staff. The department averages seven majors per year, more than three times the national median for bachelors granting institutions. All of the physics majors are women, many of whom stay in STEM fields, whether they continue on to a Ph.D., teach at the K-12 level, or work in industry. The department stands out in its commitment to outstanding teaching, both in the classroom and in our undergraduate research. They have three active experimental labs on campus, and a theory group, in which undergraduate physics students engage in cutting edge, publishable research. Both students and faculty have won awards for their research endeavors, including Goldwater Scholarships, Fulbrights, Gates, Churchill, an Apker Award, NSF and DOE Graduate Fellowships, and two NSF CAREER awards for outstanding research and education by individual faculty. The department is deeply committed to classroom teaching, using best practices as determined by physics education research, including peer instruction with concept questions and preclass questions, while also developing new general interest science courses. The department has seen substantial change over the past ten years, with the completion of a new science center in 2002 that provides a student lounge, in constant use, next to the faculty offices. They hired two new faculty members in 2006 and 2010 and have made significant changes to curriculum in order to focus on emerging fields and support student career interests. Mount Holyoke's Physics Department is in a period of growth, with a 38% jump in introductory enrollments and increasing numbers of majors. They are building on their strengths and developing new ones.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
All members of the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois, from the greenest assistant professor or teaching assistant to the most distinguished senior researcher, demonstrate their commitment to undergraduate education every day.  In the last 15 years, they have collectively and completely recreated the way undergraduate physics courses are taught--to almost 9000 students per year--by rethinking curricular content, redesigning labs, remodeling classrooms, incorporating innovative educational technologies, and drawing on the results of their nationally recognizes physics education research group.  The renaissance in undergraduate teaching begun in 1995 at Illinois has involved more than 90 percent of the faculty and has transformed both the introductory classes taken by science and engineering students and the advanced classes and laboratories taken by physics majors.  An innovative, integrated model for physics teaching has been created--one that develops higher-order thinking competencies, promotes collaborative problem-solving, and improves communication and leadership skills.  The Illinois approach benefits not only the undergraduate students who take their classes, but it also gives their graduate teaching assistants excellent training in best practices.
Physics Illinois

Utah State Universityusu_physics
Twelve years ago, undergraduate physics at Utah State University (USU) was almost solely a service program for majors of other disciplines. At that time, adapting best practices the department uncovered at other universities to their own circumstances, they began to systematically change their program. Among the important changes were: hiring a full-time, professional adviser; developing new degree options to give students greater career flexibility; instituting undergraduate research as a degree requirement for all physics students; reinvigorating a long-inactive Society of Physics Students (SPS) Chapter; and initiating a “scholarship boot camp” to prepare high performing students to compete for national awards. Since introducing these changes the number of physics majors at USU has increased by five-fold. In their exit interviews, seniors invariably laud the department adviser and the advisement they received from her. The department now averages over twenty different undergraduate research presenters per year at national and regional meetings. Their SPS chapter maintains a high profile educational outreach program, and receives continuing praise for its activities from the National Office. And over the past decade physics students have won Rhodes and Fulbright Scholarships, have received multiple NSF Graduate Research Fellowships, and have averaged about two national Goldwater Scholarships per year.