Back from the brink of budget extinction, University of Northern Iowa Physics Department announces its intentions

From an op-ed in the Des Moines Register, by UNI Physics Professor Paul Shand:

Recent budget challenges at the University of Northern Iowa have put pressure on many science programs with relatively low graduation rates. Physics initially was one of these, but a remarkable outpouring of support — by UNI faculty and students, by physics alumni and by national leaders in science — saved the most important physics programs, the bachelor of science in physics and the bachelor of arts in physics teaching.

This extraordinary effort has given UNI physics faculty and students the assurance and resolve to take our program to the next level, to the greater benefit of Iowa and the nation.

As the department moves forward, we remain confident that the undergraduate physics education that we deliver to students is first-rate and equal to the very best in Iowa. Many testimonials to this fact by alumni and employers have been written over the past month. Our main challenge now is enrollment growth…

…Why do undergraduate physics enrollments (and hence graduation rates) tend to be low? One reason is the mathematical and quantitative rigor required. If a student is not mathematically prepared, he or she will not do very well in pursuing a physics degree.

However, the quantitative rigor required cannot be the only reason because there are other subject areas that are highly quantitative (e.g., economics and finance) and yet have higher enrollments and graduation rates than physics. [Editor’s note – Uh, no, economics and finance are not comparable in the demands placed on students’ math skills]

That said, we will redouble our efforts to ensure that students enrolled in our physics programs, especially freshmen and transfers, have the necessary mathematical skills to persist and eventually graduate. Further, we have implemented an activity-based format in our first-year courses. The students learn physics by being interactively engaged with their peers and the instructor. Lectures are de-emphasized; the students learn by doing. The effectiveness of these methods has been validated by many years of physics education research.

Another reason for low enrollments is that many high school guidance counselors, students and parents lack comprehensive information about what one can do with a physics degree. The fault lies with the professional physicist community, including faculty members at universities such as UNI.

The great benefit of physics training is that it molds a student into a very flexible thinker and problem-solver. These are skills that are highly prized in industry.

A March 11 article in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier pointed out that physicists are the fifth highest paid professionals in the U.S.

Our graduates have been hired by firms such as Deere & Company, Rockwell-Collins and Distek. Many of our B.S. physics graduates have gone on to earn advanced degrees and are employed as researchers in government or industrial laboratories, and as university professors.

We should also mention that the UNI Physics Department remains the best place in the state to be trained for high school physics teaching. Our Physics Department is home to two faculty members whose research specialty is physics education at the high school and college levels.

The state of Iowa is in dire need of high school physics teachers. Salaries for physics teachers are certainly not as high as those of physicists in industry or government. However, the work is just as, if not more, rewarding. We hope many students will enter our physics teaching program in the coming years…

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