Lawrence University

Department of Physics



David M. Cook

(Following is the text of paper Q6.003 delivered on 30 April 2001 in a session on attracting and retaining physics majors at the April, 2001, meetings of the American Physical Society, Washington, DC.)


Dissatisfied in the mid 1980's with the number of majors and with the level of professional activity within the Department of Physics at Lawrence University, we---perhaps without initially recognizing it---began developing a foundation on which we could base a coherent process of improvement. By the early 1990's, this process had broadened considerably, and we were openly declaring that our goal was to become one of the premier small physics departments in the country. The conviction that our entire program, not just our courses, required attention guided our pursuit of this ambitious goal. Certainly, a comprehensive, well-taught spectrum of courses for majors and non-majors alike is critical. We also needed, however, to build departmental distinctiveness, to recruit prospective majors, to expand faculty and faculty-student research, to arrange frequent departmental visitors, and to provide up-to-date facilities. In addition, recognizing that the personal is as important as the academic, we needed to create a departmental environment that supports and nurtures even as it challenges all students. That we have achieved some success is evidenced by the growth in the number of majors from an average of five per year in the 1980's to about ten per year, the growth of scholarship within the Department, and the growth in faculty from three in the mid 1980's to five. Along the way, we have learned that pursuing our goal requires a continuing, long-term, broadly-based, departmental commitment. Major improvement cannot be accomplished in a year or two by one or two members working alone, and it must impact the entire departmental program, not just its curriculum and certainly not just a few courses.

Unconsciously for the past fifteen years, consciously and explicitly for the past ten, the Department of Physics at Lawrence University has aspired to become a premier small physics department. While opinions vary on what constitutes such a department, we believe that the distinguishing characteristics include excellent teaching, a reasonably 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, significant impact on the host institution and elsewhere with outreach efforts, a departmental environment that engages and challenges majors and nonmajors alike, and up-to-date facilities and equipment. Although good teaching and a strong curriculum are obviously essential, we have come over the years to place considerable emphasis on the notion that effecting a substantial elevation of a department---and in particular increasing the department's attractiveness to prospective majors---requires much more than tinkering with course offerings, much more even than massive overhaul of those offerings. On the basis of that realization, my colleague John Brandenberger and I have for some years been trying to persuade everyone who will listen that raising a department to a new level requires paying attention to the entire departmental program. We argue that building a program that will attract and retain majors requires that attention be given to at least the elements shown on this transparency. In the interests of time (and without in any way implying insignificance for the remaining elements), I want today to focus particularly on the four elements in bold type, though comments about some of the other elements will sneak in here and there. In broad outline, I will describe some aspects of the evolution of the Lawrence departmental program, present evidence that our efforts over the past decade and a half have achieved more than modest success, and enumerate several guidelines we have come over the years to adopt.

Signature Programs

Our efforts to improve our Department began modestly in the mid-1980's. At that time, we had become unhappy with the drawing power of our program. To address that concern, we decided to build distinctive specialties within our Department, confidently expecting them to serve as effective vehicles to attract more good students. My colleague, John Brandenberger, started with a major effort to build a local specialty---we would now call it a signature program---in laser physics. A year or so later, I followed his lead with a similar effort to build a signature program in computational physics. Importantly, we already had some local expertise in these areas. Even more important for the objective of attracting students, both areas were exciting and appealing to prospective students. Further, while both were still largely underrepresented in undergraduate physics nationally, we were convinced---some might say we gambled---that each would come to be a critical component in undergraduate programs within a very few years.

