The number of physics majors at Yale has been rising rapidly over the past several years — relatively speaking, that is.
Sean Barrett, director of undergraduate studies for physics, said that although the upward trend reflects a nationwide increase in the number of physics majors in recent years, it is also largely due to the sweeping changes that have been made in the Physics Department over the last several years, including added courses and a modernized curriculum. The class of 2007 has about 20 more physics majors than the class of 2002.
Barrett said the department’s goal is not only to attract students to the major but also to hold their attention long enough to complete it. The changes, which began during the 2003-2004 academic year, were instituted by the Committee on Undergraduate Physics, an organization started by department chair Ramamurti Shankar and headed by professor Thomas Appelquist.
The increase in physics majors comes at a time when the Office of Undergraduate Admissions data shows that overall, not as many students major in the sciences as they intended to before coming to Yale.
Shankar said his vision to reinvigorate the Physics Department came after meeting with department chairmen from institutions around the nation.
“All over the country, physics enrollment was disastrous,” he said. “We asked what we could do to change that and decided we had to stop doing stupid things.”
To begin with, all the lab manuals were rewritten so that students would be more familiar with quantum mechanics and other topics used in modern research. In addition, the Physics Department, the Dean’s Office and the Provost’s Office contributed $100,000 for the purchase of new lab equipment.
Barrett said another one of COUP’s primary aims is to make the major more manageable and exciting for students by introducing new classes and adding tracks of study, including a non-intensive track.
“One of the problems with the old physics major was that while it was good for students who knew what they wanted to do right out of high school, it wasn’t for those who decided later in their undergraduate life,” he said. “Now it is possible to take an entire year off and still complete the major, which was technically impossible before.”
Before the changes were implemented, Shankar said students who wanted to be physics majors often could not do so because they made their decision too late to complete the requirements.
COUP also wanted to address the fact that the department did not offer any interesting elective courses for non-majors, Barrett said, because the only elective courses previously available were taught at a high level. The department has introduced four new classes — “Biological Physics,” “Gravity, Astrophysics, and Cosmology,” “Introduction to Earth and Environmental Physics” and “Quantum and Nanoscale Physics.” The department has also begun teaching “Advanced Classical Physics From Newton to Einstein,” to be taken prior to quantum mechanics.
The new policies also provide more flexibility by offering two parallel tracks, a normal B.S. and an intensive B.S., which requires a heavier course load and is targeted at students who plan on studying physics in graduate school.
Barrett said he has found that the majority of students still take the classes required for the intensive track, but having another option leaves them room to explore.
The changes allow students to take courses in different subjects for a year before declaring their major with more knowledge about their field of study, or making room for study abroad. The department reduced the number of required terms in 200 level introductory classes from three to two, which opened up the option for students to take advanced classes as early as spring of sophomore year. This new arrangement, which can be completed on both B.S. tracks, also makes students better trained for research positions during the summer of their sophomore year, Barrett said.
Evan Crawford ’06, who was a freshman when the COUP changes were implemented, and said that all the changes have been positive.
“The new system is a much nicer one because the requirements are less for the regular major, which has allowed me to have a dual major in Physics and Political Science,” Crawford said. “If the load were more intense, I wouldn’t have been able to double major without taking far more than [Yale College’s] required 36 classes.”
The Department also adjusted existing classes to make them more attractive and interesting, said Shankar, who added modern topics such as relativity and quantum mechanics to his Physics 200a/201b curriculum. This introductory course is the primary feeder for the physics major.
Barrett said Shankar’s decision to teach the course with a large number of prospective physics majors, even as the department chair, sends a positive message to his colleagues and boosts the enthusiasm and quality of instruction in the entire department.
COUP has also instituted Chairman’s Teas, optional events for students in calculus-based introductory physics classes. The talks usually feature Yale researchers discussing topics on the frontiers of physics. Students are encouraged to ask questions and interact with the speaker, as opposed to sitting in large lectures without talking. The teas are intended to keep students with a strong high school background in physics stimulated and interested, despite the fact that they may be seeing a lot of repetition in their classes, Barrett said.
A new undergraduate lounge designed by students and completed last year has shown that the Physics Department has made the undergraduate experience a priority, Shankar said.
“The lounge is my pride and joy,” Shankar said, “We want undergraduates to feel like they’re welcome, to feel at home, to feel like they have a community.”
These new changes have not been easy to institute and have required an increased number of dedicated teachers taking on an extra load, Shankar explained. He was pleased, he added, with the progress that the department is making, and he is glad to see the resulting increase in the number of physics majors.
Barrett said the progress made in the department as a result of COUP’s changes may help give the University’s Physics Department the reputation it deserves.
“We shouldn’t propagate the myth that Yale is not a physics school,” he said. “Physics activities here are quite well regarded internationally. There are really a pretty significant number of physics majors for an awful number of problem sets and difficult in-class exams.”