APS News

Undergraduate Changes Rescue Graduate Physics Program at U of Wyoming

by Richard M. Todaro

The University of Wyoming's Department of Physics and Astronomy has just re-instituted its graduate program following a three-year suspension that had been triggered by low enrollment in the undergraduate program. As before the suspension, the graduate program includes a doctorate in astrophysics and a masters degree in physics education.

In 1999, University officials decided to suspend the graduate program- that is, no new students were accepted into it - in order to focus on improving the undergraduate one.

"A state like Wyoming has to have an undergraduate major in physics at its only four-year institution if for no other reason but to produce physics teachers for the state," said Paul E. Johnson, the department chair for the past twenty years. "People grow up in Wyoming and they go to college here and they want to teach here. But are you going to get qualified teachers if you don't have a physics program here?"

"They decided to get rid of the graduate one since the heart of our program is the undergraduate one, and if we were having a hard time keeping both going, we needed to focus our time and energy on the undergraduate one."

Changes to the program have boosted the number of undergraduate physics majors for the current year to about 50. This satisfied university officials, who gave the green light to restart the graduate program next fall.

Among the changes Johnson cited were a range of new double-major options now being added to the undergraduate program through the department's "Physics Plus" curriculum, which according to a recent university press release is designed to combine traditional physics courses with "applications-oriented" courses. Currently, the only double option is in physics-meteorology, but additional options, physics-science journalism and physics-business project management, are being developed.

"We found that by being more open, we attract a more diverse body of students. Previously we were just another small, vanilla physics program," Johnson said. "If you look at the undergraduate population of students, they are much, much more diverse than they used to be."

Although the doctoral program traditionally focused on astrophysics, the actual degree conferred was a doctorate in physics. Regarding the distinction between physics and astrophysics, Johnson said the course work required for the two differs only in a handful of specialty courses.

The graduate program also offers a terminal masters degree in physics education that is designed to turn out high school and community college physics teachers. Johnson said that the program typically turned out one to two graduates per year, a number he called "significant" given the university's remote Rocky Mountain location.

By improving the undergraduate program, Johnson said that the graduate program benefits because it will allow graduate students to work as teaching assistants.

"Graduate students should learn how to teach," he said. And he said that because his department emphasizes astrophysics, there are more American and more female prospective students.

"I think there are a lot of kids in the US who are interested in pursuing a PhD in astrophysics or astronomy, and in fact, a lot of women," Johnson said. "It might have been in 1997 or 1998, we had an incoming class of graduate students where the number of women outnumbered the number of men by two to one."

Typical graduate enrollments at the University of Wyoming in the physics and astronomy program number around 17 students per year.

Johnson's goal for the graduate program is to attract students who graduated from small, liberal arts colleges with strong quantitative and analytical skills regardless of whether they were able to take the full array of undergraduate physics courses.

"What we are trying to do consciously now is to go after really bright students from liberal arts colleges, who because of the size of the college, haven't had a full complement of physics courses.so consequently their GRE scores in physics aren't very high, but their GPA is high and their GRE quantitative and analytical (scores) are very high. Those are the kinds of kids we are after."

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette