APS News

Physics Departments Explore Innovative Curriculum Approaches

A central theme of the recommendations from the APS Task Force on Careers and Professional Development is that academic programs of physics departments need to try new approaches to better prepare students to take advantage of the breadth of career and employment options available to them. [See report on the APS home page under the Career/Employment button].

There are many examples of physics departments around the country that have undergone the necessary self-examination and devised innovative new approaches to the physics degree, and to physics teaching. A sampling of some of these programs is featured below.

Southwest Texas State University

One innovative approach is the Materials Physics Program (MPP) at Southwest Texas State University (SWT), under the leadership of Professors Carlos Gutierrez and Heather Galloway. While still undergoing the approval process that will make it a legitimate degree, MPP is an alternative major to the traditional physics BS that emphasizes courses and hands-on experience designed to prepare students for the local high-tech industry. SWT is located in San Marcos, near Austin, in the Silicon Hills region of Texas. The world's leading semiconductor companies - including Intel, Motorola, AMD, and National Semiconductor - have facilities in the region and SWT has engaged these companies for advice on how to appropriately prepare undergraduate physics majors for the local high-tech workforce.

Gutierrez reports that MPP graduates have a much easier transition into the workforce than SWT's traditional physics majors, with more options, and attractive salaries. Over the last four years, BS students were placed at Motorola, Applied Materials, AMD, and other semiconductor-related industries at salaries ranging from $30K -$51K per year. However, physics has not been sucked out of the MPP physics bachelors degree: five graduates are currently in PhD programs. "By focusing on the needs of local industry and bringing industry into the department as a partner in physics education, the SWT physics department has strengthened itself by providing a more useful degree to its students and a more useful product to its community," said Gutierrez.

Louisiana State University

The Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Department of Computer Science at LSU have developed an interdisciplinary curriculum which offers graduate students the opportunity to obtain a PhD in physics and a MS in computer science. This initiative is an effort to integrate high performance computing and communications (HPCC) with research and education in the physical sciences. The HPCC program was started in 1990 by Professors Rajiv Kalia and Priya Vashishta, who established a Concurrent Computing Laboratory for Materials Simulations (CCLMS) at LSU.

Faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and students at the CCLMS are involved in multidisciplinary research programs in computational materials science, physics and astronomy, chemistry, algorithm design, parallel programming environments, and advanced scientific visualization. The State of Louisiana equiped the CCLMS with a number of parallel machines and visualization platforms. With support from NSF the CCLMS has been connected to other massively parallel machines and visualization platforms in the country via a high-speed network.

Students working toward a dual degree take core courses in physics and preparatory computer science courses, before taking the qualifying examination in physics. Subsequently they take one computer science course per semester over the next three years. In addition, they are required to complete a project in the Department of Computer Science and a PhD thesis in physics.

Encouraged by the success of this initiative, the two departments plan to introduce a three-year program combining a MS in applied physics with a MS from the Department of Computer Science. New interdisciplinary courses in materials physics and chemistry will be designed and a summer internship program will be introduced, allowing students to do research at government laboratories and industry.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

MIT's Department of Physics has implemented numerous initiatives designed to broaden and strengthen its interactions with industry, under the auspices of its Physics Industry Forum. Specifically, last year the department began helping graduate students to seek summer employment, or "externships," with industries or national laboratories, offering credit towards the department's breadth requirements for the PhD degree. According to Peter Wolff, who serves as department liaison to industry, the program placed six students with major companies in 1996 and doubled that number this year. Wolff said, "Industrial people like to see resums with industrial experience. It's proof that the student has some of the qualities they are seeking - breadth, flexiblity, collaborative ability - that are not taught as part of the traditional physics training."

To help facilitate direct contacts with industry, the physics department holds a six-week recruiting open house each fall, hosting one to three companies each day and arranging interviews with students when desired. There is also a Visiting Scientist Program for industrial scientists, intended to foster more collaborative research with industry. In addition, the department is trying to broaden its course offerings in physics. For example, there is now a popular course in biophysics. Wolff sees similar opportunities in computational and chemical physics.

Wolff admits that there are still some "cultural" barriers to be overcome. Many faculty members were reluctant to lose their graduate students for the summer and students still feel that going into an industrial position is somehow second-best to an academic appointment. "In subtle ways, academia teaches students that they ought to go into academia," said Wolff. "There are challenging industrial jobs; a lot of great science has come out of industrial projects."

Moorehead State University

Simply walking off campus and into the community can inspire new ideas and opportunities for physics departments. The physics department at Moorehead State University in Moorehead, Minnesota has altered their traditional physics major after consulting with an array of local businesses. Moorehead's goal is to make physics majors more marketable by emphasizing workplace related skills. The most significant modification is the addition of an internship experience as one of the electives available to students. Physics majors may also substitute business courses for some physics courses. Local businesses have been very receptive to this concept, and Moorehead's department chair, Vijendra Agarwal, thinks that this sort of flexibility will lead to many internship and future employment opportunities for physics majors.

Rutgers University

Rutgers University has also seen the future and has introduced four options for the BS in physics: 1) the professional option, designed for the grad-school bound; 2) the five-year engineering option; 3) the general option, which is curricularly flexible and popular with premeds; and 4) the applied option, for those headed for technical jobs. Rutgers' approach has been quite successful. Over the last three years, they have produced 109 bachelors in physics; 45 bachelors will be granted this year, representing more that 1% of the national total; 24% of these are women and 16% are underrepresented minorities. Notably, the applied option is very popular, with 29% of the majors choosing this route. Similar to SWT in designing its applied track, Rutgers has looked to the needs of local industry: optics. Thus, Rutgers' applied concentration is in optics, and the applied graduates have naturally garnered jobs in the local optics industry.

Please send information about other innovative physics programs to: Barrett Ripin, APS Associate Executive Officer

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin