Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Spring 2006 Newsletter



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Development of a Comprehensive Physics Program at a non-traditional upper-level undergraduate and graduate small university

David Garrison
Department of Physics, University of Houston Clear Lake, Houston, TX 77058                      E-mail:

Abstract. As more students and universities become involved in life-long learning, it will become more important to develop physics programs which can cater to nontraditional students. We describe the development of a Physics Master's degree program at the University of Houston Clear Lake. This is a non-traditional university which only serves students at the Junior, Senior and Master's degree levels and had not previously developed a physics program throughout its thirty-year history. We show how we were able to establish a graduate physics degree in less than three years using community resources and effective marketing techniques although no significant university funds were committed towards the development of this program.

PACS numbers: 01.40.-d,01.40.Fk,01.40.G

1. Introduction

The University of Houston Clear Lake (UHCL) is a non-traditional upper-level undergraduate and graduate university. The university was established as a commuter campus for the University of Houston system, southeast of Houston near Clear Lake and the Johnson Space Center (JSC). About half of the university's students take classes part-time. The average age of undergraduates is thirty years old while the average age of graduate students is thirty-two. Beginning in the fall of 2002, we began the development of the university's first physics degree, an M.S. in Physics. The degree officially began operations in fall of 2004. Currently, the program teaches approximately forty to fifty graduate students per semester and graduated seven majors within its first year of its operation. Unlike most physics programs, almost all of our classes are offered in the evenings and a majority of our students work full-time. Many of these students have backgrounds in engineering and some hold advanced degrees. There is not currently an undergraduate Physics degree being offered at UHCL.

1.1. History

The University of Houston Clear Lake was founded in 1974 near NASA JSC in Houston Texas. During the planning stages, it was decided that the university would have no freshmen, sophomore or Ph.D. students. Most of the university's undergraduates transfer from local community colleges while many of its master's degree students work full-time in the local aerospace and petroleum industries. As of 2005, the university had yet to employ a provost or president with a background in science or engineering. Also, although the University is located in the heart of Houston's high-tech sector, the School of Science and Computer Engineering is the smallest of the university's four schools.

UHCL was originally structured with interdisciplinary divisions as opposed to large academic departments. The division handles many of the functions traditionally supported at the department level. Within these divisions there are several academic programs. One of the original programs within the Natural Science division was the Physical Sciences program, a precursor to our Physics program. A major drawback to interdisciplinary programs, such as Physical Sciences, is that they do not always allow for advanced specialized research in a particular discipline or for the hiring of a critical mass of faculty within a specific discipline. As a result, by 2002, the Physical Sciences program, which originally consisted of faculty with backgrounds in Physics, Astronomy, Environmental Science, Geology and Chemistry, was reduced to a single faculty member whose focus was Planetary Science.

Many problems existed in the Physical Sciences program in 2002. Several students applied for the program but never attended classes. These students were given incentives at their place of employment for being enrolled in a technical master's degree program, but received little or no incentive to graduate. Advanced courses in physics were either not being taught or were only taught at a very low level because there was no requirement for students to take core physics courses. The core courses were not being taught regularly. There was very little on-campus research in Physics or Astronomy. Enrollment was declining and student satisfaction was low. As a result, the program was on the verge of either being closed down or dramatically changed.

2. Curriculum Development

The first challenge in developing a Physics program was to find a focus. An online survey was developed and distributed to potential students in the Aerospace and Petrochemical industries as well as to students at the local community colleges. Distribution was handled using a combination of electronic newsletters and direct contact with human resources personnel at each institution. The strongest response to the survey came from the aerospace industry, both potential students and employers responded. They wanted a program that could prepare students with engineering backgrounds for Ph.D. study in Physics, Astronomy or related areas while at the same time being useful for broadening the technical backgrounds of practicing engineers. Because of this response we decided to forgo development of a Bachelors program and start with a Master of Physics degree. The Physical Sciences M.S. was to be phased out, as all its resources would be transferred to the new M.S. in Physics program. However, the B.S. in Physical Sciences remained and is being retooled to support the M.S. in Physics. We are currently in the process of expanding our undergraduate program to better serve students who are in need of preparation to enter the Physics M.S. program.

The most diffcult part of developing the curriculum for this degree was working within the restrictions of the part-time students. Almost all classes are taught in the evenings and group learning is often used to maximize the effectiveness of the students' time. Using the survey data, we developed a curriculum consisting of five core courses: Mathematical Methods in Physics 1, Classical Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics, Electrodynamics and Statistical Mechanics & Thermodynamics with advanced areas of study in Orbital Mechanics, Astronomy, Plasma Physics and Relativity. The degree consists of thirty-six credit hours providing a balance of core courses, advanced courses and research. Although we included both a thesis and non-thesis option, the majority of our part-time students (who make-up over ninety percent of the program's student body) choose the non-thesis option. The capstone experience for the non-thesis option consists of at least one semester of independent study research and a Research Project and Seminar class where students are taught how to write and publish scientific papers and give oral presentations of their research.

