FEd Summer 2002 Newsletter - Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics (SPIN-UP)

Summer 2002



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Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics (SPIN-UP)

Ruth H. Howes

In 1999, APS, AAPT and AIP created an eleven-member National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics (NTFUP) to investigate the drop in the numbers of students graduating with bachelors degrees in physics that occurred during the 90s. The Task Force recognized that physics departments operate in a changing environment. Disciplines like computer science and neuroscience challenge physics' place in the center of the scientific universe. Much experimental physics is done by large groups at user facilities rather than in a basement laboratory, and computational physics has begun to rival experimental and theoretical physics. Industries focus increasingly on product development rather than basic research so physics graduates find themselves working as members of multidisciplinary teams and need the "soft" skills to do that. Today's high school graduates are more likely than ever before to have studied high school physics, and they bring enormous skills in using computers. However, they often lack training in algebra or calculus, and they are accustomed to learning from video rather than from books. They are increasingly ethnically and economically diverse.

Many physics departments, particularly those granting Ph.D.s, saw steep declines in the numbers of graduating majors. Other departments have adapted successfully to environmental changes and either have all the majors they want or are growing. From conferences and other contacts with the physics community, we know that the department is the engine of change in the university, that a physics major's experience depends on an entire physics program, not just a series of courses but also things like advising and a community of faculty and students, and that one size program will never fit the diverse institutions that educate undergraduate physicists.

In 2001, NTFUP received funding from the ExxonMobil Foundation for SPIN-UP in order to find out what these thriving departments were doing right. We looked for departments with plenty of majors where morale was high for both faculty and students and the majority of the faculty was involved in undergraduate education. These departments succeeded in placing their majors in both grad school and the workforce, attracted women and minorities, earned the respect of their administrations and other departments on campus, and paid attention to training K-12 teachers. We also looked for variety in types of institutions in size, in geography and in mission.

At the invitation of the department chair, teams of three physicists including a NTFUP member visited 23 departments that seemed to us to be thriving. The department agreed to produce a rather extensive report before the visit and to support local expenses for the team. About 70 physicists volunteered to conduct the site visits. Each team produced a report for NTFUP and the department chair. The confidential reports have been turned into public case studies describing successful programs and strategies. The reports are available in the Programs Section of the AAPT website under NTFUP.

There appear to be several keys to building a thriving physics department. They are modified locally, but they reappear in all or nearly all our thriving departments. First, all the programs we visited focused on high quality academic preparation of students. Many of them used flexible programs to accommodate the wide-ranging interests of their students, but in no case did "flexible" mean lowering standards in the physics courses being taught. Students might not take as many standard physics courses, but the physics they studied was rigorous. A number of departments had introduced several tracks through the physics major. Others used 3/2 programs (3 years undergraduate physics followed by 2 years in a professional school) both to attract students to physics and to recruit them as physics majors.

In all thriving departments, the faculty as a whole placed a high value on undergraduate education. If they did not participate directly in undergraduate education, faculty members regarded it as a critical undertaking for the department and supported those actively involved during promotion and tenure and salary debates. Each department worked to best serve those students actually enrolled in physics, not the students the faculty wish were there. They constantly interacted with students and modified the physics programs in response to what they learned. All departments worked to build a community of physicists including faculty, students and staff. Most departments, even those so small that they used the back of a lecture hall, set aside space for students.

The thriving departments had strong and sustained leaders who were able to build a vision of a physics program that fits the mission of the university and serves the need of students. Most thriving departments also had support from their universities. All thriving departments paid attention to advising students and to recruiting them, but these activities varied widely from campus to campus.

Each of the thriving departments took responsibility for the condition of their undergraduate programs. Faculty members did not blame poor student preparation or unresponsive administrators for the down turn most of them once experienced. They analyzed the situation and took action to correct it.

Finally, we worked with the AIP Group on Surveys and Special Studies to conduct a national survey of departments granting bachelor's degrees in physics. The survey achieved a 74% response rate, clearly indicating wide interest in undergraduate education throughout the physics community. The survey results are still being analyzed. However, we are able to present two preliminary findings. First, the courses and content comprising physics majors are remarkably uniform in almost all physics departments. This seems to indicate that the pedagogy in these courses and other aspects of an undergraduate physics program are critical to building a thriving department. Second, most departments report doing many of the things that seemed to be working for thriving departments. It is not clear whether some less successful departments have just started work on their programs or whether they need help in making these activities more effective in their local environments.

The Task Force is hard at work on a report on SPIN-UP due out later this fall. We are exploring ways to use these results to improve undergraduate physics programs. Under consideration are a series of regional conferences for teams of physicists from departments or a program of sending consultants to departments. We invite you to contact us to discuss SPIN-UP or your individual undergraduate program at NTFUP@aapt.org. This article was prepared with the help of the Task Force, particularly Ken Krane and Bob Hilborn.

Ruth Howes is Professor of Physics at Ball State University, Muncie, IN 47306 and a member of the NTFUP. She is a past member of the Executive Committee of the FEd. She can be reached at rhowes@bsu.edu