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Redesigning A Major: A Case Study Of A Changing Curriculum

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2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

Programmatic Issues in Engineering Physics

Tagged Division

Engineering Physics & Physics

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.1232.1 - 12.1232.12



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Paper Authors

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Jonathan Bougie American University

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Philip Johnson American University

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Nathan Harshman American University

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Teresa Larkin American University

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Michael Black American University

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Redesigning a Major: A Case Study of a Changing Curriculum Abstract

This paper presents a case study of a significant change and reorientation in the curriculum and course progression of a physics program at a national university. Faculty designed this new curriculum based on comparative research of 22 undergraduate programs in physics. Data from this study includes course offerings, physics-major requirements, and electives offered from two major categories of institution: national universities without graduate programs in physics and national liberal arts colleges.

The reorientation in the program included modifying and extending course offerings, and adding a new “track” for students, allowing them to choose a concentration within the physics major based on their future plans. These changes were designed to provide students with increased knowledge of physics and technical, scientific, and academic skills required to achieve success in later academic programs or in technical fields in the workforce. The skills targeted were selected based on national trends in employment of physics degree recipients.

We present an assessment indicating the progress of this program based on increased numbers of enrollment, retention, and graduation of physics majors and minors; and post-graduation surveys. This assessment occurs in the third year of an ongoing six-year plan, and we are continuing the process of implementing the planned changes and assessing the results of these changes. Based on the progress of this program so far, we believe that the success of this reorientation could serve as a model for science and engineering programs at other institutions.

I. Introduction and background

This paper presents a case study of significant changes to the curriculum and course progression designed to reinvigorate the physics program at American University (AU). In the 2003-2004 academic year, the physics program at American University was relatively small and had experienced a decline in size in recent years. The physics program had previously included the M.S. and Ph.D., but these were phased out over the past decade due to budgetary and other concerns. At present, the program offers only a B.S. in physics. In addition, recent physics enrollment was markedly low, with only one physics major graduating in the 2001-2002 academic year, three graduating in the 2002-2003 academic year, and two graduating in the 2003-2004 academic year.

American University was not alone in this experience. According the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), the number of physics majors steadily declined throughout the 1990s, although this number has increased since reaching a low in 1999.1 However, the declining trend in the last decade was not universal. As the AAPT reported in their Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics (SPIN-UP) report, “[I]n the midst of this decline some departments had thriving programs.”2

In their report, the AAPT identified the following four factors as being held in common by physics programs that grew or maintained high levels of success during this same time period:

Bougie, J., & Johnson, P., & Harshman, N., & Larkin, T., & Black, M. (2007, June), Redesigning A Major: A Case Study Of A Changing Curriculum Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--2855

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