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September 2003

Release Date: September 24, 2003

ASU Physics Department Named Exemplary by Physics Today

The Angelo State University Physics Department is one of 21 undergraduate physics programs nationally recognized in the September issue of Physics Today as "thriving" and as a model for other physics departments to follow in a time of declining undergraduate enrollment.

ASU's Physics Department was the only department listed from Texas and bordering states in the journal's lead article "Why Many Undergraduate Physics Programs Are Good but Few Are Great" by physics professors Robert C. Hilborn of Amherst College and Ruth H. Howes of Marquette University.

The article was based on a study by the National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics as part of its Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics (SPIN-UP) project.

The SPIN-UP project identified five areas that had made ASU's department successful. First, the department offers multiple programs of study, including three tracks in physics, applied physics and physics with secondary certification as well as a pre-engineering track. Second, the department concentrates on undergraduate education, foregoing a graduate program in physics.

Third, major student research is incorporated in the undergraduate curriculum. Fourth, the department cultivates a strong sense of community between students and faculty. And finally, the department actively recruits physics majors, both in local high schools and through in-service courses.

Dr. Andrew B. Wallace, head of ASU's Physics Department, said the results of the study and the exposure in Physics Today reaffirms the wisdom of the teaching philosophy that has governed the department for more than a generation.

"If you look at the list of great departments in the study," Wallace said, "you will see that our undergraduate program is in a class with Harvard's. I think the study shows that you don't always have to go to a name university to get a high-quality education. Angelo State proves that time and again, not only in our department but in many others."

In addition to Harvard, other universities commended in the study include Brigham Young University, Bryn Mawr College, North Carolina State University, Oregon State, Rutgers University, University of Illinois and University of Virginia. The recognized physics departments located closest to Texas were Colorado School of Mines and the University of Arizona.

The National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics reported that physics graduates nationally have dropped 25 percent in the decade between 1990 when some 5,000 bachelor's degrees were awarded and 2000 when fewer than 4,000 were presented. This decline raised concerns in the field because of the fear that insufficient numbers of physicists will be available to meet national demands in an increasingly technological society. These concerns prompted the study to see what departments could do to reverse the trend.

According to the study, ASU's Physics Department over the last decade has maintained a steady enrollment and graduated an average of eight students a year. Some 1,400 students per semester enroll in the department's classes, giving the department the highest average class size in ASU's College of Sciences. The study reported that several physics majors have gone on to complete medical school at prestigious institutions. The report also commended the department for the strong bond between faculty and high school physics teachers.

"Our graduates are the best testimony to our department's success," Wallace said. "The recognition in Physics Today certainly makes us proud, but the success of our graduates and their accomplishments in the profession and in graduate school are what makes us the proudest."