Report of Academic Program Review Subcommittee on Physics Department


Summary of Program Goals and Objectives:

  1. to provide an outstanding curriculum for physics majors, physics/engineering majors, education majors, and science/health science majors in other departments
  2. to provide excellent general education course offerings
  3. to promote undergraduate research in physics and astronomy through faculty research initiatives
  4. to attract high quality students to the physics and engineering fields
  5. to train students in the latest technology in several branches of physics
  6. to serve the local and university communities

A summary of how the program attempts to reach its goals and objectives, and the extent to which those goals and objectives have been achieved

The department has made an impressive effort to reach its goals. In the past ten years, the department introduced multiple track degree programs and two Dual Degree programs in Physics/Engineering and in Physics/Physical Therapy, modified its curriculum to reflect scientific and technological developments, and initiated several unique high tech programs. As a result, the department now offers advanced courses and laboratories in specialized areas that incorporate the latest theoretical and technological developments; it offers advanced courses and research experiences to the students in astrophysics, biomechanics, computational physics, and solid-state physics areas; and it has developed several service courses such as Radiation Physics, Physics for Life Sciences, and Physical Science for Educators for students in other programs. In addition, the department strives to form a friendly and welcoming community, organizing picnics, the weekly seminar, SPS and Physics clubs, Women in Physics Club, pizza parties, and the Sigma Pi Sigma induction ceremony. In the past five years, the department’s annual Distinguished Lecture Series in Physics hosted visits by Nobel Laureates Bill Phillips, Steven Chu, Doug Osheroff, Robert Richardson, Joseph Taylor, and Horst Stormer to visit UW–L. Finally, the department also hosts a number of public service related outreach activities such as the Planetarium and the annual Physics Demonstrations and Laser Shows for area school children.

The department has achieved notable results in reaching its goal. Currently, the UW–L Physics Department ranks 7th in the nation in terms of numbers of physics graduates and is the largest undergraduate physics program in Wisconsin. In 2002, the department was selected by the National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics as one of twenty successful departments to be highlighted by the Strategic Programs for Innovation in Undergraduate Physics (the SPIN-UP program). Last year (2005), the department received the UW–System 2004 Regents Teaching Excellence Award. In the past eight years, five UW–L physics students presented their work at the council on the Undergraduate Research Posters on the Hill event in Washington D.C., and many more presented at other national meetings. A student won the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship (the second in physics and only the 5th in the history of UW–L). The faculty members are very active in scholarship. In the past ten years, they produced 37 research publications in refereed journals and 23 publications in conference proceedings or as technical reports, and they received numerous grants, leading the college in terms of grant funding per faculty member. Finally, two of them have recently won teaching awards (Wisconsin Association of Physics Teachers, UW–L).

Finally, physics continues to recruit and hire new faculty to meet the increased demands on this growing department. Specifically, in 2003 two Ph.D.s from UC Berkeley were hired. One is a solid state (condensed matter) specialist, while the other specializes in astrophysics.

A summary of program assessment and the results of attempts to measure student learning

The department periodically assesses the program as a whole by forming Strategic Planning Committees (SPC). During the fall of 2001, the chair of the department established the first SPC with five physics tenured/tenure-track faculty to review and assess existing programs and policies as well as to formulate and provide recommendations concerning the future direction, programs, and governance of the department. The SPC recommended that the department introduce new programs, modify the curriculum, hire new faculty, and look for space for teaching and research laboratories. The department accepted these recommendations in May 2002 and has adopted many of the recommendations since then. In 2004, a second SPC was formed, and as of now, the department has an assessment coordinator so that the department could develop learning outcome statements, develop tools to assess student learning, and ensure that faculty use assessment results to improve the program.

Direct measures of assessment include course embedded assessment, student publications, and presentations at the Undergraduate Research Symposia and at other professional meetings. Indirect measures include exit interviews with graduating seniors, record of placement, awards received by students, weekly journals by students in PHY106, information from the Transfer Student Advisors, and feedback from students who have gone on to graduate school.

Standardized pre/post tests used in PHY 155 and PHY 204 indicated that students performed significantly better than national averages. Students’ performance in PHY 125 indicated also that students did well in dealing with factual information and simple problem solving but not as well in the use of abstract concepts and in complex problem solving. Students at engineering schools also expressed the need for MatLab instruction before transferring.

