Award for Improving Undergraduate Physics Education Awardees

The American Physical Society's (APS) Committee on Education (COE) seeks to recognize physics departments and /or undergraduate-serving programs in physics (hereafter “programs”) that support best practices in education at the undergraduate level. These awards are intended to acknowledge commitment to inclusive, high-quality physics education for undergraduate students, and to catalyze departments and programs to make significant improvements. In contrast to the Excellence in Physics Education Award, this award recognizes multiple institutions, and seeks to focus specifically on undergraduate programs.

In 2016, there were two awardees:

California State University, Long Beach
The Department of Physics and Astronomy at California State University Long Beach has been engaged in a decade-long campaign to strengthen its programs. Total production of undergraduate physics degrees has increased from 3 in 2007 to 25 in 2014 and an estimated 35 in the 2015 academic year. 30% of degrees are awarded to under-represented minorities (URMs), and they have no achievement gaps in graduation rates between URM and majority students, nor between men and women. Implementing many of the recommendations of the SPIN-UP report, such as innovative curricula and SCALE-UP classrooms, has improved their undergraduate curriculum with a measurable increase in the graduation rates of students taking introductory physics. In addition, adopting the Colorado Learning Assistant model has allowed the department to use their upper-division students to improve their lower-division courses while also providing valuable training for their majors. Students who complete the LA training course have significantly elevated graduation rates. In summary, the Department of Physics and Astronomy at CSULB has made significant, research-based and quantitatively assessed improvements throughout their program and achieved a transformative increase in the number of physics degrees awarded at the University, particularly to URM students, along with improved education of not only their majors but all STEM students.

Western Washington University
Western Washington University (WWU) is a regional comprehensive university with about 15,000 students located in Bellingham, WA. The Department of Physics & Astronomy at WWU is dedicated to strong undergraduate education with emphasis on student-centered teaching practices and an exceptional research experience. The 14 faculty members serve over 5000 students annually, including about 120 physics majors, a significantly increased the number of majors from Spring 2002. The success in growing the major is attributed to the establishment of strong community within the department, that welcomes students and engages them in close collaboration with faculty not only in coursework, but also in meaningful research, teaching, and outreach experiences. Each year, the department awards 20 or more B.S. degrees in Physics, ranking nationally in the top 1% among physics departments exclusively offering baccalaureate degrees. Faculty professional development emphasizing research-based teaching has led to demonstrable increases in student learning, measured, for instance, in above average gains on standardized tests in core disciplines of physics. WWU Physics majors work closely with faculty on original research in the fields of Astronomy, Condensed Matter Physics, and Physics Education, often supported by external grants and leading to peer-reviewed publications with undergraduate students as co-authors. As some of the statistics show WWU Physics majors graduates are well prepared for graduate education or entrance into STEM professions.

Do you think that your department has a significant impact on undergraduate physics students? If so, consider nominating your department for the COE Award for Improving Undergraduate Physics Education. Applications are due July 15th. More information is available on the Award for Improving Undergraduate Physics Education page.

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.