To develop facilities, enhance our local expertise, and build curricular components that would bring these two specialties to a position of prominence in our Department, we sought outside support. We assured our sources of funding---mainly the NSF, the General Electric Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust, the Keck Foundation, and the Sloan Foundation---that developments at Lawrence would be pace-setting and would be disseminated widely, thus extending the impact of our efforts beyond Lawrence. In short, we undertook to conduct pilot projects that, beyond stimulating the local environment, had the potential to help other institutions incorporate similar components in their own programs. Over the first few years, we secured roughly half a million dollars of outside money and gifts in kind. Together with support from Lawrence, these funds provided equipment, supported summertime developmental efforts involving faculty members and students, and allowed our two signature programs to move forward rapidly. The Lawrence Laser Physics Laboratory and the Lawrence Computational Physics Laboratory were created, and several curricular modifications were implemented. In keeping with our commitment to disseminate, John and I gave invited and contributed talks at national meetings and accepted invitations to give colloquia at a number of colleges and universities. Further, he and I convened two separate small Sloan-supported conferences at Lawrence. Both conferences produced reports and proceedings that were distributed gratis to all undergraduate physics departments nationwide. These efforts began to identify us as innovators in undergraduate physics instruction. Even more, they fostered a heightened sense of local pride, and they left us with specialized facilities that, with regular updating over the years, remain largely unmatched in other institutions, including large ones.

Recruiting Workshops

The creation of these two signature programs was invigorating for the Department, but that activity was only a first step. By 1987, we felt these programs were fully enough developed to begin helping us attract students. In 1987, we held two weekend workshops for high school seniors with strong interests in physics. These workshops have continued annually to the present day. Our Office of Admissions handles all of the paperwork and mailings, and underwrites all costs, including travel expenses for attendees who live further than comfortable driving distance from Appleton. Each fall, several thousand descriptive flyers are sent out to students on our mailing lists, to high school physics teachers, and others. To apply for the workshop, interested participants in fact apply to Lawrence, so the workshops directly generate applications for admission to Lawrence. Typically, we will have 60--80 applicants from all over the country. In some years we have offered two workshops with 20 participants each; more recently we have offered a single workshop with 26--30 participants. Participants Housing for the weekend is provided in our residence halls, and participants are guests of current physics majors.

These annual weekend-long workshops constitute a critical component in the total physics program at Lawrence. They increase our applicant pool; each year, they expose two or three dozen strong applicants to the academic environment at Lawrence; and they prompt who knows how many prospective students from 50 states and beyond to consider Lawrence as an attractive place to study physics. For maximum immediate payoff, they are timed not so much to attract applicants as to induce seriously interested applicants to accept our offer of admission. Roughly 30% of the workshop attendees matriculate. These workshops, which are now a well established annual activity, have transformed our Department. Our Director of Admissions has even been known to claim that, dollar for dollar, the $15-$18,000 annual cost represents a more productive spending of his dollars than almost any other recruiting activity the office undertakes.

The success of our early signature programs and of these workshops strengthened our conviction that we could indeed make progress towards the goal I stated in my first sentence: to become one of the premier small physics departments in the country. Is this goal attainable? Surely, we will be hesitant to admit that we have attained it even if we ultimately do. We have certainly tried to behave as if it were attainable. And that behavior in itself has been salutary for the Department. As a beacon and a goad, this goal has served us well.

Attempt to Define Signature Programs

Before continuing in this recitation of our Department's history, let me attempt to clarify what we mean by a signature program. Even though we have long attributed departmental vitality and improvement to the stimulation provided by these programs, many on our home campus still don't seem to understand this notion---which probably means I can't explain it very well. Nonetheless, let me try. Unique and innovative, signature programs are showcase teaching endeavors that focus on contemporary topics and are taught in especially well equipped laboratories. Because of their pedagogic dimensions, they are not identical to faculty research, but they are related to that research, and many components of these programs will emerge from that research. Signature programs affect the total departmental program in several ways: they generate specialty courses that lend distinctiveness to a department; they intensify student/faculty interaction; they increase departmental pride; they support a variety of student projects; they increase the spectrum of up-to-date equipment available for teaching and for student projects; and---most important for the long range future of the Department---they serve as a staging area for active student recruitment.

