The FSU Physics Department is doing a darn good job. But what do policy-makers want from us?

A report released this week by the American Institute of Physics revealed that in the 2015-16 academic year, FSU’s Physics Department was number one in the southeast for Physics Ph.D. production, and was in the top ten nationally.

Another report – one released last fall by a task force on undergraduate physics education formed by the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers – cited FSU’s bachelor’s degree program in physics as one of five national models.

It seems to me that the FSU Physics Department is doing an awfully good job at fulfilling the mission it’s been given by university and state leaders.

But I wonder what – if anything – our state’s leaders think of what we are doing here in the Keen Building (where the FSU Physics Department is based), or what they would think of us if they knew we are here and what we are doing.  Given the overall tone of comments about the state’s universities over the last several years, I doubt that anything we are doing is impressing leaders in the executive or legislative branches – perhaps because they don’t know about it.

Our university’s most important mission should be to give our students access to great 21st century careers, and we certainly do that.  Physics graduates at both the bachelors’ and doctoral levels are any university’s most economically versatile graduates.   Salaries earned by bachelors’ graduates in physics are equivalent to those earned by engineering graduates.  Our doctoral graduates earn research positions at national laboratories and leading universities around the country.  Those who choose to enter the private sector start at salaries close to or over $100,000.

The FSU Physics Department is working hard on the issue of equity.  Our department is a site for the American Physical Society’s Bridge Program, which is addressing the woeful underrepresentation of African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans among Ph.D. graduates.  Of roughly 1,000 Ph.D.’s awarded in physics at American institutions each year, the numbers awarded to African-American, Hispanic and Native American students each year add up to 40 – about 4% of the total.

The FSU Physics Department has not attracted a $100 million private donation like another unit on campus has.  But even if that whole $100 million had already come in and been stashed in an endowment (it hasn’t) it would only be yielding about $4 million per year in spendable income.  The FSU Physics faculty members in nuclear physics bring in federal grant income of about $2 million per year all by themselves.  Our astrophysicists, high energy physicists and condensed matter physicists bring in more.  And that doesn’t count what might be considered the Physics Department’s “share” of the operating budget at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, which is at FSU because Physics faculty members decided to challenge MIT’s “ownership” of the laboratory several decades ago.

The Physics Department has managed to grow in productivity during the last three decades even though its facilities on the main campus haven’t grown at all.  The department makes heavy use of three SCALE-UP classrooms – all of which have been constructed in the last decade – for introductory courses, but they are owned by the Registrar’s Office, which allows other academic units to use them.

Speaking of introductory courses, each semester the Physics Department provides introductory-level instruction for more than a thousand undergraduates majoring in fields like engineering, computer science, Earth sciences and life sciences, and for those preparing for professional school in the health sciences.  The department’s Studio Physics Program is the university’s leading evidence-based teaching program, serving about 250 students each semester.  Even the department’s lecture courses have adopted elements of the Studio Physics Program’s interactive engagement pedagogy:  This fall, 640 students in the department’s lecture courses are using SCALE-UP classrooms to take part in collaborative problem-solving activities during recitation periods.

FSU’s Physics Department does exactly what policy-makers should want it to – provide Florida’s students with world-class opportunities to access leadership careers in the 21st century economy while operating with constrained state resources.

It might be helpful for those in leadership and policy-making positions to acknowledge that.



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