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What Produces a Thriving Undergraduate Physics Program?

By Ken Krane

Ken Krane
Ken Krane

During the 1990s, the number of baccalaureate physics degrees awarded annually in the US dropped by about 25%, from about 5000 per year in 1990 to about 3800 per year in 1999. Simultaneously, the total number of bachelor's degrees awarded was increasing, so the fraction of physics degrees fell from 0.5% of total bachelor's degrees to 0.3%. Although there is evidence of a small increase in physics baccalaureate degrees in the past two years, it is not clear that this increase represents a trend and even less clear that it can be sustained to reverse the declines of the past decade. The decrease in undergraduate physics degrees occurred at all types of institutions, although it was especially severe at M.S. and Ph.D.—granting institutions (down 33%) compared with 4-year colleges (down 17%).

What is the cause of this decline? There appears to be no definitive answer, but it is clear that the physics environment has changed. These changes include: an increasingly multidisciplinary character of the physics profession (biophysics, materials physics, computational physics, etc.) which is not always well represented in the undergraduate curriculum; an increasingly diverse student body, representing a greater variety of backgrounds and motivations; mismatches, identified by physics education research, between what we teach and what our students learn; and a growing perception among students that the biological sciences are now "where the action is" and that physics is increasingly disconnected from societal needs.

Nevertheless, there are a number of undergraduate programs that have not only avoided sharing the national decline in numbers of majors, but in some cases have even been able to grow and thrive in this new environment. The National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics (NTFUP), an 11-member panel created in 1999 by APS, AAPT, and AIP, has carried out a study of such departments to determine what factors are responsible for their success. Information about the Task Force's membership and projects can be found under "Programs" through the AAPT web site (www.aapt.org).

The task force has identified a number of features that should characterize a thriving undergraduate physics program: a sufficient number of majors, including significant representation of women and minorities; high faculty and student morale; success in placing graduates into graduate school and the workforce; the respect of the administration and other departments on campus; involvement of a majority of the faculty in undergraduate education; inclusion of students and staff on the departmental team; and efforts to promote excellence in K-12 education.

With the support of the ExxonMobil Foundation, NTFUP carried out site visits to 23 departments where there was indication of success in some aspects of the undergraduate program. These departments were selected primarily, but not entirely, on the basis of undergraduate enrollments in the physics major. The Ph.D.—granting institutions we visited typically award more than 20 (and some many more) bachelor's degrees per year (compared with the national average of about 10). The four-year colleges visited generally produced more than 10 graduates per year, far exceeding the national average of about 3. The sites were located across the US About 1/3 were public and private Ph.D.—granting institutions, about 1/3 were private four-year colleges, and the remaining 1/3 were primarily public bachelor's-and master's-granting institutions.

At the invitation of the department Chair, a three-person team visited each of these campuses for 1-1.5 days and met with students, faculty, staff and administrators. Each visiting team was led by a member of the NTFUP and included two other members of the physics community. Altogether about 70 physics faculty members participated in the site visits. The department prepared in advance a response to a questionnaire designed to provide background information for the visit. Rather than being a comprehensive review of the department or even of its undergraduate programs, the site visit was designed to learn about the successful aspects of the program and the local climate that created and sustained the program. Each site visit team produced a written confidential report that was circulated only to the NTFUP members and to the department. Concise summaries of many of these reports have been developed into a series of publicly available "case studies" that highlight notable activities in each department. These case studies are available through the Task Force web site.

We recognize that visits to 3% of the physics baccalaureate programs in the US will not necessarily produce results that are characteristic of the entire community. So for comparison purposes, NTFUP also conducted a survey (with the assistance of the AIP Statistical Research Center) to gather corresponding data on undergraduate physics programs in the US Information covered by the survey includes curricula, courses, recruiting, alumni contacts, and reform efforts. The survey form was sent to all 759 baccalaureate-granting physics programs in the US, and we received an impressive 74% response (561 departments). Analysis of the results of the survey is underway, and the results will be released in the fall of 2002.

What has been learned from the site visits? A number of common themes consistently emerged for the thriving departments even though they covered an enormous range of sizes and types of institution. These themes included:

(1) A widespread attitude among the faculty that the department has the primary responsibility for maintaining or improving the undergraduate program. That is, rather than complain about the lack of students, money, space, administrative support, etc., the department initiated reform efforts in areas that it identified as most in need of change.

(2) A clear understanding and appreciation of the department's mission and its relationship to the setting and mission of the university.

(3) Knowledge of the department's students, and focused efforts to develop a sense of community among the students.

