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Gabriel Popkin, Consultant, American Physical Society
In the past few years, physics departments have been closed or threatened with closure in states including Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Maine, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Idaho. Most of these departments have been targeted because of the low numbers of undergraduate physics majors they graduate each year.
In response, APS has put together a set of resources to help physics faculty demonstrate value to their institutions and make the case for their departments. These resources include case studies of physics departments that have taken proactive steps to increase the number of students they graduate. The case study below and others can be found on APS website.
The University of Arkansas has made spectacular gains in its physics major graduation rates—from less than two majors per year in the mid-1990s to nearly 20 per year today. The program's success rests on its reformed introductory University Physics sequence, careful advising practices, and early teaching and research opportunities. The department also has a nationally recognized physics teacher preparation program, which is closely integrated with the overall undergraduate program.
Overview: Present and Past
The University of Arkansas is the flagship public university in the state of Arkansas, and serves over 20,000 students. The physics department comprises 20 faculty members, up from 14 in the mid-1990s, and grants around three PhDs and three master's degrees each year. The department now has a thriving undergraduate program, but this was not always the case.
In the mid-90s, the physics department graduated only a few majors per year, and students in an introductory physics course had actually gone on strike to express their dissatisfaction with the instruction. Recognizing a crisis and acknowledging that changes in their program were necessary, the department decided to hire Gay Stewart, a faculty member with a strong interest in physics education.
Starting with Course Reform
Gay Stewart and her husband John, also a physics education researcher, began by reforming University Physics II, the introductory electricity and magnetism course for both physics majors and engineers, which had been the source of many of the student complaints. The course was modified to tie theory and practice together more closely, and to make sure students were aware of the relevance of what they were learning. The Stewarts also developed a preparation program for teaching assistants, which quickly grew to include a program for undergraduate Learning Assistants. This ensured that the TAs and Learning Assistants were using good inquiry-based practices, and resulted in much higher student satisfaction, better student conceptual learning, and improved attitudes toward science by the end of the course.
After University Physics II, the Stewarts went on to reform University Physics I, the introductory mechanics course. They helped make modifications to other courses as well, and those course reforms are sustained with different instructors, although Gay emphasizes the importance of assigning these courses to full-time faculty members who care about good teaching, and can convey enthusiasm about physics. As a result of reforms and instructor selection, the University Physics sequence began functioning as a powerful recruiting tool, getting students excited about physics and drawing them into the department.
The physics program is now so highly regarded that some departments like Chemical Engineering actually recommend that some of their best students also major in physics. University Physics I has become a cornerstone course for the Freshman Engineering program, and many physics courses are recommended as technical electives across the College of Engineering.
Advising, Flexible Major Tracks, and Research Opportunities
Once an Arkansas student expresses interest in physics, that interest is carefully nurtured through proactive and personalized advising. The department tries to begin advising declared majors in their freshman year or sometimes before they reach campus, even though the university only requires students to have a department-specific advisor starting in the junior year. This allows advisors to identify students' interests early, and get them started on an appropriate course of study.
The Arkansas undergraduate physics programs includes a variety of major tracks, including a standard professional track, and ones focusing on optics, electronics, computational physics, biophysics, and astronomy. Beyond the defined tracks, however, advisors often work with individual students to develop a course of study tailored to that student's particular interests and needs. For instance, an advisor might help a non-traditional student pick up needed math courses, or work with a student to develop a "special emphasis area" to prepare for med school, law school, a teaching career, or other post-graduate options.
Early and proactive advising also enables students to get involved in research opportunities as early as their sophomore year. This in turn leads to more students gaining access to Research Experiences for Undergraduate (REU) programs, winning awards and fellowships, and being better prepared for graduate school. Equally important, it gives students who discover they don't like a particular area of research enough time to find a different course.
Arkansas Physics Becomes a Teacher Preparation Leader
In 2001, the University of Arkansas became one of the first funded sites of the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) project, a teacher preparation project led by APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers. In 2001 the department had graduated one teacher in the previous decade; it now graduates five or more per year. The cornerstones of the program's success are the same as those that have been instrumental in boosting the department's majors: careful advising, flexible course requirements, and recruiting through good teaching. As Gay Stewart puts it:
"University of Arkansas' philosophy has been that you never know who is going to be a future teacher, so you should treat all students as if they might be, modeling good pedagogy in introductory physics classes. This has the beautiful side effect that if all students experience an intro class taught the way we would like future teachers to teach, you end up with more MAJORS! Further, the new teachers you have sent out start sending you new, well-prepared prospective majors."
Arkansas' physics teacher education program is now one of the top in the country in terms of physics teacher graduation rates, and it has been recognized as exemplary by the National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities' (APLU's) Science and Mathematics Teacher Imperative (SMTI). Much more information about Arkansas' physics teacher preparation program is available at www.PhysTEC.org/institutions/arkansas
Support from the Administration and other Departments
The Arkansas physics program now has strong support from the university administration, and is often touted as one of the university's "model programs." Stewart notes that when administrative posts change, it can be a challenge to make sure the new people are informed about the program, and that visits from national groups like the Task Force and SMTI representatives have "helped new administrators appreciate the quality of our programs."
Other campus units have also recognized Physics' success, and are hoping to learn from it. The Department of Mathematical Sciences is now working on a project to emulate the physics program's course reform and teacher preparation activities through Learning Assistants and other activities. Engineering school faculty and administrators have also expressed appreciation for the service the physics department provides in educating their students, and chose to continue having their majors go through University Physics, even when they were given the option to teach introductory physics themselves. Stewart notes that her department's service to other programs on campus allows Physics to justify asking for more resources, such as faculty positions and TA lines for their courses.
The Present and Future: a Thriving Community, and Continued Growth
A final piece of the puzzle, says Stewart, is ensuring a healthy undergraduate climate. Arkansas students have their own space where they can study or socialize, as well as a vibrant SPS chapter, which recently put on a Saturday afternoon physics demo show that drew over 300 people. Department picnics and social events further build community among students and faculty. "The students are the inspiration for everything we do," says Stewart.
Thanks to its thriving undergraduate program, the department's future looks bright. John Stewart has been hired in a tenure-track position, giving the department a second full-time faculty member specializing in education, with several others taking a side interest in educational issues. The department has also brought in more faculty in biophysics and astrophysics, hot topics for many students. Gay Stewart has been recently elected vice president of the American Association of Physics Teachers, and serves on the APS Executive Board, giving her program added recognition.
Gabriel Popkin is a freelance writer and a consultant for APS. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.