EMU physics department success based on theory of relatability

by Ward Mullens, Published March 09, 2010

YPSILANTI - Physicist Albert Einstein made a name for himself in physics with the theory of relativity.

The Eastern Michigan University Department of Physics and Astronomy is making a name for itself by putting its theory of relatability into practice.

A recent report by the American Institute of Physics recognized EMU as one of the top producers of physics bachelor’s degrees in the country among master’s-granting universities from 2005-2007.

Eastern Michigan ranks fourth among all Michigan public universities in the production of bachelor’s degrees in physics over the past 10 years, trailing only the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Michigan Tech. Of the top seven producers of undergraduate physics degrees in Michigan, EMU is the only school not to have a doctoral program in physics.

“The average master-granting university in the nation produced five physics majors a year. We produced seven majors with a faculty size that is in the smallest third of similar departments. This is a big number considering our scope and size,” said James Carroll, interim physics department head.

“One reason for our success is that we do a lot outside the classroom to build a sense of community,” Carroll said. “In addition to maintaining their ongoing research agendas, our faculty organize three student-centered events a week.”

Those events include a very active astronomy club that is open to all students and meets once a week; a weekly lunchtime physics program that covers a wide range of topics; and one of the top chapters of the Society of Physics Students led by its nationally honored chapter advisor, Professor Diane Jacobs.

“I think all of these things are examples of our faculty’s commitment to the discipline and, more importantly, the students,” said Carroll. “We see ourselves as ambassadors of physics.”

While the EMU Physics Department began in 1916, the same year that Einstein unveiled his theory of general relativity, Carroll said that the turning point for the department came in 2002.

“Back in 2002, we redesigned the physics majors and now we are seeing that pay off,” said Carroll. “One of the things that we did was to make our programs stronger in research and lab requirements.”

Carroll said that the every physics major now completes five laboratory courses and one research course.

The physics department also created a course schedule so that students know when every course will be offered and can plan ahead. The schedule is published in the undergraduate handbook and each physics major receive the handbook when he/she completes the introductory courses.

According to Jacobs, diversity also makes EMU unique.

“Fewer than 10 percent of Ph.D. physics faculty in the U.S. are women. We have two in our department,” said Jacobs, who is one of the two. “It is probably not surprising that we have more than the national average of undergraduate women obtaining physics majors at EMU.”

“I was the first non-male member of the department. We now have four female faculty members. We also have one faculty member from India and one from China.  We have more minority students taking physics.  We currently have two African-American graduate students; one earned her undergraduate degree from our department.”

Despite resource challenges, Carroll and the physics department are planning for a bright future.

“We have submitted a grant that would bring over $500,000 in scholarship money to EMU physics students,” Carroll said. Currently, the department awards $22,000 in scholarships annually.

The department also will have the most unique space in the new science complex, slated for opening in 2012.

The new science complex will feature a sphere-shaped classroom that will serve as the EMU planetarium.

Carroll said that fundraising has begun to buy the projector and programming for the new planetarium.

As physicists, Carroll and his colleagues are used to taking a hypothesis and proving that it works.

The formula for the EMU Physics Department includes diversity, committed faculty and relatability.

“I think we are a great example of the faculty commitment to the discipline and the high-quality students that you find here at EMU,” Carroll said. “(As a student) You get to be a big fish in our little pond.  We offer all the opportunities of the research universities with a personal, one-on-one commitment to student success.”

Ward Mullens

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