A Case Study of Improvement

Link to Departmental Home Page | Link to Lawrence University Home Page

(Note: The materials presented in this document were assembled in the early fall of 1998 for use in the Lawrence Department of Physics' presentation as an invited case-study department in the Physics Revitalization Conference: Building Undergraduate Physics Programs for the 21st Century, sponsored by the American Association of Physics Teachers, the American Institute of Physics, the American Physical Society, the National Science Foundation, and Project Kaleidoscope and held 2-4 October 1998 at the Doubletree Hotel in Arlington, VA.)

Departmental Data

Department of Physics
Lawrence University
Box 599
Appleton, WI 54911-5626

Chair: Dr. David M. Cook
Phone: 920-832-6721
FAX: 920-832-6962

Department Members:

The Evolution of the Lawrence Departmental Program

For more than a decade, the Department of Physics at Lawrence University has aspired to become a premier small physics department. We believe that the distinguishing characteristics of an outstanding small physics department include excellent teaching, a comprehensive curriculum, faculty research that is recognized elsewhere, the presence of a critical mass of serious and able students actively learning physics and engaging in undergraduate research, broad departmental impact on the host institution and the external community through significant outreach efforts, a departmental environment that nurtures and challenges all students (majors and nonmajors alike), and up-to-date facilities and equipment. While good teaching and a strong curriculum are essential, we are convinced that a department's program is much more than its curriculum alone. A department that seeks to improve itself must give attention to its entire program, not just to its curriculum, and certainly not just to a few courses in that curriculum or to a few teaching methods. With recent assistance from the W. M. Keck Foundation, the National Science Foundation, Research Corporation, Lawrence University, and other sources, we believe that we have made substantial progress toward strengthening most of the elements in our program.

Our efforts to improve the Department began in the mid-1980's when several of us, unhappy with the drawing power of our program, decided to become more aggressive in building distinctive specialities within our Department as vehicles for attracting more good students. Hence, our decision at the time to emphasize laser physics and computational physics---both of which were emerging as critical topics in physics but which were still largely underrepresented in undergraduate physics nationally---provided the initial impetus in our effort to improve our program. To develop facilities, local expertise, and curricular components that would bring these two specialties to a position of prominence in our department, we sought outside support, assuring our sources of funding that developments at Lawrence would be pace-setting and would also be disseminated widely in hopes of increasing the impact of our efforts and thus helping other institutions improve as well. Roughly half a million dollars of outside money and gifts in kind, together with support from Lawrence, provided equipment, supported summertime developmental efforts involving faculty members and students, and allowed these two activities to move forward rapidly. The Lawrence Laser Physics Laboratory and the Lawrence Computational Physics Laboratory were created, and several curricular modifications were implemented. Reports were delivered at national meetings, and two Sloan-supported conferences (one on laser physics in 1987 and one on computation in upper-level physics curricula in 1990) were held at Lawrence. Both conferences produced reports and proceedings that were distributed gratis to all undergraduate physics departments nationwide. Those efforts began to identify us as innovators in undergraduate physics. They also left us with specialized facilities that were unmatched in virtually all other small institutions.

In 1987, we began to capitalize on these strengths by initiating an annual series of workshops for recruiting high school seniors with strong interests in physics. Supported by our Office of Admissions and held in late February and early March, these annual weekend-long workshops stimulated applications to Lawrence, brought 35--40 participants each year, and prompted prospective students from 50 states and beyond to consider Lawrence as an attractive place to study physics and prepare for careers in the field. These workshops increased both the number and quality of physics students coming to Lawrence. Four years after we started these efforts at recruiting, the number of physics graduates jumped from roughly five per year to more than ten per year (see figure at the end of this paragraph), and the fraction of physics majors graduating with honors and electing to attend graduate school increased in a similar fashion. Since we began these efforts, over 50% of our graduates have chosen to attend graduate schools (During the past decade, Lawrence physics majors have been offered graduate admission and support at Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, SUNY--Stony Brook, University of Wisconsin--Madison, University of Oxford, University of Colorado, University of Oregon, University of Minnesota, University of Virginia, University of Arizona, University of Kentucky, Princeton University, University of California--Berkeley, University of Texas--Austin, University of California--San Diego, University of California--Davis, University of California--Los Angeles, University of Illinois, Duke University, Northwestern University, Colorado State University, Montana State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Rochester, Kansas State University, University of Iowa, and Vanderbilt University.) or professional schools (Graduates have pursued studies of engineering at Washington University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Dartmouth, Iowa State University, Northwestern University, University of Minnesota, and the University of Wisconsin--Madison. Occasional physics majors pursue advanced study in medicine, law, or computer science, and one graduate every couple of years seeks certification to teach physics in secondary school.) immediately after graduation. In addition, the workshops, which involve an entire day of extensive hands-on experience with about ten different activities in our laboratories, provide a way to involve current students as assistants, thereby increasing Departmental esprit and pride and giving current students some ownership in the process of perpetuating the success and strength of the Department.

