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Enrollment in HBCU Physics Programs Has Declined For Years. A Site Visit Program Seeks to Help Reverse the Trend.

The pilot program, which leans on APS’s EP3 Guide, aims to help HBCUs identify blind spots and create strategic plans.

Published Jan 11, 2024

When it was launched in 2021, the Effective Practices for Physics (EP3) Guide equipped physics programs with tools to respond to challenges like declining enrollment. But some schools — particularly historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), where undergraduate enrollment has suffered disproportionately in recent decades — are under-resourced and have struggled to find time to use the EP3 Guide.

To support HBCUs and the vital role they’ve long played in graduating Black physicists, the EP3 team launched a pilot site-visit program designed to help departments identify areas for improvement that could boost enrollment and graduation rates.

“We all have blind spots,” says Jesús Pando, a physics professor at DePaul University in Chicago who helped develop some of EP3’s recommendations and served on a site visit team. “A site visit can be really valuable.”

Modeled from existing site visits designed to improve the climate for women in physics, the pilot EP3 program includes a site visit team and subsequent report, a departmental self-study, and a departmental action plan. APS, working alongside HBCU physics department chairs and the APS Committee on Minorities, has led four site visits since 2021 and has three more scheduled for spring 2024.

Padmaja Guggilla, physics chair at Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, says she registered her department’s undergraduate program for a site visit because she wanted “to bring our glory back.” Within the school’s STEM programs, Guggilla says physics used to be the leader. The department still conducts cutting-edge research, but as engineering disciplines have grown, they’ve attracted many physics-inclined students away.

“Like many HBCUs, we do not have as many students majoring in physics” as there were a decade ago, she says. “We have 24 undergraduate students and 39 graduate students,” but the program used to have almost twice as many undergraduates.

Guggilla thought a site visit might help her department identify hidden challenges or develop new strategies. “It’s a nationwide problem,” she says, but “we wanted to make sure that, if there is anything we could do to improve our numbers, that we know about it.”

The experience wasn’t easy, she says. The department had to produce a comprehensive self-study, weighing the program’s strengths and weaknesses. “We engaged in a lot of self-reflection as a team,” she adds. The intensive, two-day site visit provided a wealth of “constructive feedback,” validating the program’s strengths and offering guidance on how to improve.

Pando was a member of the site visit team that reviewed the Alabama A&M program, and he’s deeply aware of the challenges HBCUs face. Without resources to connect to the broader community, he says HBCU physics departments “are often working in isolation, without time to explore best practices, to connect with other colleagues that have expertise in curriculum design, or even for research.”

“The site visit can provide knowledge,” he says, “as well as ways to solve those problems.”

That’s the support Sebastien Lepine, physics chair at Georgia State University in Atlanta, a predominantly Black institution, was looking for when he reached out to EP3.

“Our goal is to be one of the leading institutions for graduating students from African American and Hispanic populations with physics bachelor’s degrees,” says Lepine. “We have a large undergraduate program … [but] we’re right next door to Georgia Tech, which has a very prestigious engineering program. So a lot of students might come here first to get their grades up, then try to transfer.”

Lepine says his department, which has about 250 undergraduate physics majors, was also looking for opportunities “to strengthen the connection between the major in physics and the associated career opportunities,” to increase retention of those would-be transfer students.

Lepine says retention issues have grown because of changing student demographics. These days, many physics majors at Georgia State commute, and have a job on the side to support their families, he says. “We need to be adaptive and give them a way to complete their degree,” while honoring those constraints, says Lepine.

The department was also seeking creative ways to help physics students finish their degrees. Lepine says his faculty knew that research experiences could be extremely motivating, giving undergrads the chance to apply what they’re learning. But the faculty weren’t rewarded for working with undergrads, in terms of promotion and tenure, and the salaries the department could offer for summer internships couldn’t compete with private-sector jobs.

Georgia State’s physics program had already undertaken some dramatic changes, says Lepine, but “a lot of the activities that we're trying to do will at some point require more resources” from the university, like scholarships and better summer salaries for interns.

So when Lepine learned about the EP3 site visit program, he jumped on it. “This is exactly what we need — validation from somebody from the outside” that his department’s efforts were on the right track, he says.

The site visit motivated his faculty and helped his department craft an action plan, he says. “The questions the committee was asking created a lot of discussion inside the department and helped us brainstorm ideas.”

Lepine says his department has already implemented five action plan items — “but we have a long list to go.”

Liz Boatman

Liz Boatman is a science writer based in Minnesota.

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