What the nation learned from FSU’s undergraduate program in Physics: “Prepare all students for success”

In the fall of 2016, a national task force formed jointly by the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers published a report titled “Phys21: Preparing Physics Students for 21st Century Careers”.  In the report, the task force cited five of the nation’s college- and university-based undergraduate programs in physics for their exemplary work in preparing for a range of career options available to bachelor’s degree holders in physics.  The bachelor’s degree program in the Florida State University Physics Department was one of the five programs cited.

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Surprisingly, there was little reaction to the citing of the Physics Department’s undergraduate program by the university’s central administration and the institution’s media relations group.  There was no recognition of the accomplishment at all at the state level – by the State University System’s Board of Governors.  

In fact, whether the mission of the undergraduate program as cited by the report – “Prepare all students for success” – is even an appropriate mission for a research university physics department is still an active topic of discussion among the department’s faculty.  Obviously, there is enough support for this statement of mission among the faculty that it is still in force.  However, it has been contested, particularly during the last year.  The lack of recognition of this achievement by the university’s leadership has not helped.  

Given all this, the faculty member primarily responsible for the success of the undergraduate program, Professor Susan Blessing, should be credited with an extraordinary feat of leadership.   Recently, she has finally started receiving the credit for this work that she has long deserved – the Pegram Award from the Southeastern Section of the American Physical Society, election to Fellowship in the American Physical Society, and a seat on the society’s prestigious Panel on Public Affairs.

Below, I reprint the section of the task force report devoted to FSU’s program.    

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What can we learn from Florida State University? Prepare all students for success.

As a large research university, the physics department at Florida State University must balance competing priorities, including graduate and undergraduate education and research productivity, among a diverse faculty. A strong undergraduate committee and a focus on preparing all students for success have led to a number of successful curricular interventions that prepare students for several key transitions in the major, including entrance to the major and the transition to the upper division, and support students in developing communication and computation skills within the context of the discipline.

These interventions help keep students from leaving the major and better prepare them for success. The department’s other strong focus is on student community. Through intentional group work (particularly at the lower level), connection to faculty, and a centrally located lounge that keeps students visible, students are strongly encouraged to interact with one another.

How did the Florida State University Physics Department get to where it is today?

Three key elements of the department’s approach are the following, described in more detail below:

(1) A strong undergraduate affairs committee, supported by the faculty
(2) A focus on the undergraduate experience for all students
(3) Strategic teaching assignments at the introductory level

(1) A strong undergraduate affairs committee, supported by the faculty, has led substantial improvements in the department. As at most large institutions, departmental committees make recommendations that are then discussed and voted on by the broader faculty.  The committee, which has been led by professor Susan Blessing for the last eight years, is strong and well-informed: Members attend conferences, bring back ideas, have discussions, and make recommendations to the faculty.

For example, when the committee proposed offering additional courses to improve student success within the major (Communication in Physics, Discovering Physics, and Physics Problem Solving; more detail below), the faculty agreed that these were critical,
and eventually approved them as required and/or prerequisite courses, once data demonstrated their effectiveness. However, some of these additional courses are taught as an overload, and it can be difficult to ensure consistent implementation of a novel structure across the faculty.

(2) A focus on the undergraduate experience for all students is exemplified in many of the nonstandard courses offered by the department, which aim to prepare all students for success. “We’re trying to get beyond the top 3% [of students] here,” explains faculty
member Paul Cottle, “and make [physics] accessible to all.”

Accordingly, the introductory course has undergone multiple iterations in an attempt to establish the best learning environment.  Student advising was redesigned to ensure high-quality advice is being given to students; learning is assessed using validated concept inventories, particularly the Force Concept Inventory; and the introductory course is taught by faculty members who have a particular interest in student learning.

The department’s care for the skills gained through the major is reflected in the fact that faculty members created their own courses to fulfill two university requirements, communication and computing, rather than letting students take general courses designed for all majors. The teaching culture is supported with hiring decisions that include criteria teaching as well as research accomplishments:  “We don’t hire people we don’t expect to do a good job teaching,” explains chair Horst Wahl, “even if they’re a super research star.”

(3) Strategic teaching assignments at the introductory level have enabled the department to make sure that students encounter enthusiastic, high-quality teachers in their first year. Teaching assignments are made in a typical fashion: The faculty members are polled to see what courses they might like to teach, and the chair and associate chair try to accommodate those requests. Given that certain courses are more popular to teach than others, faculty members who don’t get their first choice are promised that their preference will be honored in the future. However, an ongoing challenge is that the same instructors are often “stuck” in the introductory sequence, due to familiarity with these complex courses (such as multi-section or Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies (SCALE-UP) courses; see below), and the department does not have a formal policy regarding the number of times that a given faculty member can teach a course.

Strategies used at Florida State University

The broad values detailed above have led to the following concrete strategies:

(1) A one-credit seminar introduces students to the program. Members of the department’s undergraduate committee noticed that students were leaving the program during or after their first year, often with no contact with anyone in the department or with other  majors. Informal discussions showed that students weren’t aware of what physicists actually do, and that they lacked community.  Thus, the department instituted Discovering Physics, a one-credit seminar typically taken in the first semester of the first year, which includes an undergraduate panel, a physicist panel, lab tours, a discussion of career paths and graduate school, and resume writing. Students in the course must also interview a professional physicist (in groups of three), report on that interview in class,
and discuss what they learned in small groups.

