Why many undergraduate physics programs are good but few are great

An essay from the American Institute of Physics

"All reform is ultimately local. One size does not fit all for serious educational innovation. A successful department enjoys strong and sustained leadership. It has a clear and realistic sense of the mission of its undergraduate program and is able to identify the resources needed to carry out that mission."


Building a thriving undergraduate program involves more than curricular reform. A flourishing program is challenging, but supportive and encouraging. It includes a well-developed curriculum, advising and mentoring, an undergraduate research program, many opportunities for informal student-faculty interactions, and a strong sense of community that enhances those interactions. In addition, the department emphasizes interactions with students as team members in departmental efforts such as outreach to the public and to K-12 schools.

The department is the critical unit for change in undergraduate education. Individual faculty members, of course, develop the ideas and carry out the activities, but the support of a large fraction of the department is crucial if the changes are to have lasting impact. Widespread among faculty at a thriving department is the attitude that the department has the primary responsibility for maintaining or improving the undergraduate program. Moreover, a thriving department generally has a strong disposition toward continuous evaluation of and experimentation with the undergraduate program. Rather than complain about the lack of students, money, space, and administrative support, such a department initiates reform efforts in areas that it identifies as most in need of change. Institutional support is important, but the action takes place at the departmental level.