The department took these findings seriously and responded to them effectively. For example, the faculty members designed PHY 320 (statics) and PHY 334 (circuits) specifically for students enrolled in the dual-degree program and started teaching them this semester (Spring 2006); the PHY 374 instructor changed the program language from Java to MatLab; and the PHY 321 instructor substituted take-home quizzes for several in-class quizzes to test harder problems.

Finally, since the department’s self-study, faculty members have already made impressive progress in updating their assessment measures. In October 2005, two department members attended a three-day Assessment Institute in Indianapolis at IUPUI; on January 11, 2006, the department held a day-long assessment retreat; and on March 10, 2006, three others members attended a UW–System workshop on assessment held at UW–Baraboo. Another three-member assessment committee has been formed; it is developing a capstone course to be offered at the beginning of Spring 2007, and it encourages department members to use the SALG instrument for course-level assessment. As a result of all these efforts, the Department has in place now 10 new program goals, a new assessment plan, direct assessment of program goals at the course level, a Major Field Test (to be administered to senior Physics major this semester on April 20, 2006), research presentations by seniors, a capstone course, and written senior surveys. The Department plans to dedicate a meeting in mid-May 2006 to assessment issues in relation to a more comprehensive curriculum map that has been under development.

Significant Resource Concerns

  1. The department continues to seek additional teaching laboratory space for PHY 311 and PHY 303.
  2. The department continues to seek additional faculty positions.

Report of How the Program Has Responded to the Recommendations by the Previous APR Committee

The Physics Department was last reviewed by the APR in 1997, at which time four concerns and recommendations were expressed. The physics department has responded to these recommendations as follows:


1.   Explore the availability of additional classroom and laboratory space in Cowley Hall that should become available after the new Health Consortium Building becomes occupied by some of the current residents of Cowley Hall. Since 1997 the Physics Department has gained space in Cowley Hall through the move of the Physical Therapy Department to the HSC. Several new hires in the department took over research space from retirees. Six rooms in Cowley Hall previously used by other departments are now occupied by physics laboratories and offices.

2.   Seek more external funding to supplement university resources to purchase needed equipment. Since 1997 the department has secured external educational and research grants totaling $2,277,000.

3.   Promptly develop and implement a program assessment procedure that incorporates: (a) learning outcome statements appropriate to the program(s); (b) direct measures of student learning relevant to those outcomes; and (c) faculty utilization of assessment results to improve the program.

a.   The Physics Department uses several direct and indirect measures to assess their program. In 2001 a Strategic Planning Committee (SPC) was formed to review and assess existing programs and policies as well as to formulate recommendations for future direction, programs, and governance. These recommendations, accepted by faculty in 2002, have resulted in the department introducing new programs, modifying the curriculum, hiring new faculty, and looking for additional space. In fall 2004 (?) a second SPC reviewed recent changes and developed new goals. The department has appointed an assessment coordinator and implemented program assessment procedures to (a) develop appropriate learning outcome statements; (b) develop tools to assess student learning relevant to these outcomes; and (c) ensure that faculty use assessment results to improve the program.

b.   The department has used these assessment tools while recognizing that they could further improve their assessment procedures to serve an increasing number of students. The department gathers feedback from students, faculty, and advisors in a variety of ways; so far, two new courses have been developed in response to this feedback. The department has formed an Assessment Committee and sent two faculty in October 2005 to the National Assessment Institute. In March 2006 three more faculty attended the systemwide assessment workshop in Baraboo. The department has also used several nationally recognized assessment tools for its introductory courses. Moreover, program assessment will be addressed annually at department meetings. The department will develop a curriculum map, including specific learning outcomes for individual courses and the overall program.

4.   Closely monitor student choices of the various emphases available with the physics major. If a particular emphasis is not utilized, publicity and recruitment should be enhanced or the emphasis should be dropped or altered. Based on suggestions by the SPC, the department has introduced three new program initiatives to prepare students for professional programs at other campuses. The department may change its Computational Emphasis to a Physics Major with a Computation Concentration in order to better use resources and stimulate enrollment. Finally, the low-enrollment Astronomy Emphasis has been stimulated by adding a faculty member who is actively engaged in this area to offer undergraduates research opportunities.