More Recent Departmental History

I return now to the historical thread, which I have so far traced from the mid 1980's to 1992 or 1993. By then, we had begun to experience some success in attracting more strong students; we had two signature programs in place; and we had achieved a number of curricular improvements reflecting the impact not only of these signature programs but also of a separate project that modernized and computerized our introductory laboratories. Furthermore (and more significantly), by this time our initial modest goal of developing signature programs had grown to the much more grandiose and all-encompassing objective I have already stated: to become one of the premier 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 establish an ambitious program of scholarly research that would complement and supplement our pedagogical efforts, and that each would also create a 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.

As that vision emerged, we also realized that curricular development had dominated our activities in the 1980's and early 1990's. Except for our outreach offerings, which we felt had not by then been adequately improved, we concluded that---at least temporarily---we should set aside further efforts on the curricular front and focus on other elements of our program, especially on faculty and faculty/student research and the requisite infrastructure. To be sure, undergraduate research had existed at Lawrence for decades, but its breadth and depth at the time were judged insufficient for an outstanding small physics department. Hence, with encouragement from the Research Corporation, we developed a four-year plan of departmental development designed to produce substantial improvement in many dimensions of our program. This plan included some curricular development, especially for non-majors, but was focused more strongly on such elements of infrastructure as library holdings, departmental colloquia, machine-shop improvement, and expansion of departmental spaces and on the expanded research that that infrastructure would enable. We envisioned four separate research programs on campus, and we wanted to increase both the productivity of and the student involvement in this research. Our proposal for a Departmental Development Grant from Research Corporation was funded in late 1994.

One key element in the funded plan was the hiring of a Laboratory Supervisor whose teaching of introductory laboratories released approximately 1 FTE of time for our four tenured and tenure-track faculty members to devote to matters other than classroom teaching. One such other matter was to create a capstone program in which seniors, with substantial faculty assistance, pursue ambitious and integrative 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 the academic year, and a greater number of summer research opportunities for our students. Few of these enhancements would have been possible without the expansion in teaching staff from 4 FTE to 5 FTE---an expansion that was initially supported by the grant from the Research Corporation but is now a part of the annual institutional budget.

Another important element in our Research Corporation-supported program involved annual visits by two consultants, Professors Robert Hilborn (Amherst College) and Robert Hallock (University of Massachusetts, Amherst), as well as by an official of Research Corporation (initially Brian Andreen, then Michael Doyle, and at the end Humberto Campins). Over the years these individuals became well acquainted with us and our context, so they provided well-informed, sympathetic but also challenging input to our growth (or lack threreof). Their annual visits helped immensely in motivating us regularly to measure our progress against the targets stated in the proposal, because we knew that---come the next visit---we would be expected to give a good accounting. These consultants did a fabulous job of playing a difficult dual role: they were, on the one hand, our sympathetic and encouraging friends and supporters in this endeavor; they were, on the other hand, representatives of the Research Corporation charged with seeing to it that we lived up to our end of the ``contract'' represented by the funded proposal. In addition, they effectively represented the Department and the Research Corporation in annual conversations with the Lawrence President and Dean. They were able to remind our administrators of commitments made, chastising or praising as appropriate; they were able to convey some of our thoughts more forcefully to the administration than we could ourselves; and they were able to interpret administrative perspectives to the Department. While this grant has now run its official course, we anticipate one more visit from this team sometime next spring, during which visit we---and our administration---will be expected to demonstrate that we have continued to live up to our part of the bargain in the immediate post-grant years. I cannot state too forcefully that these annual visits by the same team were valuable on several fronts. A one-shot departmental review every ten-years simply will not have the impact of regular visits by the same competent team over a period of several years.

The Extra-Curriculum

Of the remaining elements on my original list, I want to address only one: the importance of paying attention to the extra-curriculum, in which I include not only student/student and faculty/student interactions outside of course contacts but also the nurturing of a departmental atmosphere that is professional and challenging but also supportive and non-threatening. This overhead lists several ways we address this element.