Figure: Number of physics degrees awarded versus time. The first recruiting workshop was held in the winter of 1987. Starting with the class of 1991, these workshops have been effective in doubling the average number of majors graduating per year during a period when national trends were moving in the opposite direction.

Five years ago, our goal shifted from developing specialties to becoming one of the better small undergraduate physics departments in the country. We envisioned a department that would provide students with strong backgrounds in theoretical, experimental, and computational physics and that endorsed a significant capstone activity in the senior year. We embraced the idea that each of the four faculty members would both establish an ambitious program of scholarly research that would complement and supplement our pedagogical efforts and create a special area or ``signature program'' that would generate additional identity for the department, strengthen our capacity to recruit students, and provide the facilities and expertise for the offering of special elective courses at the junior/senior level. Currently, these areas of specialization are experimental atomic and laser physics, computational physics, experimental condensed matter physics (specifically, liquid crystals, phase transitions, and x-ray diffraction), and experimental plasma physics focusing on non-neutral plasmas. New construction and renovation of spaces in a 35-year old building in the next few years will provide each faculty member with a 400--500 ft2 research laboratory and a special 700--800 ft2 teaching laboratory designed to support instruction associated with that faculty member's signature program.

While curricular developments received primary attention in the 1980's, greater attention is now being focused upon other matters and especially on faculty and faculty/student research. Undergraduate research has existed at Lawrence for four decades, but its breadth and depth were judged insufficient for an outstanding small physics department. Hence, with encouragement from then Vice-President Brian Andreen of the Research Corporation, we developed a five-year plan of departmental development that contained various elements (curricular development, library improvement, colloquium expansion, machine-shop improvement, etc.), the most pivotal of which was expanded research activity. We felt that we needed four visible research programs on campus, and we wanted to increase both the productivity of and the student involvement in these programs. After drafting several versions of such a plan and after a visit by Brian Andreen and President John P. Schaefer of Research Corporation, we wrote a proposal that won funding in late 1994. A grant of \$300K from Research Corporation, matched by \$250K from Lawrence and \$400K from other sources over a period of four years, has let us proceed much more broadly and systematically in our attempt to create a strong small physics department. This effort during the past three years has involved annual visitation by two consultants and critics, Professors Robert Hilborn (Amherst College) and Robert Hallock (University of Massachusetts, Amherst), as well as by the Vice-President of Research Corporation (initially Brian Andreen, now Michael Doyle) to monitor the progress of our program. This venture is now in its fourth and final year, and the progress and improvements are considerable.

A key element in this plan was the hiring of a Laboratory Supervisor whose teaching of introductory laboratories made it possible for the four faculty members to devote greater time and energy to matters other than classroom teaching. One such ``other matter'' involves a new capstone program in which seniors, with substantial faculty assistance, pursue ambitious undertakings that usually assume the form of undergraduate research projects. Other improvements in our program include substantially heightened research activities during both the summer and academic year, and a greater number of summer research opportunities for our students.

Another area of improvement in the department involves our outreach offerings, which provide greater opportunities for non-majors to confront physics in various guises. Until a recent retirement, courses in the history of planetary astronomy and the history of theories of motion were among our offerings for the nonmajor. Currently, we offer outreach courses in the nature of light, laser physics, the physics of music, cosmology, and astronomy. Some of these courses have full laboratory components and all are regularly elected by students seeking to fulfill the science requirement for a degree from Lawrence. In 1997--98, the courses in astronomy and physics of music attracted larger enrollments than could be accommodated. Every member of the Department contributes to this dimension of our program.

Critical support at various stages of this program of improvements was supplied by various major grants from the General Electric Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust, the W. M. Keck Foundation, and Research Corporation and by numerous smaller grants, including four NSF ILI grants, several NSF faculty improvement grants, individual research grants from Research Corporation, Petroleum Research Fund, and Exxon, numerous grants in kind from vendors of equipment or computer software, and two grants from the Sloan Foundation. These grants, totaling \$1.7M, have provided funds for research and teaching equipment, summer salaries for faculty members and undergraduate assistants, travel to meetings and seminars, library acquisitions, consultants and outside visitors, $\dots$.

In summary, over a period of a dozen years of continuing effort, the Department of Physics at Lawrence has made considerable progress in strengthening its overall program. Along the way we have come to a number of insights into what it takes to achieve the sort of improvement that we have enjoyed. For those just embarking on a process of improvement, knowing up front what we came to realize only in hindsight might be valuable. Some of our realizations are:

Revitalizing a departmental program is a lot of work, it must be carried out on several fronts, and it cannot be done in a short time. It requires a concentrated effort an the part of the entire department for long periods, and the pay-off may not be fully realized for a decade or more. The sheer pleasure of being part of the project and, even more, the joy of working in the vital department that results are worth the effort.

Links to Related Documents

(Note: For the most part, these links provide the information that was used to support the presentation in the form of handouts and that was incorporated in the poster mounted by the Department during the conference.)