Colgate Physics Department Receives APS Award for Improving Undergraduate Physics Education

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The Colgate University Department of Physics has received the Award for Improving Undergraduate Physics Education from the American Physical Society in recognition of its continuous efforts to advance the physics curriculum and enrich the experiences of its students. The award will be conveyed during the society’s April meeting.

Accolades come in response to the department’s strategic, incremental efforts, which have helped to double the number of graduating majors to approximately 25 annually during the last decade — U.S. colleges and universities average approximately seven majors per year. More than 50% of students enrolling during their first semester at Colgate pursue the field through to graduation.

Charles A. Dana Professor Physics and Astronomy Kiko Galvez, who currently serves as department chair, attributes this rise in majors largely to the department’s teaching of engaging and ever-changing concepts. 

“We asked, ‘what are the ideas that physicists find exciting today?’ The answer is quantum physics. We asked, ‘what uses of classical mechanics are exciting to scientists today?’ The answer that we found was astrophysics,” Galvez says. “In time, both courses matured and became successful entryways into physics and astronomy majors. So, the long strategy of teaching the physics that excites physicists and astronomers today worked.”

The physics department strategically hires faculty with diverse research interests so that students will have the opportunity to explore and pursue a wide variety of fields within the discipline. This wealth of knowledge and faculty resources then enables students to participate in hands-on research, led by their professors, and frequently results in Colgate students co-authoring works in research publications or presenting at conferences. In 2021, students made 13 appearances in journal publications, with several students co-authoring multiple works.

The department attracts majors with other kinds of space, too — not merely the mysterious cosmos, but the extensive Robert H.N. Ho Science Center.

“One of the priorities of the department is to make the major a welcoming environment, giving students intellectual alternatives to their campus life,” Galvez says.

Students find that welcoming environment in the physics lounge and the Astrolab, and they extend it through the many department-related clubs that they have formed on campus. These include the physics club, the engineering club, the inclusivity-focused club Impulse and the Stargate astrophotography club. Students also give weekly planetarium and outreach presentations in the Ho-Tung Visualization Lab for Colgate community members and members of the broader Hamilton area.

Professor Galvez is excited to see the hard work of his department receive recognition and is eager to see where this could lead.

“This award is important in reminding ourselves that working hard to improve the curriculum and the atmosphere in the department is recognized, and that this should be an incentive to continue to be creative in renovating the curriculum and improving the way we teach,” says Galvez. “We are excited to teach excellent students, to work with them on research questions, and to mentor them into successful careers. We also hope that the award will attract many more excellent students in the years to come.”