We operate, for example, with an open-door policy, taking time to advise students individually on career choices, summer research opportunities, graduate school opportunities, undergraduate and graduate fellowships, and many other issues.

We have consciously sought to increase student involvement in departmental affairs. Students now contribute regularly to curricular discussions, to interviewing of candidates for positions, to entertaining visitors, and to assisting with laboratories, help sessions, and review sessions in the introductory courses. Beyond attracting the next year's class, our annual recruiting workshops offer a particularly effective vehicle to involve many current students as assistants, providing a way for us to convey to them our confidence in them and giving them partial ownership of the process of perpetuating the strength of the Department.

Regular social gatherings such as twice-weekly teas, an annual departmental picnic and an annual departmental retreat at Lawrence's rural Door County estate help foster departmental rapport. Among other features, these events encourage significant interactions across class years. We expect increasingly active chapters of the Society of Physics Students, a local group called Women of Physics, and our long-standing Sir Isaac Newton Society to play important roles in this area as well.

Among the more important components of our extra-curriculum is the annual series of departmental colloquia given by seniors conducting research projects, by faculty members, and by outside visitors. In particular, we try to arrange three or four visits by outside individuals each year. (The overhead lists individuals who have visited in recent years.) Each such visit will last at least a day and a half, preferably two days. We ask each visitor to give a general colloquium aimed at all science departments and a more technical talk aimed at, say, junior majors. Even more important, through scheduled appointments and meals, we will make sure the visitor has several opportunities to interact with individual students and groups of students with no faculty members present. We will also arrange an all-department social evening. Increasingly SPS and WOP are participating in the arranging of these visits. Our students are fully aware that giving them opportunities to begin to behave like professional physicists is a prominent objective for these visits, and they have never disappointed us.

Finally, in the extra-curriculum, I want to underscore the importance of creating spaces within the Department that the students can call their own. Our student commons room, assorted spaces for student research, and study areas in our Computational Laboratory will be substantially enlarged when next fall we move back into a renovated and 40% larger departmental home. These spaces and the 24/7 access to them that we provide for students play an important role in helping us nurture both academic and social vigor among our students.

Measures of Success

In my last few minutes, let me first enumerate several indicators of the success we have experienced in revitalizing our program and then list the guidelines we have over the years come to adopt. As indicators of success, I note the following


I would like to conclude by enumerating several guidelines that we have found to encapsulate the way we have tried to give attention over the years to the many elements of our program. For compactness, I will state them as imperatives, even though---in so doing---I will probably appear to be more dictatorial than I intend.

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 on 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, the joy of working in the vital department that results, and especially the pride we take in the accomplishments of the students who have worked along with us in this effort are ample reward.


In this appendix, I include several paragraphs about other elements of our departmental program---paragraphs I was ultimately obliged to omit from the talk because of time constraints.

Personnel/Faculty/Staff/Research Interests

The Department of Physics at Lawrence University is staffed by five PhD physicists, four of them in tenured or tenure-track positions, and the fifth serving primarily as the instructor in our introductory laboratory program but also occasionally teaching the lecture part of an introductory course. Collectively, we have particular expertise in laser and atomic physics, surface physics, computational physics, and plasma physics, so we offer our students about as varied a menu of special areas as possible in a department of our size. Signature programs exist in laser and computational physics and are growing in surface and plasma physics. An electronics technician devotes 60% of his time to supporting physics, and we share a 10-hour per week machinist with the other science departments.

Outreach Offerings

Another component of our activities over the past decade has focused on improving and expanding our outreach offerings so as to provide significant opportunities for non-majors to confront physics in various guises, for the most part in topical rather than survey courses. 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, and the retiree (Professor Emeritus Bruce Brackenridge) has been willing even after retirement to offer these courses now and again. Currently, we offer outreach courses in the nature of light, laser physics, the physics of music, 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. The courses in astronomy and physics of music, in particular, regularly attract overflow enrollments.