The APR Committee’s Recommendations

1.   Although the Physics Department has implemented a variety of assessment techniques, they want to track their 3/2 dual degree students after they transfer from UW–L for their final two years as engineering students at another campus. We recommend they pursue ways to track these students.

2.   The department should continue to seek additional space, especially laboratory space for its new faculty who are pursuing an active research agenda.

3.   We agree with the department that the planetarium is a valuable departmental, campus, and community resource, and we share their concern that this learning tool might be lost once its director retires this spring. The planetarium is a classroom needed by the new astronomy specialist for his courses. We recommend that the department do all it can to resist the forces of budget and space constraints that threaten to eliminate this irreplaceable educational facility.

Summary of the report from the external consultant of accreditation agency

The Physics Department has not had an external consultant visit UW–L specifically to review the department and offer suggestions for improvement. However, in March 2002 a team of faculty from three universities visited the department to compile information and write a report to the National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics Education. The dean asked the department to submit this report for the APR in lieu of bringing in an external reviewer.

The site visit team (SVT) noted the great strides taken by the physics department since 1990 to increase the number of majors (at one time the department was close to being disbanded) and to improve both instruction and research. John Norberry and Gubbi Sudhakaran upgraded computer equipment substantially, and after Norberry left for another job, several talented young faculty were hired. By 2002, the department was graduating 15 majors per year, about half of whom were enrolled in 3/2 dual-degree engineering programs. Many students in the “regular” physics program have gone on to graduate school, usually in optics.

The SVT met with all but one faculty member, though they did not meet with faculty or chairs in other departments. They did meet with the Chancellor, dean, and provost. They also met with students in classes for physics majors but not students in service courses.

The SVT noted that the undergraduate physics curriculum has been revised in four ways:

1.   Students may follow a 3/2 dual-degree physics/engineering program offered in conjunction with Madison, Milwaukee, Platteville, and Minnesota.

2.   Students are encouraged to specialize early. Many choose optics because of research opportunities with faculty, although the department hopes to build up other options. Indeed, since the visit they have done so.

3.   The department has introduced several pedagogical reforms into courses, using such tools as Java and Mathematica, and they have upgraded computer facilities.

4.   All laboratories have been revised and upgraded to use modern computer-based equipment.

The SVT noted that students are required to participate in research and receive course credit for doing so. All freshmen and sophomore physics majors are very strongly encouraged to enroll in a one-credit seminar course in which local guest speakers discuss career opportunities.

The SVT acknowledged the department’s aggressive efforts to recruit and retain students, using limited resources. News media are sometimes used to publicize the program within the university and the community. The SVT specifically lauded the department for its Distinguished Lecture Series in Physics, which brings a Nobel Laureate to campus each year. They also mentioned the department’s summer in-service workshops for teachers, as well as faculty members’ work to maintain a sense of community within the department.

The SVT noted seven keys to making changes in the physics department.

1.   The department has benefited from sustained administrative support, with increased supply budget and laboratory space.

2.   The chair is well respected both within and outside the department.

3.   All faculty, including junior members, are given important responsibilities, including recruitment and hiring.

4.   Curricular revisions have been carefully designed to meet students’ needs.

5.   The department has increased its emphasis on research while maintaining a stress on excellent teaching. The genuine concern for students is a hallmark of the department, contributing greatly to its success.

6.   The department continues to pay attention to all aspects of its program, including advising and recruitment.

7.   The department has effectively publicized its program to administrators, prospective students, and the community, thus supporting its search for resources.

The SVT noted a few major challenges facing the department for the future, due in part to its own success. With increasing numbers of students majoring in physics, it will be difficult to maintain personal faculty contact with all of them, and more research opportunities for students will need to be found, especially outside of optics. Additional laboratory and classroom space will be needed as the roster of research faculty grows. Faculty burnout needs to be avoided, and it will be a challenge to find new faculty who can offer both research enthusiasm and teaching experience. Finally, the SVT applauded the accomplishments of the current chair but expressed concern that it will be difficult to replace him when the time comes.