Saturday, February 06, 2010

People are Beginning to Notice...

Every so often, PandA must go through an extensive self-study process and review by an external comittee. The external review happened in the spring of 2009. As a direct result, some good things are beginning to happen.

One of the external reviewers was Dr. Ruth Howes. She is one of the PI's on the SPIN-UP project. The Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics (SPIN-UP) is organized by the National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics. The Task Force received support for SPIN-UP from the American Association of Physics Teachers, the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Physics, and a generous grant from the ExxonMobil Foundation. Between 2000 and 2002, visits were made to 20-odd physics departments that were deemed to be "thriving" to try to learn about what makes them so. Now the SPIN-UP folks are trying to use what they learned to help others departments also thrive.

One of the observations in the initial study was that the number of graduates (and total number of students) and their increase is a pretty good surrogate for other less easily measured characteristics of a thriving department. Given that our number of majors has grown from a bit over 60 in 2001 to about 110 now, we are identified as a thriving department.

As a result of Dr. Howes' visit to learn about our department, Dr. Whisnant was invited to discuss our program at a SPIN-UP workshop in Raleigh, NC, September 11-13, 2009. This went very well. This all leads to the current news...

On February 15th, Our department will once again be showcased as an example of a thriving department. This time it is at the joint meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers and the American Physical Society in Washington, DC. This gives us a national forum to tell everyone about the good things that are going on here.

So, we've arrived on a national stage as an example of what a vibrant undergraduate department can be. To give just a flavor of the progress we've made in the last decade:
  • Since 2000, the number of majors has doubled.
  • Since 2000, the number of graduates/year has tripled.
  • Since 2000, the number of faculty has doubled.
  • In 2008, our faculty brought in over $3.3M in external grants to support research with our undergraduates.
  • We've added an astronomy park, the planetarium underwent a major upgrade, added astronomy to the department name, moved to a new building, and we're about to initiate a major new track in applied nuclear physics.
  • According to the number of graduates, the 2008 AIP report places JMU ranked 9th (13 departments larger) among undergraduate only institutions and 30th (70 departments larger) among all physics departments in the US.
There's no telling what might happen as a result of this new opportunity to tell everyone about our department.