Oregon State’s Department of Physics recently underwent a major reform of their graduate program and requirements. 

Introduction:

U.S. Physics Departments generally require that doctoral students complete core advanced courses in Quantum Mechanics, Electrodynamics, Classical Mechanics, and Statistical Mechanics, with additional electives depending on the field of study.  Most Departments also require that all students demonstrate proficiency by passing written or oral examinations in the core topics.  These examinations have different names (Preliminary, Qualifying or Comprehensive) but generally involve several multi-hour written tests.  Students are normally given several chances to pass but if they fail to pass these examinations by the end of their second year, they are usually asked to leave the program.

At OSU, as at most Physics Departments, graduate students in their first 1-2 years are normally supported as graduate teaching assistants with significant teaching responsibilities while they are taking the required courses.  As graduate and undergraduate courses start at the same time in the Fall, new graduate students typically find themselves teaching several undergraduate laboratory or recitation sections and taking three challenging courses, right after they arrive.  The combination of a new environment, challenging courses, and teaching duties, all at once, can become overwhelming.   Institutions can help with preparation, for example with pre-term orientation sessions, but the transition is still very difficult.  

Oregon State physics recently did a major reassessment of the early requirements for our doctoral program which has led to three major changes. 

Second, the graduate teaching load in the first term has been reduced and the third core course for entering students is now replaced by a pedagogy course, taught by a faculty member with experienced graduate teaching assistants as mentors.  This helps incoming graduate teaching assistants gain the skills they need very early in their graduate career.

First, entering graduate students are assessed individually by a group of faculty on arrival.  The Core Graduate Advising Committee meets with all incoming students to assess their preparation for the Core graduate courses.  Students who have missed a component (for example Statistical Mechanics) in their undergraduate preparation, or feel underprepared, are given the chance to take the appropriate undergraduate course in the first year, and then proceed to the advanced courses in the second year.  

Third, the written comprehensive examination has been replaced by a series of assessments over the first 2-3 years.  These include the grades in the core courses and demonstration of written and oral communication skills.  In particular, candidacy for the doctorate now requires a writing sample and a researched presentation on a general topic posed by the committee and communicated to the students several weeks before the exam. 

These changes resulted from a multi-year process, initiated by both faculty and graduate students.   Both groups realized that talented students were being lost due to overload in the first term or later, through failure to pass the written examination or, more often, out of worry that they would not pass after a failed attempt. 

Inputs and proposed solutions:

Several years ago, a group of graduate students, led by students in the Physics Education Research group, researched and presented a paper on studies of known sources of bias in high stakes testing.  In parallel, the faculty had long recognized that the skills needed to be a successful physicist were not solely correlated with an ability to take timed tests. Over the years, various reforms of the written examination had been tried, with little change in outcomes; talented students were still leaving the program.   An elected graduate student representative committee was formed, with an elected (by the students) faculty liaison to provide input. A series of Town Halls led by the graduate representatives were held.  At those Town Halls, students described their concerns about the program, in particular the sink or swim nature of the first term and the high stakes exams.

The faculty formed a committee of Associate Professors to recommend major changes to the doctoral program requirements. Their work was informed by Oregon State’s training in unbiased hiring practices and the modern methods they used in developing learning objectives and assessments for their courses.   The committee spent most of a year formulating the learning objectives for a physics doctorate.   5 objectives were identified: 

  1. Analyze Physical Systems Apply physical laws and principles to formulate and produce solutions to questions that arise from a broad range of physical phenomena; master quantitative techniques (exact techniques and various levels of approximation including order-of-magnitude estimates); and devise and adopt ways of making meaning of their results. 

2. Learn Physics Expertly Learn and apply new concepts, methodologies, and techniques by identifying and engaging with various resources including, e.g., research literature and books, both individually and in collaboration with peers and other experts. 

3. Create and Share Novel Physical Insight Design and conduct original research within a chosen specialty and disseminate the results through effective presentations in professional settings and in the scientific literature. Research expectations include: familiarity with primary literature, identification of central issues and knowledge gaps, ability to develop original questions, ability to identify and mitigate obstacles in research, ability to engage in productive discussions and work synergistically within a group or collaboration, and ability to write effective scientific publications that include citations and clear descriptions of methods and results. 

