Building a Thriving Undergraduate Physics Program Workshop Sessions

Joint Plenary

Joint Plenary: Increasing Involvement in the Physics Major by Targeting Careers

Ron Henderson, Middle Tennessee State University

Many physics departments are interested in growing their programs, but not all have actionable plans for reaching this goal. One avenue for attracting majors is to engage students, both during high school and after arriving on campus, on the topic of career preparation. Surveys reveal that many new undergraduates respond to the pressure of selecting a major with a "present-oriented'' mindset that is likely connected to a favorite course in high school. This talk focusses on the role that physics departments can play in guiding students toward "future-oriented'' thinking and career planning both during recruiting, and after students arrive on campus. The physics department at MTSU helps students answer two questions: what you can do with a physics degree, and how to prepare for success in the field of choice. The department has grown by establishing programs to prepare students for high school physics teaching, operations research, and medical physics graduate schools, to name a few. And, efforts toward program improvement in one area have had unintended benefits that resonate throughout the department.


Threatened Departments: How They Responded -- How They Fared

Theodore Hodapp, American Physical Society

It's Monday morning, and you have an email informing you that the President will be closing all undergraduate programs that graduate fewer than 15 majors each year. How do you respond? Has anyone faced this recently? What do we do? This session will explore responses made by a variety of physics departments to threats like this over the last few years and how they have fared. The American Physical Society has assisted chairs at a number of institutions, and I will discuss how we support departments in this situation, and what you can do to avoid receiving that email in the first place. Spoiler alert: there is good news and bad news!

What To Do with the Other 40%

Toni Sauncy, Texas Lutheran University

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) Statistical Research Center keeps close tabs on the physics community. From their meticulous record keeping and careful analysis, we know that the number of bachelor's degrees in physics awarded annually is on the rise, hitting an all-time high last year. We also know that more than half of all physics bachelor's degree recipients do something other than pursue a graduate degree in physics or astronomy. These young physicists, equipped with "just'' a bachelor's degree in physics, do all kinds of jobs in all kinds of settings. Those that do pursue graduate studies do so in a variety of disciplines and go on to a broad range of successful careers, despite the focus of most programs on preparing students for physics (or astronomy) graduate school. The AIP Career Pathways Project, modeled after SPIN-UP, has resulted in several new resources based on curricular and extracurricular "common features'' among schools that are effective in preparing students to enter the workforce with a physics bachelor's degree, i.e. "the other 40%''. There are some simple (and challenging) changes that physics programs should consider in order to attract students, embrace the broad range of interests the students have, and best prepare all those eager young physicists to find the path that calls them, even if that path does not lead to a Ph.D. in physics.

Case Studies

Building a Thriving Physics Program at Seattle Pacific University

Stamatis Vokos, Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo

Since the early 2000's, the Physics Department at Seattle Pacific University has been involved in an ongoing transformation of the undergraduate physics program by incorporating the methodology and results of physics education research at the introductory level and beyond. Aligning the departmental mission to greater university's concerns, both intramurally and externally, has allowed the department to grow in staff, to increase its national and international stature, and to develop a multifaceted research agenda on the learning and teaching of physics. As a PhysTEC legacy site, the department has benefited tremendously from its participation in an active professional community that seeks to improve physics teaching at the precollege and college levels. This, in turn, has increased the number of physics teachers that SPU prepares, without compromising our physics and engineering graduate school bound students (the number of whom has stayed pretty stable). In this talk, generalizable strategies will be described, the evidentiary basis of our claims will be discussed, and challenges that still remain will be illustrated.

Case Study: Morehouse Physics & Dual Degree Engineering Program: We C.A.R.E. Approach

Willie Rockward, Morehouse College

Growing the physics major at any undergraduate institution, especially Morehouse College – a private, all-male, liberal arts HBCU, can be very challenging. To address this challenge at Morehouse, the faculty and staff in the Department of Physics and Dual Degree Engineering Program (Physics & DDEP) are applying a methodology and pedagogical approach called "We C.A.R.E" which stands for Curriculum, Advisement, Recruitment/ Retention/ Research, and Extras. This approach utilizes an integrated strategy of cultural (family-orientated), collaborative (shared-governance), and career (personalized-pathways) modalities to provide the momentum of growing the physics major at Morehouse from 10-12 students to over 100 students in less than 5 years. Physics & DDEP at Morehouse, creatively, altered faculty course assignments, curriculum offerings, and departmental policies while expanding research projects, student organizations, and external collaborations. This method supplies a variety of meaningful, academic and research experiences for undergraduates at Morehouse and thoroughly prepares students for graduate studies or professional careers in STEM disciplines. Thus, a detailed overview of the "We C.A.R.E." approach will be presented along with the Physics & DDEP vision, alterations and expansions in growing the physics major at Morehouse College.

Case Study: The Power of Collaboration and Engagement in Transforming a Program into a Thriving Program

Vivian Incera, University of Texas at El Paso

In the AY08-09, the department of physics at UTEP had only 15 majors, undergraduate research was seldom an option, and research productivity could be better. The deep transformation that followed during the next five years led to revamping the majors' enrollment to over 100, a change from low single digits to double-digits degrees awarded, and a vibrant research atmosphere with healthy funding and lot of student research opportunities. This revitalization saved the UTEP physics department from being a casualty of the policy established then by the state of Texas, which was closing all the programs whose graduation rates were below a minimum benchmark. In this presentation, I will explain how the process of engaging the faculty, identifying and enthusing champions, and developing a comprehensive strategy that touched every aspect of the department and the programs contributed to turn things around in such a short time.

Revitalizing an Undergraduate Physics Program: A Case Study of the University of Arkansas

Gay Stewart, West Virginia University

In response to state efforts to close physics departments with few majors, the American Association of Physics Teachers and the American Physical Society have drawn departments' attention to the problem and provided information help interested departments increase graduation rates. An early data search showed that while APS was calling for a doubling initiative, the University of Arkansas physics department has seen an increase of an order of magnitude, from an average of 1 to 2 graduates per year in the mid-1990s to 27 graduates or more per year since 2012. This growth resulted from many changes: a revision of the introductory physics course sequence, a reworking of degree requirements to allow increased flexibility, an increased focus on in-department academic advising, and specific faculty hires to support the educational mission. The purpose of this case study presentation is to discuss a few significant details of the revised program and engage the audience with how other programs can implement them. This presentation will provide some underlying details related to the discussion in Stewart, J., Oliver, W. and Stewart, G., Am. J. Phys. 81, 943 (2013);

The SPIN-UP Report and its Role in Developing a 'Rising' Thriving Physics Program

Mike Jackson, Central Washington University

In 2007, a department chair was hired into a functional, collaborative physics department. Unfortunately, the Great Recession hit and in the six subsequent years drastic budget cuts followed. In this period, members of the university administration explored combining physics with another department and recommended eliminating one of its two degree programs. Recently however the physics program has been viewed as something more than a service department. Significant investments have been made that include increased funding for operating expenses and several new tenure-track positions. Construction on a new science building will also soon be completed, in which the physics department will nearly double its teaching and research space. The primary reason why the CWU physics program survived the Great Recession and emerged as a 'rising' thriving physics program was due to growth. Along with increased general education course enrollments, the number of physics majors increased four-fold with double-digit graduating classes during each of the past several years. This can be attributed to the implementation of several recommendations outlined in the SPIN-UP report. This presentation will give an overview on how some of the recommendations have been implemented with a focus on the department's recruitment and retention efforts.