APS News | Careers and Education

To Boost Undergrad Enrollment, Physics Departments Turn to APS Innovation Fund Program, DALI

Published Nov 09, 2023
As some schools face declining undergraduate enrollment, physics departments are turning to resources like DALI.
As some schools face declining undergraduate enrollment, physics departments are turning to resources like DALI.

Nationwide, undergraduate physics enrollment has declined by more than 1 in 5 students since its peak in 2016, with smaller institutions bearing the brunt. Because not all programs look the same or serve the same groups of students, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

That’s where the Departmental Action Leadership Institute comes in. DALI — a one-year, cohort-based bootcamp — trains departments using the Effective Practices for Physics Programs (EP3) guide, a resource launched in 2021 to help departments respond to challenges like declining enrollment. In the search for ways to promote the guide’s adoption, the EP3 team — including David Craig of Oregon State University — found the APS Innovation Fund, established in 2019 to sponsor projects that support APS’s mission of advancing physics.

Craig and Joel Corbo of the University of Colorado, Boulder used an Innovation Fund grant to develop DALI, which has two main components. “One is leadership training,” says Craig. “We provide the training that is otherwise missing from a typical faculty member’s career … to lead a major change effort that involves lots of people.”

“The other half is helping them lead a team to focus on analyzing and understanding the true nature of the challenge their institution is facing,” he says. “If you don’t gather the data, and analyze that data … you can’t determine the right steps.”

Faculty also need help developing the right skills. “Faculty members have expertise around all sorts of things, but typically they don't have specific skills around making a change effort successful,” says Corbo. “That's not a thing you learn in grad school.”

The DALI curriculum requires departments to assemble a departmental action team, or DAT, composed of two faculty leaders who attend biweekly DALI sessions for a year, several more department faculty, and a few students or recent alums.

“Convincing people that student partnership is both valuable and possible can be a big hurdle,” says Corbo. “But it's important to include them and to value them as part of the team.”

In January 2021, Craig and Corbo organized their first DALI cohort, which included Rhode Island College, a Hispanic-serving institution.

The college’s physics department had been struggling to boost enrollment and retention, with a very career-oriented student body composed largely of first-generation college-goers. Physics faculty member Andrea Del Vecchio says that, for their typical undergraduate student, “going to college is something that’s going to be transformational not just for them, but for their families.”

“We needed to find a way to make physics attractive and accessible to that population of students,” she says.

Del Vecchio’s DAT came up with several ideas for change. They adjusted their physics curriculum to accommodate the high percentage of students entering without calculus coursework, for example, and they created more flexibility with electives.

“Talking about data-driven change and how to make an action plan, how to use different tools to decide what the best course of action is — all of that was really valuable,” she says.

DALI’s second cohort, in October 2021, included Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana.

Kosta Popovic, an associate professor of physics, says his department struggles to maintain consistent numbers in physics because most students arrive at Rose-Hulman intending to major in engineering. Harder still, the department manages three separate programs: engineering physics, optical engineering, and physics. Any incentive for sweeping change across the department would need to be significant.

But things at Rose-Hulman had finally reached a “critical point,” with enough folks in the department interested in making changes to help stabilize the physics major, Popovic says.

“It took something like DALI and their guidance for forming a DAT to really help us dedicate that time, really meaningfully and purposefully,” Popovic says. “It helped with the accountability … and also gave us a structure.”

Popovic says the DAT framework helped reduce the power differences between students, staff, and faculty, creating “a comfortable group of people that work together as partners.”

He also highlights the DALI mantra: Go slow to go fast. “Some people were pleasantly surprised by how DALI changed their perspective on taking the time to make a data-driven change and waiting to see real, good results,” he says.

In 2022, with the DALI curriculum refined, Craig and Corbo were ready to expand the program. They invited two prior DALI participants, including Del Vecchio, to join them as facilitators, and recruited for two simultaneous cohorts. Wake Forest University in North Carolina started the program in September 2022.

To Wake Forest faculty member Jed Macosko, DALI seemed like a great opportunity to support the physics department’s goals of increasing enrollment and undergraduate diversity.

Since completing the DALI curriculum last school year, those “two overall goals have stayed the same, but the number of intermediate goals to those two goals has grown,” says Macosko.

He says the department also realized what they had been missing before. “There needs to be that constant transformational change,” says Macosko. “We have committees — for the undergraduate curriculum, for the building — and those are great, but you need something that represents the heart and soul of what the department’s trying to do.”

The DAT framework gave Wake Forest’s physics department that “heart and soul,” says Macosko. And with a whole team in place, he says their work is more sustainable.

With their Innovation Fund grant expiring soon, Craig and Corbo hope to have the DALI curriculum packaged for dissemination by the end of the year, which will allow others to work through the program on their own.

Macosko’s team, meanwhile, will stay focused on the big picture. “We want our department to reflect the diversity that is out in the world,” he says, “and to give everybody a chance to be a physicist.”

Liz Boatman

Liz Boatman is a science writer based in Minnesota.

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