“Nobody wants to major in physics to solve inclined plane problems,” explains Dr. Cottle.  “This keeps them engaged by involving them in things that they want to learn about.” The timing of this course is important for maintaining that engagement, since many students would otherwise not take any physics courses in the first semester of the major while they are fulfilling their calculus prerequisite. This course approach has many other advantages, including exposing students quickly to research (many go on to do a research project with the faculty member they interview) and building community among the cohort. The course was successful enough that it became required for the major.

However, how a good idea such as the Discovering Physics course is implemented can matter as much as the idea itself. When the course gradually devolved into formal faculty presentations about their work, students didn’t interact as much. The creator of the course is now working to recapture the original vision and include more student interaction.

(2) A specialized course offers experience in communication. In response to the university’s oral communication requirement, physics faculty members decided to offer their own communication course (Communication in Physics), usually taken in the junior or senior year. Students are required to give three talks during the course of the semester, either on their own research project or another physics topic. Students produce an outline (which is critiqued), give the talk, and receive anonymous feedback using a peer evaluation rubric.

(3) Undergraduate research is emphasized and supported. Over half of the physics and physics and astrophysics majors participate in undergraduate research (usually for course credit), and most of these students write an honors thesis. The above-mentioned courses play a strong role in this success. In Discovering Physics, students are introduced both to the idea that undergraduate research is important, and they meet faculty members with whom they might do that research. In Communication in Physics, many students present their research projects, and so other students “see their classmates doing these cool things,” explains Dr. Wahl, and want to get involved themselves.
Students aren’t given pre-defined job postings for research opportunities. Rather, they are specifically instructed to look at the websites of professors with whom they would like to work and to knock on their doors, encouraging independence. The department also holds a poster session for student researchers each year, with a monetary prize.  While faculty members do not receive formal incentives for mentoring undergraduate research, it is included on their annual evaluations. So far, all students wanting a research project are able to be accommodated, either within the department or at the on-campus National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.

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(4) The introductory sequence has a SCALE-UP option. The introductory calculus-based sequence (comprised of students across several majors) can be taken in SCALE-UP format, with students working in small groups at tables in two three-hour periods per
week, or as a lecture/recitation/laboratory course. While all students are strongly encouraged to take the SCALE-UP version, physics majors are told to enroll in these classes and space is held for them. Within the larger SCALE-UP course, instructors form physics-major-only groups so that they can get to know one another. “Spending six hours a week together builds strong relationships,” explains Dr. Cottle, “and helps them to be more durable physics majors.” Unsurprisingly, results show that the physics knowledge
of students who complete the SCALE-UP course is superior to those who do not.

Class Panorama

(5) An intermediate-level problem solving course better prepares students for the upper division. Department faculty members noticed that physics majors often did not transition well from the introductory sequence to the majors-only classes, especially
Mechanics I. It wasn’t clear whether students weren’t motivated to do the work, or if students were poorly prepared for the level of rigor. “They assume that since things have been relatively easy for them so far, more advanced work would also be easy,” says Dr.
Blessing, who typically teaches the course.

So the department established Physics Problem Solving, which is typically taken after the introductory sequence and alongside Intermediate Modern Physics. Students are provided intensive practice in navigating multi-step problems and writing coherent
solutions through clear guidelines for presenting solutions, complicated homework problems, and weekly quizzes. The course prepares students mentally for the upper-level courses and helps them build important problem-solving skills.

To become accustomed to talking about physics, students discuss qualitative problems in small groups during class, write up their responses, and critique the responses of other groups. “The students think I’m really mean,” says Dr. Blessing, “but then they come
back later and thank me.” The course also has an important role in building student community: This is the first course since Discovering Physics where students gather with other physics majors.

To help build the cohort, instructors rotate student groups each week. “This course has turned into an excellent predictor of future success in the upper-level courses,” says Dr. Blessing. This course gives a much-needed boost to students who come in with weak problem-solving skills, but all students benefit. Indeed, there is such a strong correlation between grades in Physics Problem Solving and the upper-division courses that the former first became required, and then became a prerequisite for Mechanics I and
Mathematical Physics.

(6) Student community is supported through curriculum and a central student lounge. The undergraduate curriculum committee worked hard to establish a student study lounge with all the typical trappings: tables, computers, a sofa, a refrigerator, and a microwave.  Committee members also ensured the space was located centrally, across from the undergraduate administrative office.  Whereas that space might have been used for graduate students, the undergraduate curriculum committee argued that the graduate students are integrated into the department regardless of where they sit, but the same is not true of undergraduates. Having the undergraduate students visible has helped them to feel more comfortable stopping by to talk to faculty members, whom they know through Discovering Physics.

“You have to force students to interact,” says Dr. Blessing, who directs the undergraduate program. Student interaction is intentionally built in to the Discovering Physics and Physics Problem Solving courses, as well as the SCALE-UP version of the introductory course, where majors are clustered within a few groups within the large, mostly non majors course.

What is unique about Florida State University?

Florida State University is a large public university with a focus on undergraduate education as well as research. The proximity of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory provides many research opportunities for undergraduates and graduate students alike. Thus, other institutions may need to adapt some of the strategies in this case study to their situations. These factors do not mean that it is impossible for a different type of institution to use these strategies, but it is important to be aware of local strengths and barriers to change when adapting ideas from other institutions.

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