FEd Fall 2001 Newsletter - Growth in Undergraduate Physics at the University of Arkansas, Part II

Spring 2001



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Growth in Undergraduate Physics at the University of Arkansas, Part II

Art Hobson

student_reader.gif (2150 bytes) As reported by my colleague Gay Stewart (FEd Newsletter Fall 2000), physics course enrollments are up at the University of Arkansas, the number of undergraduate physics majors is up, and the physics baccalaureate graduation rate is sharply up from 2.5 per year during 1990-97 to about 15 per year beginning in 1998. In the early1990s our undergraduate program was a typical example of the general physics slump of recent years, with under-enrolled classes and low graduation rates. Looking for solutions, we decided to pursue several new paths. The thrust is toward more flexible, practical, and student-friendly paths for three categories of students: non-scientists, non-physicists who can use a physics degree outside of physics, and future physicists. Stewart reported on our BS degree program for future physicists, where stronger enrollments are a result of a reformed University Physics II course, improved TA training, three new non-Ph.D. degree tracks, more undergraduate research opportunities, and better mentoring. I will report on our programs for non-scientists, and for non-physicists who are pursuing a physics degree.

Reaching out to non-scientists

A healthy physics profession must be rooted in the entire society, rather than in scientists alone, because ultimately it is legislators, voters, parents, teachers, and other non-scientists who will determine the fate of physics. Thus it behooves us to develop large and effective physics literacy programs on every college campus.

Nearly 80% of the students at the University of Arkansas are majoring in fields outside of science, mathematics, and engineering. Our department reaches these students with two introductory courses for non-scientists: Physics and Human Affairs, and Survey of the Universe. We currently teach 750 per year in the physics course and 410 in the astronomy course. This works out to about 40% of the non-science undergraduates on our campus who take one or both of these two courses at some point during their undergraduate career.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science and others have called for science literacy courses that are not simply de-mathematized versions of the standard technical courses for science majors but that instead approach science as a human endeavor within its full cultural context. In line with such recommendations, Physics and Human Affairs includes such societal issues as global warming, technological risk, energy resources, and nuclear weapons, and devotes more than 50% of its lectures to modern and contemporary physics. Scientific methodology is a constant refrain. The course uses no algebra, but includes "numeracy" skills such as graphs, percentages, probabilities, estimates, powers of ten, and large and small numbers. Despite large class sizes, the course makes extensive use of the "peer instruction" techniques pioneered by Eric Mazur and others. Both courses are well received. Faced with a choice between several introductory courses that satisfy the science requirements for non-scientists, students enroll in physics and astronomy at rates that exceed that of the other offerings (geology, biology, and chemistry), so that physics and astronomy are always full by an early date in the enrollment cycle.

These two large popular courses for non-scientists give physics a good image on our campus, and make a substantial contribution to the science education of Arkansas' general population. They make it more likely that students from outside of physics will consider majoring in physics. In fact, during the past few years we have recruited several students from these two courses into our Bachelor of Arts program in physics. These courses also contribute strongly to our "student-semester-hours per faculty member," a significant statistic on our campus,

A physics degree path for non-physicists

Physics degrees shouldn't be only for physicists, any more than history degrees are only for historians or English degrees are only for writers. Our department believes that it would be healthy if non-physicists had undergraduate degrees in physics. Thus, we have initiated a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree for students desiring a physics background as a basis for careers in law (e.g. patents, environmental law), business, medicine, journalism (science reporting), music (acoustics), K-9 teaching, or indeed any profession.

The BA program is more flexible and less technical than traditional BS programs, allowing students time for outside electives and professional requirements in other fields. It is algebra-based, beginning with the "College Physics" course rather than the calculus-based "University Physics" course, although some BA students elect to take our calculus-based courses. The BA requires 24 hours of physics as compared with 40 for the BS, 4 math courses including at least one calculus course, and 3 courses at the junior-senior level in some non-physics "special emphasis area" in which the student expects to be employed. Students take one semester of modern physics beyond the two-semester introductory course, a seminar, and 11 credit hours of physics electives. Many students elect our two BA courses "Physics in Perspective," presenting the human implications of physics, and "Physics of Devices," applying physics to significant technological devices. Other electives include three astronomy courses, optics, and several self-paced electronics modules, or any of our BS-oriented courses. The program is sufficiently flexible to allow students to develop considerable expertise in an employment area outside of physics, without amassing extra credit hours beyond the number required for a Bachelor of Arts degree. In consultation with other departments, we have worked out curricula for students headed for graduate school or employment in business, medicine, law, journalism, and education. For example, our recommendations for business-oriented students include 9 courses that our university's Business College recommends for admission to their Master of Business Administration program, allowing our students to complete the MBA program in only one year. We have a cooperative dual-degree program in journalism and physics, and we hope in the future to set up such programs with other departments. Because of its less technical orientation and greater flexibility, the program draws many students who would otherwise have vigorously avoided anything with the word "physics" in its title.

One boon from the successes of our BA and BS programs is fuller physics classes. Our junior- and senior-level classes in astronomy, mechanics, electricity and magnetism, and quantum mechanics, have had two to four times as many students during the past four years as compared with 1990-96.

One problem is that it is difficult to advertise the BA program. Except for the small fraction of students who decided early on a physics career, few undergraduates give the least thought to majoring in physics. Good high school contacts do not help much, because the students likely to be attracted to the BA program are probably not enrolled in a high school physics course. Thus, this program has expanded rather slowly during the past four years, now graduating about 5 students per year-about half the graduation rate of our BS program. "Physics literacy" courses for all high school students would be a great boon for our BA program, and for the BS program as well. We believe that the BA program has a much larger potential that can be attained only after it has become better known throughout Arkansas.

Art Hobson is Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. He is author of Physics: Concepts and Connections (Prentice Hall, 2nd edition 1999), a physics literacy textbook for non-science college students. Take a look at Hobson's WEB PAGE