FSU Physics Department’s Professor Susan Blessing – A Champion for Undergraduate Education

Last spring, I wrote the piece below for publication in the Newsletter of the American Physical Society’s Forum on Education in a special issue about the physics departments cited in the J-TUPP report.  FSU was included in the report.  Somewhere along the line, the article was edited to the point where it was grotesque and unrecognizable.  For Susan’s  sake (and mine, since it’s under my byline) I am posting the version I submitted below.  And yes, Professor Blessing really is that special.

A champion who is passionate about undergraduate education can make an enormous impact in the quality of a bachelor’s degree program in physics. At Florida State University, the excellence of our undergraduate physics program – which was recently recognized in the J-TUPP report – has been driven by our champion, Professor Susan Blessing.

Dr. Blessing joined the FSU Physics faculty and the department’s high energy physics group in 1993. A decade later, she began to take a university-level leadership role in the effort to improve opportunities for undergraduates at FSU – in physics and other disciplines. She worked with the office of the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences to establish the university’s Office of National Fellowships in 2005, which was intended to help FSU’s undergraduates compete successfully for high profile national awards. That same year, Dr. Blessing assumed the directorship of FSU’s Women in Math, Science and Engineering Living-Learning Community and by doing so became the university’s leading advocate for women in the computing, engineering and physics fields in which women are most strongly underrepresented.

Dr. Blessing had taken the initiative to improve the education of physics undergraduates even earlier in her career. In 2001, she established a one credit hour course called “Discovering Physics” for first-semester physics majors so that they could become excited about the research taking place in the department. Prior to that (and in most physics departments) physics majors spent their first semester learning about topics like inclined planes and springs, which are a far cry from the topics like astrophysics, elementary particles and superconductivity that students find most attractive about our field. Discovering Physics put students in direct touch with the both the research and the researchers – and in doing so made it more likely that physics majors would persevere through the challenges ahead of them.

In recent years, Discovering Physics has also been used to acquaint students with careers that might be considered “non-traditional” for physics graduates like medical imaging, video game design, financial services and information technology. Speakers from outside fields are brought in either in person or via skype to talk with students.

Several years later, the Physics Department’s Undergraduate Affairs Committee took a hard look at the introductory-level courses that its majors took while preparing for the upper division physics major courses that begin in the spring of a student’s second year. Too many students who appeared to succeed in the three semester introductory lecture sequence – taken with students majoring in engineering and other physical sciences – were hitting a wall in their first upper-division classes. The committee decided to pursue an overhaul that included two major components. First, the committee established a SCALE-UP option for introductory courses and strongly encouraged incoming physics majors to register for this option. The SCALE-UP environment provided an opportunity for faculty members to keep a personal eye on the development of the physics majors and make sure they were developing the foundational skills required to be successful at higher levels. In addition, the faculty members could use the group structure of the SCALE-UP classes to encourage physics majors to build personal relationships with each other that would improve the likelihood of persistence in higher level courses. The first SCALE-UP physics courses were taught at FSU in 2008. Of course, the SCALE-UP courses also serve students majoring in engineering, physical sciences, computer science and other majors. They enroll about 200 students each semester.

The second component, which was initiated by Dr. Blessing, required genuine innovation. She recognized that there was a sizable gap between the level at which introductory courses are taught and the upper level mechanics and mathematical methods classes that physics majors faced in the spring semester of their second year. To bridge that gap, she established a course titled “Physics Problem Solving” that physics majors take in the fall of their second year. The course mostly focuses on improving the skills of applying calculus to physics problems and solving more difficult problems in which the steps are not given. Dr. Blessing has also built a formal group problem-solving structure into Physics Problem Solving. In doing so, she both reinforces the message that students learn more deeply in groups and fortifies the interpersonal relationships among physics majors that make persistence in the discipline more likely.

Physics Problem Solving began as an elective course. Several years later, when it became clear that the course was useful, it was made a required course for physics majors. Once there was enough data to show a strong positive correlation between student grades in Physics Problem Solving and in the subsequent courses, the department’s faculty voted to make it a pre-requisite for the upper level classes.

Dr. Blessing formally assumed the directorship of the Physics Department’s undergraduate program in 2011. One of her first initiatives in that new position was to establish a lounge and study area for physics majors in a room just across the hall from the office of the staff member who provides coordination for the undergraduate program. The furniture provides study spaces for individuals and groups of students, and a microwave and refrigerator are available as well. Once again, the goal was to provide an opportunity to strengthen the interpersonal relationships among the majors. In addition, Dr. Blessing visits the lounge regularly and uses those opportunities to get to know individual students better and to root out problems facing students.

Research is an important component of a bachelor’s degree program in physics. However, it can be surprisingly difficult to get students involved, even in a department like FSU’s that has more than forty faculty members, nearly all of whom are active in research areas including condensed matter, high energy, nuclear, and astrophysics. Dr. Blessing has emphasized telling students about the importance of research even before the students arrive on campus for their first day of college. The message about the importance of research is first delivered during recruiting via brochures and in person, for those students who make personal visits. Students hear about the importance of research again during orientation. Students in the Discovering Physics course described above not only listen to talks about the department’s research areas but are also required to interview a professor about her or his research.

Those students who have gotten involved in research in the department are invited to participate in a departmental student research poster session in the spring. Shortly after Dr. Blessing took the role of director of the undergraduate program, she convinced one of the department’s private donors to allow the use of prize funds to reward the top three undergraduate posters in the session. The prizes are substantial – $750 for first place, $500 for second, and $250 for third. The awards serve not just to reward the strongest undergraduate research projects, but also to make it clear to the entire department – both faculty and students – that research is of great importance to the undergraduate program.

Students are also encouraged to explore summer research opportunities at other institutions through the NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. These opportunities are often used by students to scope out possible graduate programs.
The growth in the number of bachelors’ degrees under Dr. Blessing’s directorship demonstrates the impact of her leadership. In the four academic years before she assumed the directorship in the fall of 2011, the department graduated 52 bachelor’s degree recipients. For the four academic years from 2011-12 to 2015-16, that number rose to 85.

The Physics Department has supported Dr. Blessing’s efforts with resources. For example, the undergraduate program coordinator staff position was upgraded. The coordinator presently in place is comfortable with a variety of registration and student monitoring functions that used to fall in to the lap of the undergraduate program director. In addition, the Undergraduate Affairs Committee includes a former department chair and another individual with national committee experience. However, none of this would have occurred without Dr. Blessing taking on the role of champion. It is a marvelous illustration that an individual can have a wide-ranging impact on an academic program that might otherwise fall into a background role at a large research university.

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