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The National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics has been awarded a $133,000 grant by the Exxon-Mobil Foundation to support its Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics (SPIN-UP) initiative.
Thanks to this grant, SPIN-UP's focus in the coming year will be on completion of site visits to about 20 departments with thriving undergraduate physics programs, and of the survey of all physics departments. A case study report compiling the findings of the site visits will be distributed to all physics departments in the country. Departments interested in being part of the site visit program should contact the task force at firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com
The task force is charged with planning, developing, and coordinating activities aimed at "revitalizing" undergraduate physics programs across the country, and providing advice to the professional organizations and the physics community at large about undergraduate physics.
The national task force was formed a year and a half ago by the APS, the American Institute of Physics, and the American Association of Physics Teachers, drawing its 10 members from physics departments around the country. While the number of undergraduate physics majors as a whole is declining steadily each year, the task force noticed that certain departments were actually thriving and growing. They came up with several hypotheses as to why this might be so, but found no data to support their conclusions. So they approached Exxon-Mobil for funds to conduct a series of site visits and a survey of all undergraduate physics departments to gather the missing hard data.
Further information about the task force is available online at http://www.aapt.org/programs/nftup.
Models for Reform
When it comes to revitalizing physics departments, one size doesn't necessarily fit all, according to Robert C. Hilborn, a professor of physics at Amherst College and chair of the task force. "There are many ways to apply the principles of successful programs to the local situation," he says.
When the physics department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, began revamping its curriculum in 1996, it faced a challenge common to many large state universities: huge classes for introductory physics (about 2500 students each semester) placed a heavy burden on the faculty member assigned to teach them, and burnout was a common problem. So the department chose to implement what it describes as a "team teaching" environment, according to faculty member Gary Gladding, in which the burden is evenly distributed among several faculty members. The result: "No heroes, no burnout, because both the pain and gain are shared."
The Colorado School of Mines is a much smaller school, with a technology-focused mission, and hence most of its students are already predisposed to science and engineering pursuits. Despite its small size, CSM is among the top 20 colleges and universities nationwide in terms of producing physics majors. James McNeil, a professor in the physics department, attributes this to the fact that every student is required to take Physics I and II, which are taught by the best teachers, because this is viewed as a prime recruiting opportunity to draw students into the physics department. The college administration values teaching, tends to hire student-centered faculty, and encourages and rewards teaching innovations.
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