12 June 2008

Perspective on a successful physics undergraduate program

Many people, including myself, have remarked on what a great experience we had as physics majors in my undergraduate program. In this post, I explore why the program was so successful.

First, there was a core group of professors in the department who loved undergraduates. There were faculty who liked to hang out with undergrads and talk to them. Some of them were really charismatic, funny, and inspiring. Those guys (no gals unfortunately) were our heroes. The last year I was there, a professor, who I had previously worked with on a research project, came to me with the idea of having the physics undergraduates pick one of the colloquium speakers. I was Society of Physics Students (SPS) president at the time, so I jumped on the idea. Apparently, the physics majors are still inviting colloquium speakers five years later, so the idea must stuck. This sort of stuff happened frequently. An enthusiastic professor and an enthusiastic student working together to make something happen.

There were a few faculty in the department who were always thinking of ways to get undergrads involved. That way of thinking was highly encouraged at our institution in general. I think that when I was an undergraduate there, the institution was in the middle of a 10+ year campaign to improve the undergraduate experience. (I think the university leadership is pretty happy with their work and now they're trying to improve the graduate experience.)

There was a lot of incentive for professors to be nice to the undergrads in their classes because there was always "free" institution-wide funding to hire undergraduate researchers. In fact, if you were an assistant professor in the physics department at our institution, your chances of getting tenure are highly enhanced by hiring a bunch of super-bright undergrads to do your research for you.

Teaching in the physics department was highly emphasized, to the point where apparently there were young professors tenied tenure because they didn't teach well enough. (I guess the chair and associate chair of the department at the time were super-pro-undergrad-education.) For most courses, lectures were taught by one professor (frequently junior faculty) and sections were taught by another professor (frequently senior faculty). So that doubled our exposure to the faculty. It was not unusual for the senior professor teaching section to sit in on the junior professor who was lecturing. The culture seemed to be that the senior faculty demanded great teaching from their younger colleagues. It was also apparent that the faculty discussed teaching amongst each other and that they would trade ideas and use each other's notes.

Having a great physics department for undergraduates is wonderful, but there are costs. Our classes were so hard that everyone had to work together or go to office hours or both. So our lives really revolved around the physics major. I'm not sure if most undergraduates want to have that kind of life.

The postdoc I worked with complained that he was short-changed. He claimed that there was too much attention devoted to undergrads and that the grad students and postdocs suffered. I was also under the impression that the faculty were overworked since they wanted to (or were expected to?) do both great research and great teaching. The fact that great teaching was expected for tenure probably scared off a lot of potential job candidates who just wanted to do research.

Is it possible to have a department that is good to everyone? I don't know. But if you want something to happen, you need great leaders with a vision and a culture that fosters that vision.

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