Current Building Projects

As a last paragraph in this historical review, I must now tell you that Lawrence is currently in the final phases of a major project that has resulted in the building of two new buildings and the renovation of a third. Come next fall, the Department of Physics will move back into renovated spaces in Youngchild Hall. We will enjoy something like a 40% increase in floor area, almost all of the increase in laboratory spaces for faculty research, student research, and signature laboratories. Beyond the primary instructional laboratories for introductory and outreach courses, each faculty member will have an office, a 400--500 ft2 research laboratory, and a special 700--800 ft2 teaching laboratory designed to support that faculty member's signature program. With the current spectrum of faculty members, existing and intended signature programs are in 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. Almost certainly our administration would have been nearly as willing to undertake these building projects at a total cost of about $35M had the activities of the Department of Physics in the last 15 years not been as successful as they have been.

The Lawrence Calendar

Our entire program---curricular and extra-curricular---is structured within a three-term calendar. In each ten-week term, full-time students take three courses. Class periods are 70 minutes long, and---officially---courses at Lawrence are declared to be equivalent to 3-1/3 semester hour courses, though---unofficially---laboratory courses are more closely equivalent to 4-semester hour courses. I will presently identify several advantages of this three-term calendar for a program in physics.

The Physics Curriculum at Lawrence

In broad outline, this next overhead shows the arrangement of the annual course offerings of the Department. In all of our planning, we balance offerings in several categories:

Several features of this arrangement are worth noting:

From an alternative perspective, this overhead shows the way in which our teaching efforts are distributed over the several categories of course we offer. With this broader brush,

Because we do not have on-campus programs in such areas as engineering, secondary or elementary education, and nursing, we do not devote an enormous fraction of our teaching capacity to service courses. Our service obligations are focused on offerings that attract pre-medical students, majors in other sciences, and students choosing to satisfy Lawrence's general requirement in science with a course in physics.

From yet another perspective, this overhead shows the way courses are typically distributed over faculty members. Each faculty member teaches six courses a year, typically Freshman Studies or an Outreach course; one term of an introductory course, capstone students, one or two courses in the core curriculum, and a two or one additional courses at the intermediate and advanced level.

Finally, this overhead shows the program of courses typically undertaken by a student pursuing a minimum major. Seven to nine of the electives will be spent satisfying institutional distribution requirements; the remaining 19 electives are completely free. In particular, students anticipating graduate studies in physics or related areas will regularly take two or three more than the minimum number of courses for a major indicated in this program. Two further observations:

Because the core of the required courses in the physics major is completed by December of the junior year, students can easily clear a term (1/12 of their time) to participate in an off-campus program that may not have much scientific content. This flexibility is another positive consequence of our three-term calendar.

Most of you are probably recognizing from this description that our program of course offerings and our expectations for our majors are quite traditional. Certainly, we are conscious of physics education research. In the late 1980's, John Gastineau, a Lawrence physics graduate who was then a member of our faculty, guided us into the introduction of some components of workshop physics into our introductory laboratory program, and computers have played an appropriate supporting role in those laboratories for 15 years. Further, we have adopted efforts (a la Eric Mazur and others) to increase student participation in lecture courses. But we couldn't claim to be leading the way in any of those developments, or to be particularly innovative in course design or teaching styles. Nor have we---we would firmly argued---changed the nature of our expectations for majors.

Facilities/Major Equipment

No program can be successful without making a broad spectrum of equipment available. These overheads show the facilities and the major equipment currently available to faculty and students at Lawrence. Much was acquired with support from one or another grant for signature programs; some has been acquired through research grants; and Lawrence on its own has been generous both with a regular budget and with matching funds for NSF and other grants. Some equipment has been acquired as gifts in kind from various vendors, and some has come our way in consequence of keeping a careful eye on offerings of government surplus programs.

Recruiting of Students

I have already said quite a bit about our efforts at recruiting students. Beyond our annual workshops, we regularly