California State University, Long Beach
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Making Physics Fun, More Diverse

Published: March 15, 2016

Galen Pickett, a professor of physics at CSULB, and his faculty colleagues noticed a problem on campus, and in society, and have taken steps to resolve it. What they saw, or more specifically didn’t see, were enough minorities and women studying or pursuing careers in physics.

For example, only about 8 percent of physics degrees awarded in the nation go to minorities and the percentage awarded to women is less than 20 percent, according to Pickett. In addition, the great majority of faculty members teaching physics at universities across the country are white males—whites make up about 79 percent of physics faculty members—while women account for only about 14 percent of faculty, according to the American Institute of Physics. This is particularly challenging given the changing demographics of California and the nation.

So, Pickett and his colleagues figured out a strategy to diversify and expand the field—make physics fun. The CSULB Physics Department over the past few years has done just that and the results are showing.

“We start right away with the speed of light as a cosmic ‘speed limit’. Most introductory courses brush that aside, reserving that topic for students at the most advanced levels, but we wanted to focus on the big ideas, the very coolest stuff we have found about how the universe works. We are going to teach the coolest things that physicists do. If you are willing to work hard with us in these classes, we are going to teach you about what physicists really do for a living—play,” said Pickett, who helped reform the physics curriculum.

Pickett said that after implementing a revised curriculum and working under this new mindset, the vast majority of students in the program are individuals who, after trying a physics class, switched majors or decided to double major. In fact, he said that only one in 10 students who take the Introduction to Physics course end up being a physics major.

Dany Atallah is a student who began his studies in a field other than physics. An undergraduate who has been accepted to a research experience in the United Kingdom this coming summer, Atallah has had an interesting journey.

“I started off as a music major pursuing a jazz studies education. I switched out of music for personal reasons and into civil engineering. It was in fact a good switch, but a year and a half into the major I began to realize my favorite part of the curriculum was the actual physics of it all,” said Atallah. “In my physics classes creative thinking is a constant necessity as opposed to memorizing a specific algorithm and regurgitating it over and over. That prompted me to add a physics B.A. to my degree program.”

According to Pickett, changing the curriculum five years ago was a necessity based on changing student demographics and the opportunities not being realized by underrepresented groups in physics.

“We wanted to diversify. Our department would not survive if we didn’t change. Our basic motivation was getting equity and diversity because that’s where the opportunity for needed growth was,” said Pickett. “Now, we graduate more students in physics here than at Caltech, UC Irvine or UC Riverside. We used to have to recruit the students, but now there is a strong word of mouth out there and they come to us.”

To keep it interesting, the department uses communication across majors.

“We work in groups. We try to diversify by major, gender, ethnicity and amount of time in the program,” said Pickett, who presented this idea to California State University Chancellor Timothy White during his recent campus visit. “You are grouped with people who are not just like you and work all semester long on homework and tests together. It is modeling to work as a team because that is what they will experience in a real physics lab. It does tax me as an instructor, but I can see how it adds to success of the students and program.”

This kind of student success and experience has led to recognition. The CSULB Physics Department is the only master’s program in United States that is part of the American Physics Society Bridge Program–the initiative of the physics community designed to recruit, retain and graduate minority students with Ph.D. degrees in physics. All others in the program are Research I institutions. Also, the CSULB program has had success in Latino/a enrollment. In the last three years, about 20 percent of Latino/as admitted to Ph.D. programs in the nation have come from CSULB.

“In physics, it was as if you had a constant stream of incredibly bright professors whose main goal as teachers is to help you understand and love physics. Class time evolved from hearing a monologue, to becoming an active group/teacher discussion and problem solving activity,” said Atallah. “I’ve gained a great appreciation of what it takes to teach a subject as difficult as physics. This has actually helped me become a better physics student. Thanks to this department, I now have a good chance of becoming a physicist, and I’ve been greatly helped along by the mentors I have been given in this department.”