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 2015, there were four awardees:

Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne
The Department of Physics at the Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) has shown a strong enrollment increase during the past six years (275%) based on a coherent effort by their faculty and commitment to their students and community. Their approach is based on using interactive engagement pedagogy in the classroom, innovation in laboratory experiences, computational physics and a research-oriented senior thesis. Seven years ago the Department of Physics was small, in fact the smallest on campus and on the verge of termination. Then the faculty decided to adopt drastic changes and create an exemplary physics program using social media as a communication aid with different Facebook groups such Women in Physics, SPS, research groups, and specific class groups to allow students to openly discuss their classwork and research with advisors and fellow students, providing a forum to share their successes and help others. The department has created new concentrations also allowing students to design their own concentration with courses outside of physics (for example pre-law or chemical physics). The faculty are strongly engaged in obtaining external funds for new methods aimed at increasing student participation in the departments activities.

Middle Tennessee State University
Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) is a comprehensive regional university offering a B.S. as their highest degree in physics. Formerly a “low-producing” department, the MTSU Department of Physics and Astronomy has consciously adopted a mission to provide exceptional classroom experiences, career-focused courses and pathways, and intensive research opportunities to prepare students for targeted careers. The department has over the past half-decade successfully refocused its degree programs and course offerings to emphasize the possibilities inherent in a wide range of career choices beyond graduate programs in physics, including teaching careers, and teaches the skills necessary to attain them, including freshman career seminars, required capstone research experiences, and a senior-level career skills course. MTSU is among the most successful PhysTEC sites and became a UTeach replication site, in addition to thoughtfully reforming its entire curriculum in accord with research-based pedagogies, dramatically reducing DFW rates in introductory courses, and improving recruiting and retention at all levels of the curriculum, resulting in a significant increase in graduation rates.

North Carolina State University
The Department of Physics at North Carolina State University (NCSU) has gone through significant changes and transformations in its program such as the implementation of aspects of physics education that not only have increased the number of physics majors in their undergraduate program, but also has enhanced learning to all the students that the department has served. They focused on improving students understanding of physics, encouraging under-represented populations, enabling K-12 teaching careers, expanding undergraduate research opportunities, introducing career preparation and recognizing student success. NCSU is a PhysTEC site and the success of these implementations also lead eight of their current faculty to become members of the NCSU Academy of Outstanding Teachers, and three being recognized with the highest honor for teaching in the UNC System, the Board of Governor¹s Award for Teaching Excellence. Three faculty have also received Pegram Medals for Excellence in Education from the Southeastern Section of the APS. Two were CASE North Carolina Professors of the Year. Their faculty have won national (2011 McGraw Prize in Education) and local (2010, 2011 Martin Award for Teaching Excellence) awards for innovative approaches to teaching physics.

Rochester Institute of Technology
Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) is a comprehensive private university offering a B.S. as their highest degree in physics and a Ph.D. degree in Astrophysical Sciences and Technology. Over the past 14 years, the faculty has made a conscious effort to transform a stagnant department with outdated pedagogy into a thriving department. Their success is seen in a tripling of the number of physics majors, from 41 in 2000 to an average 135 for the past few years. Several factors have contributed to this success, including an overhaul of all introductory physics classes to a SCALE-UP-style active-learning environment, special attention for at-risk students, introduction of a freshman “gateway” course on relativity for physics majors, a significant overhaul of the advanced laboratory, establishment of a Learning Assistant program to get majors into the introductory classroom, and initiation of a year-long capstone requirement for seniors. In addition, the department has hired three faculty members who specialize in physics education. A commitment to improvement is shared by all faculty members in the department.

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.