4. Communicate with Learners Design and facilitate physics learning experiences at an appropriate level of sophistication for a broad range of audiences (e.g., colleagues, students, and the general public). 

5. Do Physics Ethically and Inclusively Conduct themselves ethically and inclusively in all professional settings, in accordance with the American Physical Society code of ethics (https://www.aps.org/policy/statements/ethics.cfm), as well as proactively identify areas where ethical and/or discrimination issues may arise and articulate strategies for dealing with them.  

Curricula and projects were then proposed to cover each of the objectives and new methods of assessing mastery were proposed.  In particular, the committee proposed replacement of the written comprehensive examinations with grades in core courses and replacement of the general physics portion of the doctoral candidacy exam with a writing sample and a prepared pedagogical presentation on a set topic.   

In addition, the first-year graduate curriculum and graduate teaching training were revamped to make the first year more inviting and flexible. The substantial faculty effort previously put into setting three written examinations per year was redirected into the expanded Core Graduate Advising committee to provide initial and continuing personal advising to beginning students.  

Implementation:

A professional facilitator worked with the faculty committee to prepare for a retreat to discuss the new requirements. At the retreat, after considerable discussion, the new requirements were approved by consensus of the faculty. Graduate students were then given an opportunity to provide feedback on the proposed changes.  Their comments were generally positive but led to several clarifications and improvements.  The new system was voted upon in February 2020 and became the only policy for students arriving in the Fall of 2020. Most existing students who had not yet advanced to candidacy have also opted to follow the new program. 

Preliminary Assessment:

It is early to do a full evaluation but preliminary feedback from 1st year students indicates that the flexible course scheduling and emphasis on training in the first term have had positive results.  Core faculty were initially concerned that their new role as grading gatekeepers would work against their roles as champions for their students. However, the Core Advising Committee’s attention to student needs early in the program has led to increased student success in the core courses.

The doctoral qualifying process has become somewhat more complex with the addition of writing samples and set presentation topics requiring additional planning.  

The new methods may lead to changes in admissions policy.  Talented students with unusual backgrounds are likely to do better in the program, thanks to more intensive advising and flexibility early in the program.  However, the absence of the required examinations may lead to greater attention to undergraduate grades as a predictor of ability in academic courses. 

Summary: 

Based on student input and faculty experience, Oregon State Physics has substantially modified the initial experience for incoming students and evaluation practices.  Initial results are positive, with improved retention. 

Congratulations to Isabel Rodriguez, M.S. for being the 2021 recipient of the Harriet “Hattie” Redmond Award! This award celebrates a member of the OSU community who works as an agent of change in service of racial justice and gender equity. This ” Breaking Barriers” award  is sponsored by the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCOSW), the Office of Institutional Diversity (OID), the Office of the Provost and OSU Athletics.
https://leadership.oregonstate.edu/pcosw/events/breakingbarriers 

Isabel is a brilliant example of a scientist who works tirelessly and effectively for change in service of racial justice and gender equality. The STEM culture at Oregon State University is changing profoundly because of her influence. As a Black woman in astrophysics, she has expertly navigated the terrain in this white-male-dominated field to emerge as a powerful example to other marginalized people of how to be successful on their own terms and teaching her mentors to change the ways they interact with their students.

Isabel has been a powerful agent of change in our Department and College. She has challenged her research group, her peers, her mentors and the administration to look at our workplace differently and through the eyes of those marginalized. As an elected member of the graduate student committee, she helped lead discussions among the faculty and students in a series of Town Hall meetings that ultimately resulted in significant changes to the physics graduate program to make it more fair, flexible, and inclusive. She has also been an important member of the departmental DICE committee and a founding member of CoSMAC, the College of Science Multidisciplinary Antiracism Coalition, which advocates for the adoption of antiracist policies, practices, and actions in the College. She was also Vice President of the Black Graduate Student Association, where she organized regular on-campus events to foster a sense of community and belonging for Black undergraduate and graduate students. For her positive, measured and always relentless advice and guidance, Isabel is a worthy member of a spectacular group of leaders that have been recognized with the Harriet “Hattie” Redmond Award.

Thank you for your service Isabel, and for raising our collective consciousness.

The Physics Department at Oregon State University stands with the Black community. The continued murders of Black people by police are a consequence of long-standing, unacceptable social and economic systems that dehumanize people, particularly the Black community.