(4) Apparent evidence of the high value placed on undergraduate programs.

(5) Strong and sustained leadership.

These common themes were expressed through an enormous variety of specific activities and programs: recruiting of pre-enrolled and enrolled students (examples of the latter being students enrolled in the calculus-based introductory course); a range of flexible curricula for majors, such as degrees with physics-related concentrations (for example, biophysics or geophysics), dual degrees, 3/2 engineering degrees, and specialized pre-professional degrees (such as those targeted at students preparing for careers in secondary teaching, medicine, law, or business); one-credit orientation or "introduction to physics" courses for first- year majors; undergraduate study rooms or lounges, along with keys for after-hours access to the physics building; coherent and dedicated advising; active SPS chapters; open access to (and warm reception by) faculty and the department head, including the opportunity for the department to obtain feedback from students on any aspect of the undergraduate program; undergraduate research; and employment of undergraduates as teaching assistants.

Examples of especially note-worthy programs include:

• Lawrence University conducts a national recruitment for a February/March weekend physics workshop for high school seniors. Between 60 and 80 students apply to attend, about 30 are invited, and about 1/3 choose to matriculate at Lawrence. The University pays all costs for the workshop ($15-18K).

• Colorado School of Mines holds a Summer Field Session for all of its students for 6 weeks at the end of the sophomore year. Supervised by 4 or 5 faculty, the physics program includes career information, an introduction to research programs in the department, experience using machine shop tools and vacuum systems, electronics, and computer software packages.

• Rutgers University has developed a multitrack degree program, which has helped it to grow to now award about 40 degrees per year. About 1/3 of its students choose the traditional physics track, about 1/3 choose an applied or engineering track, and about 1/3 choose a general track that serves students in prelaw, pre-medicine, or pre-service teaching.

• At the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, the physics program granted an average of one degree every two years in 1990. Through curricular reforms, aggressive recruiting, and a 3/2 engineering program, they have grown to award an average of 15 degrees per year.

• At the University of Illinois, the department undertook a complete overhaul of the introductory courses, applying results from physics education research, improving TA training, and introducing enhancement or "companion" courses targeted at specific audiences (new majors, at-risk students, students seeking additional challenges).

• At Reed College, the required junior-year qualifying exam and senior year thesis serve to build a coherent program starting in the first year and to focus the energies of faculty and students in collaborating to reach a specific set of goals.

It is also worth commenting on a number of other items that did not seem to be important in promoting a thriving undergraduate physics program with many majors.

(1) While advising was important, both highly centralized advising and advising distributed among all faculty appeared to work equally well.

(2) The type of recruiting that was effective depended heavily on the institution. For example, for a few departments, pre-college recruitment was an important tool, while for many others it was of little benefit.

(3) While the recruiting programs and supportive community atmosphere of these departments clearly had an impact on the total number of majors, it had no apparent effect on the fraction of majors who were women or ethnic minorities. Those fractions in the site visit departments were consistent with the averages for all US physics departments.

(4) Innovations in the introductory courses based on physics education research had no apparent effect on the number of physics majors, although they may have had other benefits. The site visit teams did not attempt to measure student learning or conceptual understanding.

A report discussing detailed findings from the site visit program and the national survey will be available for distribution to the physics community in the fall of 2002.

In addition to these programs, the task force has undertaken responsibility for a number of other activities: an invited meeting (in the fall of 2001) of the department chairs of a small number of leading research universities to discuss undergraduate programs; collaboration in a similar program of site visits to physics programs at two-year colleges; a conference on the calculus-based introductory course, planned for the 2002-2003 academic year; oversight of the AAPT/APS/AAS annual New Faculty Workshop program.

Moreover, the task force is very concerned that our site visit program did not produce any significant insights on enhancing the number of minority physics majors. As a result, we are planning to focus our efforts on this topic at our December 2002 meeting, and we expect follow-up programs to result from this meeting.

Participating in the site visit program, one gains a renewed appreciation for the overall health and strength of our undergraduate programs and for the commitment of many faculty to the vitality of undergraduate physics education. We trust that this study and the collection of best practices assembled in the report will provide physics departments with a guide for improving their undergraduate programs. The task force stands prepared to assist those departments with their efforts, and we invite you to contact the task force chair (RobertHilborn,rchilborn@ amherst.edu) or its entire membership (ntfup@aapt.org) to discuss our programs in general or their possible application to your department.

Ken Krane is Professor of Physics at Oregon State University. This report was prepared with the assistance of many members of the Task Force, with particular contributions from Robert Hilborn, Ruth Howes, and Carl Wieman.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette