Department of Physics & Astronomy – Education Vision

<Back to Faculty Search homepage                                                   <Back to Job Description

The Department of Physics & Astronomy (P&A) seeks a tenure-line faculty member to help develop, implement, and evaluate the impact of novel education initiatives in the Department and the College of Science. We seek a colleague who will build a well-funded, productive, and internationally visible Physics Education Research (PER) program that is strongly connected to classroom practice, and who embraces the opportunity to be a core member of an interdisciplinary science and math education research cluster. We seek a model educator committed to providing a world-class education for each and every student in our program. Finally, we envision a long-term colleague who will be fully integrated into our Department and also affiliated with the Center for Science and Mathematics Education (CSME).

Read below for an overview of the department and its goals, priorities, and educational initiatives.

Department Overview

The mission of the P&A Department is to advance knowledge about physical interactions, energy, matter, celestial objects and phenomena. We strive to engage students and the public in our discovery efforts through a multi-faceted approach in undergraduate and graduate education, research, and a vibrant community outreach program.  We strive for success among our faculty, students, and staff through a rigorous academic program and inclusive departmental environment.

Our research program spans several experimental and theoretical areas including observational astronomy, cosmology, particle astrophysics, high-energy physics, condensed matter physics, and biophysics.  The Department is also growing a PER graduate program in collaboration with science education researchers in the College of Education. Overall, we currently have about 35 tenure-line faculty, 10 career-line research faculty, and 5 career-line professional educators. With over 200 undergraduate majors, the department offers BS degrees in Physics, Applied Physics, Biomedical Physics, Physics Teaching, and Physics with an Astronomy and Astrophysics Emphasis. Graduate degree programs for our ~80 graduate students include PhD and/or MS offerings in Physics, Astronomy & Astrophysics, Physics Education, Medical Physics, Chemical Physics, Computational Physics, and Instrumentation Physics.

In 2017-18, the P&A Department awarded:

  • 40 Bachelor’s degrees
  • 6 Master’s degrees
  • 18 PhD degrees

In addition, in December 2018, a cohort of 19 in-service science teachers, previously unqualified to teach physics, will receive their M.S. in Physics Teaching, with endorsements in Physics and Physical Science (in addition to their original endorsements in other science disciplines).

Current Education Initiatives

The Department of Physics & Astronomy operates a number of education-focused projects and programs (described below). Faculty member(s) hired through this cluster search would be welcome to participate in any of these projects and/or develop their own.

Innovations in Introductory Physics Courses

In recent years, some faculty members have initiated reforms to several introductory courses, including the calculus-based sequence for physical scientists and engineers and the algebra-based sequence for life- and health-science majors (IPLS:  Intro Physics for the Life Sciences). Reforms to some “lecture” sections have included implementation of cooperative group problem solving sessions facilitated by TAs and LAs, just-in-time teaching with student accountability, clicker questions with think-pair-share, competency-based grading schemes, and novel assessment strategies. Reforms to some “laboratory” sections have included implementation of student-driven experimental design and TA/LA-facilitated investigations of biologically-relevant systems, analysis of large, complex data sets, justification of assumptions, process, and conclusions in written and oral reports, and pre-lab skill-building exercises.

Learning Assistant Program

The P&A department was the first in the College of Science to implement a full-fidelity LA program, which grew from 6 LAs in 2016-17 to 18 in 2017-18 across four introductory physics courses. In Fall 2018, we have placed about 25 LAs across six courses and expect roughly the same number in Spring 2019. With support from the Dean and all four Department Chairs, the LA program is now being expanded across the College of Science. In 2018-19, we expect to place a total of ~80 LAs in multiple introductory courses in every discipline. We anticipate an increase in funding levels and program size moving forward.

Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Site

The P&A Department has run an organized cohort-based summer research program for undergraduates for the past eight years, five of which have been funded by the NSF. In our program, we work very hard to recruit students from underserved communities via in-person recruitment visits to minority-serving institutions in the four-corners region and Western US, and through high-visibility participation in the annual SACNAS conference. We also maintain a very welcoming and inclusive atmosphere within our program through mentor training workshops, supportive check-in meetings with cohort members, and frequent team-building activities.  To broaden the impact of the program, we independently fund several University of Utah students each year who are fully integrated into the cohort, and we also fund a peer mentor – a post-baccalaureate student who provides insider support and guidance to cohort members. Our program also helps coordinate social and career-building activities for a consortium of six residential summer research programs on campus.

Inclusive Excellence – Utah Pathways to STEM

About 20% of new students in the College of Science each year transfer from a single 2-year institution – Salt Lake Community College. As part of an inclusive excellence initiative funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the CSME is leading a project meant to build the systems and infrastructure needed to help these transfer students achieve success in College of Science programs at the University of Utah. One aspect of this project involves forming disciplinary teams of faculty drawn from both institutions to articulate clear and efficient degree pathways; the P&A pathway team is scheduled to convene in 2019-20. Another aspect of the program involves supporting a faculty learning community around inclusive evidence-based instructional practices and inclusive educational leadership.

Integrating Computation Throughout the Curriculum

In alignment with the Joint Task force on Undergraduate Physics Programs (J-TUPP) report from the APS and AAPT, the P&A Department has developed a comprehensive set of program-level learning outcomes. One key desired outcome is coding and computational competency, which should be woven throughout the undergraduate curriculum. Recently, some faculty members have developed a computational lab course as a companion to the introductory sequence. This will allow instructors for subsequent courses to leverage the students’ computational skills and knowledge, including in the well-established junior-level computational physics course.

Integrated Science Core Curriculum in the Crocker Science Center

As part of the newly opened Crocker Science Center, the P&A Department is currently engaged with the other departments in the College of Science in the development of an integrated science curriculum. The goal is to leverage the interconnections between math and science disciplines to help students build more facile and enduring knowledge. The curriculum design involves special sections of gateway math and science courses, and double-credit integrated laboratory courses. The second year labs are meant to highlight the connections between physics and biology, and will expand on the reformed IPLS labs currently under development.

Physics Teacher Education

High-quality teacher education is an important long-term investment for our society, and it is the responsibility of math and science departments to provide the disciplinary training for future K-12 teachers. The P&A Department at the University of Utah is joining the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) community and has recently submitted a PhysTEC proposal that aims to increase the number of physics graduates entering the teaching profession and to provide excellent training and support to help them succeed and persist in the classroom.

Society of Physics Students (SPS) and Outreach

The P&A Department has an active SPS chapter that has grown significantly in recent years both in size and scope. Notably, SPS has become much more inclusive with recent leadership representing both transfer and non-transfer students from a variety of backgrounds. Together with dedicated faculty and staff, these and other students support a diverse outreach program with many synergistic components. To name but a few of our excellent outreach programs: the AstronomUrs program hosts weekly star parties and solar parties at the Department’s rooftop observatory; the ASPIRE program creates comprehensive lessons for K-12 students and teachers and organizes classroom visits; our MESA program hosts full-day campus recruitment and support visits for students from underserved communities in high-need schools; and our REFUGES program (in collaboration with CSME) includes a 10-hour-per-week STEM-focused afterschool program for middle- and high-school students, and a bridge program for students from refugee and immigrant populations entering STEM disciplines at the University of Utah.

Goals & Priorities in Education

We seek to:

  • maintain an inclusive environment in the Department for all students, faculty, and staff.
  • leverage existing personnel and resources in the Department, College of Science, College of Education, and CSME to build a strong, well-funded, highly-visible research program in Physics/Astronomy Education, commensurate with a research-intensive University.
  • improve undergraduate success in Physics and Astronomy courses through widespread deployment and evaluation of evidence-based instructional practices.
  • integrate computation, communication, teamwork, and other professional skills throughout the undergraduate Physics and Astronomy curriculum.
  • contribute to college-wide education initiatives including science teacher education, an integrated science core curriculum, and course-based undergraduate research experiences in the Crocker Science Center.
  • enhance the professional development of graduate teaching assistants and undergraduate learning assistants to help them become effective instructors, communicators, and facilitators.
Key Education Personnel

Pearl Sandick – Associate Chair, Associate Professor
Jordan Gerton – Director, Center for Science & Mathematics Education, Associate Professor
Claudia De Grandi – Assistant Professor of Educational Practice
Adam Beehler – Lecture Demonstration Specialist
Tabitha Buehler – Associate Professor (Lecturer)
Gernot Laicher – Professor (Lecturer)
Tony Pantziris – Professor (Lecturer)

Questions about the faculty cluster search should be directed to the search coordinator, emily.gaines@utah.edu