Improving Undergraduate Physics Education (IUPE) Award

The American Physical Society's (APS) Committee on Education (COE) seeks to recognize improvement in undergraduate physics education and support effective practices in education at the undergraduate level with the COE Award for Improving Undergraduate Physics Education.

Rules and eligibility

COE accepts applications from physics departments and/or undergraduate-serving programs in physics, regardless of the size of the institution or the number of physics majors. All programs that have a significant impact on undergraduate physics students are eligible to apply.

We encourage programs not recognized in a particular year to submit new applications after the award period has ended.

A program may submit only one application per year. To encourage broad participation by many programs and to encourage individual programs to commit to sustained improvement and achievement, awardees are eligible to submit new applications after three years.

Process and selection

Applicants should describe their deliberate and intentional process for improving the department’s educational efforts over a period of at least a few years and should clearly articulate how their program achieves one or more of the following:

  • Undergraduate educational transformation
  • Revival of moribund programs
  • Improved student understanding of physics
  • Increased enrollments through outreach, retention, and/or program revisions
  • Improved retention of enrolled students
  • Increased number of graduating majors
  • Increased number of underrepresented minorities and women studying physics and their sustained enrollment to graduation
  • Enhanced support for members of traditionally underrepresented groups
  • Enhanced support for physics majors choosing K-12 teaching careers
  • Enhanced preparation of students for a variety of careers
  • Expanded or enhanced undergraduate research opportunities
  • Expanded or enhanced internship opportunities
  • Implementation of other recognized effective educational practices (e.g., “high impact practices," such as capstone courses and projects, collaborative assignments and projects, active learning, learning communities, research-based learning, etc.)

Application materials

To apply, data related to the following should be submitted to the APS education team, as requested in the application form:

  • Department faculty
  • Students
  • Graduation

Additionally, you will be asked to submit a two- to three-page narrative that includes:

  • A clear outline of the improvements and achievements for which the program is seeking recognition
  • A description of the overall undergraduate physics program at the institution, including the curriculum at both the introductory and upper-division levels, the student populations served, any regional factors, resources and facilities, and other information that is relevant to establishing the excellence of the program
  • A summary of relevant data and documentary evidence to support claims of improvement, transformation in the program, growth, impact, and other successes for which the program is seeking recognition.

Data provided should show evidence that improvements have been sustained over a period of at least a few years.

Supplementary materials (of up to 10 pages) will be accepted, but the two- to three-page narrative should describe programmatic efforts completely, independent of supplements.

Additional supporting letters may be included but are not required.

Review and announcement timeline

The APS Committee on Education's Subcommittee on Undergraduate Education will review applications and make recommendations to the APS COE for their fall meeting. The entire committee will make final decisions based on the subcommittee's recommendations.

This award award will recognize up to three programs each year and will focus on entire undergraduate physics programs, rather than individual members of a department.

We encourage representatives of the programs receiving an award to participate in a public recognition ceremony that will typically occur at the APS April Meeting. No travel funds are available to bring recipients to the award reception, nor is it required that they attend.

Establishment and support

This award is established and supported by APS's Committee on Education (COE).

Recent recipients

Illinois Wesleyan University

2023 recipient

This small undergraduate department has a tradition of outstanding outcomes for its graduates. Between 2016-2018, this department averaged 16 graduates per year, and the American Institute of Physics (AIP) ranked it in the top 7% among 503 undergraduate-only institutions. Nearly 75% of IWU physics students work with faculty members on research projects, and it offers 12 different advanced lab courses, making it exceptionally strong in this area. Approximately half of its graduates go on to pursue a PhD in science, another third do graduate work in engineering, and the remaining third enter the workforce directly, usually pursuing careers in engineering, programming, teaching, sales, or finance.

