The American Physical Society chose Western as one of only two universities to receive the 2015 Award for Improving Undergraduate Physics Education.
Western’s Department of Physics and Astronomy was presented the 2015 award in early October.
The award, presented by the APS’s Committee of Education, cited a significant increase in the number of Western’s physics majors over the last 13 years alongside a consistent rate of 20 or more physics degrees awarded yearly.
Western currently has about 120 physics majors and ranks within the top one percent of universities nationally in the number of physics degrees awarded among schools that solely offer baccalaureate degrees, according to the APS.
The other winner of the award was California State University, Long Beach.
Western Physics and Astronomy Department Chair Andreas Riemann said that the award was made possible through a two-step approach spanning a decade. The first step was increased focus on teaching techniques that directly involve the students.
“Students sit in class and are active. They are working on small projects and problem solving skills together instead of the traditional lecture style,” Riemann said.
Some courses also include the use of “ABCD” cards, which students hold up to visibly identify their answer to multiple-choice questions to the professor and their peers. These cards can give students and the professor a consensus as to how many are correctly solving problems and understanding concepts.
Active classwork has yielded measurable positive results for the department. Riemann explains that Western’s first year students who learn through hands-on activity consistently excel on standardized physics tests.
“You can figure out how much students have learned with these tests, and our faculty score usually way above national average,” Riemann said.
The second reason for recent academic success comes from the department’s unique lack of a graduate program. The staff capitalizes on this trait by allowing undergraduates to become teaching assistants, a position normally held by those earning a master’s degree.
For Huy Nguyen, now a junior studying math and physics, becoming a TA as an undergraduate presented new challenges and opportunities. Assisting others in the program required a deeper understanding of the field.
“Being able to become a lab TA was a great experience. It helped to reinforce all the information I was learning and share it with people”, Nguyen said. “That for me makes me want to learn more, because if I learn more I can teach other people.”
Physics student Andrew Headley also helped teach fundamental physics ideas as a TA, and found that it changed the way he had to think about problems.
“When you’re in the higher level physics courses you have different math tools that you can use to solve problems. They have no idea what those are, so you have to bring it back to basic math concepts. You have to be more conceptual,” Headley said.
The absence of a graduate program also allows undergraduates to work alongside faculty in conducting original research, exposing them to state-of-the-art facilities and techniques that may not otherwise be available to them, Riemann said.
Each instructor teaches some upper-level and some lower-level classes, so all instructors within the department helped the award become a reality, Riemann said.
The faculty was pleased that their long-term efforts did not go unnoticed.
“We were happy to be recognized. We felt that we were doing a good job, but it’s good to have it seen that way by an outsider,” Riemann said.