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Department of Physics' Improving Undergraduate Physics Education Award

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The Department of Physics was awarded the prestigious Improving Undergraduate Physics Education award from the American Physical Society’s Committee on Education. The award recognizes the department’s efforts to better serve their students through innovative degree options, interactive teaching methods, and applying social media tools which connect students to each other and to department faculty. The award will be formally conferred at the APS meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, in April 2015.

The physics department undertook an intensive enrichment process that focused on pedagogy, curriculum, and culture. Now what was once COAS’s smallest department in terms of student enrollment has achieved an incredible 275% increase. The faculty accomplished this through self-review, interactive engagement pedagogy, innovation in laboratory experiences, and a required research-oriented senior thesis. The department chose to actively engage with students through social media, using Facebook groups to reach out to groups of students (women in physics, research groups, class-based groups). Through social media, students can openly discuss their classwork and research with advisors and fellow students as well as share their successes and help others. The department also created new degree concentrations, including allowing students to design their own concentration with courses outside of physics (for example pre-law or chemical physics). 

According to department chair, Mark Masters, “One of the aspects that makes us unique is that we have a strong agreement about how classes should be taught.  You will not find another physics department with this level of agreement.” The pedagogical approach the faculty employ is called “interactive engagement,” a research-based, student-centered approach that has been shown to aid understanding, retention, and application of information.

This cutting-edge approach extends throughout the program, even in introductory-level classes. Laboratory assignments are open ended, according to Masters, “so that students can discover the physics and figure out their own experiments to answer their questions.” Student investigations start from what they know and build to an advanced understanding, so that each laboratory experience builds upon others, with students gaining more academic independence as they progress.

Communication is built into every laboratory assignment and every course. From Facebook groups to conference posters and presentations to reports, courses employ a variety of communication requirements. Department members even developed the Journal of the Advanced Undergraduate Physics Investigation as a teaching tool.  Students write articles for this journal based on the work they do in class; these articles are then peer reviewed by students at other universities.  This gives them professional writing and project experience that will aid them in their future careers. 

Because research is a valuable, high impact educational experience, the department has formalized research into a required senior thesis in which the students must propose, execute, and write about their research.  Even though completing a thesis is optional for them, the first senior theses are being completed by four current seniors:  Aaron Magner, Skyler Stauffer, Danielle Bishop, and Zac Overby. 

The department offers many degree options for students, including optoelectronics and photonics (a department specialty) in which students learn how to design, build, test and experiment with optical systems, produce light (lasers), and design and build electronic subsystems to detect and analyze the light.  A number of interdisciplinary options are also available: biomedical physics (premed or medical physics), computational/mathematical physics, engineering physics, interdisciplinary physics, and entrepreneurial physics.

But as Masters explains, what the department provides “is deeper than all these parts.  Everything we do in the department is to help our students become more capable, better problem solvers, better citizens, and more marketable.  Our overall philosophy is student centered. And the payoff has been that we have more students in our program than ever before.” So congratulations to the Department of Physics on this well-deserved acknowledgment via the Improving Undergraduate Physics Education award.