Because of the immediate popularity of this program among working students, we developed a Professional Physics concentration focusing on the training of project managers. This plan of study uses the physics core to provide students with the broad technical background needed by project managers, while the Systems Engineering and Management programs provide business and organizational training. This concentration was developed thanks to a grant from the Council of Graduate Schools and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and follows the Professional Science Master's (PSM) degree standard.

3. Building Infrastructure

In order to function as a physics program we needed three things; students capable of contributing to research, research facilities and research projects. In 2002, very few resources existed in the Physical Sciences program. As the curriculum for the physics program was being developed and approved, we began training students to participate in research. The money to buy all the necessary research facilities was not available, so we had to build and develop them using freely available resources. External collaborators were not difficult to find due to our close proximity to JSC. However, JSC is primarily an operations center with very little fundamental physics research. We found that the best way to stimulate research collaborations and develop project ideas was by using seminars. This effectively made the UHCL Physics program a focal point for fundamental Physics and Space Science related research in the JSC community. The seminars then lead to research collaborations and became a powerful tool for recruiting students.

3.1. Recruiting Students

Recruiting students was done through both traditional and non-traditional means. As part of the needs assessment survey, respondents entered their email addresses to identify them as individual respondents. This became the basis for an electronic distribution list of information on the developing physics program. Whenever the physics faculty gave a seminar or talk, everyone in attendance give their email address for inclusion on the list. Over time the list grew to several hundred people and many of them eventually became students. We also advertised the program at face-to-face events such as open houses and educational fairs. We found that a clear majority of the people who eventually became students had some direct contact with our faculty before joining the program. Eventually, word-of-mouth from graduating or current students, became just as effective for recruiting new students. To a lesser extent we also used websites and print advertisements, such as brochures and posters. These were not nearly as effective as the face-to-face recruiting, because potential students in the program tended to have many questions, which could only be answered by program faculty. As a result of this recruiting effort, graduate enrollment in physics and astronomy grew from around ten to as many as fifty students per long semester.

3.2. Initiating Research

In order to initiate a research program, we had to develop our on-campus research facilities. As a Physical Sciences program, we only had one wet laboratory which was being used for planetary science research and a teaching lab which was being shared with the Biological Sciences program. We needed to build a modern research laboratory but lacked the financial resources to do so. In order to do this, we decided to focus all on-campus research in the program on theoretical and computational work. The physics program then partnered with a laboratory at JSC that did experimental plasma physics and we began planning for the development of a remote observatory. This was all done under the assumption that would not receive additional space or funding from the university for laboratory development in the near future. We built a computational physics lab, using the space formerly occupied by the planetary science lab. We utilized retired campus computers, now running Linux, as our primary computational architecture. We also acquired two Beowulf clusters, a 12-processor cluster built by a student and a 96-processor system donated by the Texas Educational Grid project.

Our part-time students work well in theoretical and computational research. They appreciate the flexibility that it gives them to work on research within the constraints of their schedules. This model also allows us the opportunity to build a synergistic team of faculty who can share equipment as well as ideas. Under the Physical Science program, students were more likely to do research on their own or with adjunct faculty while under the new Physics program they tend to work more with full-time faculty. This has resulted in a major improvement in the quality of the research being performed. Students are beginning to author or co-author research papers in refereed journals, something that was unheard of under the Physical Sciences program.

4. Discussion

So far the Physics program has been a major success in terms of enrollment growth, student satisfaction and research productivity. Although there was no significant initial financial commitment from the university to help with the development of the program, there has been an overall improvement in the quality of education. Given that UHCL is a historically non-technical university with limited financial resources does not make all this easy. The biggest problem the program faces is the lack of full-time faculty. Although enrollment has more than doubled and research activity as increased dramatically, we still have only four FTE faculty and rely very heavily on adjuncts to teach at all levels. Because of this, we worked on ways to use adjunct faculty from JSC and elsewhere to make up for our lack of full-time faculty. The result was only partially successful. As a result, we are currently searching for more full-time faculty.

5. Acknowledgments

We would like to acknowledge the support of the Council of Graduate Schools and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for their support in developing the Professional Physics concentration. We would also like to acknowledge the support of Conoco Phillips and the Texas Educational Grid Project for the donation of much needed high-performance computing equipment for the program.


[1] UHCL Homepage,

[2] UHCL Physics,

[3] Professional Science Master's Degree,

[4] Texas Educational Grid Project,



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