University of Alabama at Birmingham

2023 recipient

This research-driven, student-centric physics department prepares students for 21st century careers by seamlessly integrating purposeful research and education with workforce development, life-long learning, and cultural inclusion. All of its majors are given the opportunity to work in faculty research labs at UAB and in Europe, through an NSF-supported International Research Experiences for Students program. By organizing the Physics degree into five job-focused tracks supported by a Faculty Mentoring System, and with two new physics and data science and research-intensive physics accelerated BS/MS (ABM) programs, UAB helps students develop an individual program of study to gain a competitive edge in the marketplace while pursuing their passion. Track faculty mentors connect students with research while providing academic support and career guidance. This department also impacts a much broader and diverse student audience than ever before through transforming online teaching into innovative Remotely Accessible Interdisciplinary STEMM Education (RAISE), developing student social networks, and supporting Alabama high-school teachers. Since 2015, this department has witnessed an increase to historic heights of both the number of physics majors and the overall number of students taught. UAB Physics is now moving to a newly-built Science & Engineering Complex, a state-of-the art interdisciplinary building designed to empower graduates to impact the future.

Colgate University

2022 recipient

The department of physics and astronomy at Colgate University strives to provide a rigorous introduction to careers with the flexibility to allow students an entry into numerous post-graduation fields while also building a sense of community and belonging. Four of the introductory courses have a lab component and three are taught with in-house written textbooks, and students are exposed to modern physics, mechanics, electricity and magnetism, computation, mathematical methods, quantum mechanics, relativity, and electronics. The astronomy curriculum has alternative instrumental methods and introductory astronomy courses. Through electives and a senior capstone research course, students craft a major focused on their career interests, and faculty research involving undergraduates is an institutional expectation– all faculty are involved in taking students in summer research experiences, and students involved in research routinely appear as co-authors in publications and present at conferences. The diverse range of faculty research specialties, as well as the diversity of faculty with 11 total, including three women and three from underrepresented groups, allows students to pursue interdisciplinary areas such as biology, chemistry, geology, mathematics, computer science, neuroscience, or environmental studies. The welcoming atmosphere of the department and peer mentoring has encouraged a community of learning, students clubs, and professional chapters. The total enrollment at Colgate University is about 3,000, and in the past 15 years, department enrollments have soared, featuring consistently high graduating classes, averaging 25 graduates per year in the last seven years, and with yearly averages of eight and seven women and students from underrepresented groups, respectively.

Howard University

2022 recipient

The department of physics and astronomy is structured as a student-centered learning system to produce graduates who are ready to compete successfully in today’s world. It supports the aspirations of Howard University to be a world-class institution by providing a forward-looking, technologically enhanced higher education environment with a global view. The department’s mission is to strive for a recognized level of national and international excellence in research and teaching in physics and to assure that students of African American descent are given the opportunity to achieve their fullest potential in physics. With an emphasis upon providing educational opportunities for Black students and fully welcoming students from other underrepresented populations, the department supports the historical and current mission of Howard University. The program is among the leading producers of African Americans with bachelor’s degrees in physics.

Michigan State University

2022 recipient

The Michigan State University department of physics has a long history of excellence in physics education. In recent years the department has developed significantly transformed models for both of its large introductory physics course strands. The engineering physics courses use a communities of practice framework in flipped classrooms, and the physics for life scientists courses has a redesigned curriculum to connect the physics to modern biological sciences. Both of these course sequences will be implemented at scale in MSU’s new STEM Teaching building with its large open classrooms ideal for these transformed classes. These approaches and curricula have also been disseminated in journal papers and conference proceedings. For its majors, the department is in the midst of implementing its long-term plan to integrate computation into each core course taken by students majoring in physics. Much of this effort is enabled by a focus over many years on cultivating a culture of continuing improvement in teaching. This focus in teaching has also led to significant investment in building a major physics education research group at MSU. The department has a longstanding tradition of active undergraduate student groups, and the combination of these involved groups and the teaching efforts described above have led to a steadily increasing number of majors, with over 100 incoming students declaring the intention to major in physics for the Fall 2021 semester.

See all recipients

The membership of APS is diverse and global, and the nominees and recipients of APS Honors should reflect that diversity so that all are recognized for their impact on our community. Nominations of members belonging to groups traditionally underrepresented in physics, such as women, LGBT+ scientists, scientists who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), disabled scientists, scientists from institutions with limited resources, and scientists from outside the United States, are especially encouraged.

Nominees for and holders of APS Honors (prizes, awards, and fellowship) and official leadership positions are expected to meet standards of professional conduct and integrity as described in the APS Ethics Guidelines. Violations of these standards may disqualify people from consideration or lead to revocation of honors or removal from office.

Improving Undergraduate Physics Education (IUPE) Award

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