Newswise — Just in time for the world celebration of physics and its most famous practitioner, Albert Einstein, the University at Buffalo is enjoying a banner year in the discipline.
This semester, the total number of physics majors at UB has jumped to 73, an impressive 82.5 per cent increase over January 2002, when there were just 40.
"Startling, isn't it?" is the happy observation of Michael Fuda, Ph.D., professor and undergraduate director for the Department of Physics in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.
When students sign up as physics majors, Fuda routinely asks, "Why physics?"
"They typically say 'I took it in high school and I liked it,'" says Fuda.
The increase in physics majors at UB is likely the result of several factors, Fuda observes, some peculiar to UB and some external.
"New York State has, in principle, been raising standards for graduation from high school," says Fuda, "so more kids are taking physics and finding out " to their surprise " that they like it."
Fuda adds that he's also seen anecdotal evidence that the quality of high school physics teachers is going up.
He notes that UB's own popular B.A. in Physics: Teaching of Science program has been very successful.
"I've noticed in recent years that the students who enter that program, majoring in physics with a minor in education, are some of our best students," he says. "They came to the university with the goal of teaching high-school physics."
For its part, the UB Department of Physics has completely revamped the calculus-based freshman courses PHYSICS 107 and 108 General Physics, long the bane of budding physicists and engineers.
"We made a great effort to standardize all of the sections," said Frank M. Gasparini, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department.
While faculty members previously would teach each course separately, using textbooks of their own choosing and devising their own exams, the courses now are team-taught by several faculty members who use the same books and develop exams collaboratively.
More difficult to quantify, but possibly more powerful, is the reputation for working closely with majors that department faculty members have achieved among students.
"Students know that in this department, the faculty work very closely with majors," observed Andrea Markelz, Ph.D., assistant professor of physics.
The physics department's abundance of undergraduate research opportunities also is a big draw since, as faculty point out, it's laboratory research that budding physicists want most to pursue.
"Undergraduates play an important role in research here," said Markelz, who has two undergraduates working for her, while other faculty members in the department have as many as six undergraduate assistants. UB physics undergraduates also co-author major scientific papers with professors.
As a result of the increase in majors, and the overall increase in service courses, the department now is hiring more faculty members at the assistant-professor level, considered a critical barometer of a department's future creativity and success.
By next fall, when several more faculty members will be on board, nearly half of the department will be made up of assistant professors, according to Gasparini.
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York.