We recognize that the academy, and our department by extension, is complicit in these structures of racism. The conspicuous dearth of Black department members points to the racism and structural inequities that exist within our hiring and recruitment processes, our teaching and mentoring, and our broader social culture. Removing these structures is long overdue. We will strive to promote equity across all areas, including but not limited to: race, gender, gender identity or expression, national or ethnic origin, religion, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, veteran status, and economic status. We are committed to making our workplace and classroom environments supportive of all community members by: (i) creating policies and a culture that work against historical oppressions, and (ii) seeking a diversity in the recruitment, selection, promotion, and celebration of students, staff, faculty, and other scientists, that is representative of the global community.

One of the most recent steps the department has taken is forming the Diversity Inclusion Climate and Equity (DICE) Committee. This committee is composed of members representing all subsets of the physics community – from undergraduates to faculty and staff – and is charged with recommending policies and resources that will help foster a more welcoming and inclusive physics environment. The DICE Committee is seeking new members this academic year.

If you would like to get involved, or would like access to the department’s antiracism resource list, please contact physdice@lists.oregonstate.edu.


Current DICE members

Acacia Patterson (graduating)

Isabel Rodrigues

Xavier Siemens

Evan Thatcher

Tyler Parsotan
Tyler Parsotan

Tyler Parsotan has been awarded a NASA Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology (FINESST) award for 2019 in the extremely competitive Astrophysics category. His proposal, titled “Demystifying the Interplay between Explosion Dynamics and Electromagnetic Radiation in Gamma Ray Bursts”, was one of the 11% of selected proposals in this category.

Originally from NY, Tyler is a first generation student. His family is from the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. He acquired a BS in Space Physics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and is now working on a PhD in Physics at Oregon State University.

Tyler is currently a fourth year graduate student working with Dr. Davide Lazzati on understanding the most powerful explosions in the Universe known as Gamma Ray Bursts. These events are so energetic that in the first few seconds of the explosion, they release more energy than our sun will emit in its entire lifetime. Understanding these events allows us to get a better handle on how matter behaves in extreme conditions and may eventually lead to using these Gamma Ray Bursts as tools that can uncover new cosmological truths.

Besides working on his research project, Tyler is the president and co-founder fo the OSU astronomy Club. The club is focused on fostering interest in astronomy at OSU and the community of Corvallis in general. Tyler, with the help of many other undergraduate and graduate students, has hosted the Astronomy Open House events where members fo the public are invited to Weniger Hall to learn about astronomy though interactive demos and rooftop observations. More information regarding OSU Astronomy can be found at: https://physics.oregonstate.edu/astronomy-club

In January 2019, undergraduate students McKenzie Meyer, Austin Mullins, Acacia Patterson, Elena Wennstrom and Kasey Yoke, accompanied by graduate students Mackenzie Lenz and Nicole Quist, participated in the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) at the University of Washington. The conference is a venue for students to share their research, to hear from successful women in physics, to learn about graduate school and employment, and to meet other physicists. The participants heard from keynote speaker Dr. Fabiola Gianotti of CERN, and others who discussed their careers and addressed the barriers to the success of women and minorities in STEM. The group also toured condensed matter labs in UW’s physics department and labs at the Center for Experimental Nuclear Physics and Astrophysics, which are interested in dark matter, accelerator physics, nuclear physics, and gravity. During the “Physics Slam,” faculty members competed to deliver the most entertaining presentation of their research, and one of the many attendees to present posters was OSU’s Kasey Yoke who authored “Validation of Anti-Neutrino Data from the MINERvA Experiment at Fermilab” co-authored by physics department head Dr. Heidi Schellman. The group also heard from a career panel highlighting the diverse employment opportunities for physicists, and they had the opportunity to meet with representatives of employers in small groups. The participants attended sessions including those on impostor syndrome, applying and succeeding in graduate school, participating in undergraduate research, applying to jobs in the industry, and writing in science. This annual conference is open to all undergraduate physics majors and proved to be an invaluable experience for the attendees. There are several venues around the country where the CUWiP conferences are held simultaneously. OSU hosted the Pacific Northwest CUWiP conference in 2016 and in 2020, the Pacific Northwest CUWiP will be at Washington State University.