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Carthage Department of Physics and Astronomy recognized for graduation and placement rates

March 28, 2012

The American Institute of Physics is studying Carthage in effort to learn best practices in undergraduate physics education and career placement


When it comes to preparing undergraduate physics students for careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, Carthage is among the best in the country, according to the American Institute of Physics.

Prof. Jean Quashnock

Jean QuashnockJean QuashnockThe AIP selected Carthage’s Department of Physics and Astronomy for its new study on effective undergraduate physics programs. A team from AIP visited Carthage in March 2012 to study the department, learn from its successes, and work to bring effective practices to other institutions.

Carthage is one of just a handful of colleges and universities nationwide selected for the project. “It’s a tremendous honor,” said Prof. Jean Quashnock, professor of physics and astronomy. The AIP chose one or two schools in each of six categories. “We are the small liberal arts college they’ve decided to include,” Prof. Quashnock said. “They want to learn what we do to attract students to physics, graduate them, and place them in careers.”

About the Study

Identifying best practices in undergraduate physics education

The American Institute of Physics is one of the nation’s largest physics associations, supporting 10 member societies, publishing physics journals, and providing a spectrum of other services devoted to advancing the science and profession of physics. The AIP study, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, is titled “Expanding the STEM Workforce by Equipping Physics Bachelors Degree Recipients and their Departments to Address the Full Range of Career Options.”

The goal of the project is to identify how recipients of bachelor’s degrees in physics impact the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workforce, and how colleges and universities can best prepare physics students for STEM careers. A team of researchers is visiting the physics departments of the selected schools in order to identify best practices and incorporate these practices into a pilot program for other institutions.

According to the AIP, Carthage was selected because of its “strong record of preparing students with bachelor’s degrees in physics and placing them immediately into careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.”

“We’ve been successful at attracting students to the physics major,” said Prof. Quashnock, adding that the department currently has approximately 50 majors, and graduates about 10 students each year. “That’s two to three times what you might see at other smalls schools,” he said. “We have a flexible major with many points of entry. We have an engaged faculty who really care about their students, and we provide students with experiential opportunities and research.”

A Time to Explore

Academic programs help students realize possibilities

In addition to a flexible physics major and a research-focused curriculum, Carthage offers programs such as SURE and ScienceWorks that challenge students to take their ideas beyond the classroom. SURE, the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience, pairs students with faculty mentors on significant summer research projects. ScienceWorks: Entrepreneurial Studies in the Natural Sciences provides science majors with real-world business experience. Students develop a business plan for a product, gaining valuable skills in marketing, finance, oral and written communication, management and product development.

Through the Carthage Microgravity Program, students have conducted applied engineering experiments aboard NASA’s Weightless Wonder microgravity aircraft. The College’s Microgravity Team has been selected for NASA’s Systems Engineering Educational Discovery (SEED) program five years in a row.

Carthage also offers dual-degree programs in engineering, pharmacy and occupational therapy.

The Carthage Microgravity Team has been selected five years in a row for NASA's Systems Engineering Educational Discovery program.The Carthage Microgravity Team has been selected five years in a row for NASA's Systems Engineering Educational Discovery program.“Carthage is a place where you have options,” Prof. Quashnock said. “Students potentially interested in various career outcomes can explore those options in the liberal arts environment. No one is stuck in a narrow track.”

“Carthage as an institution engages students in the spirit of discovery, learning and inquiry, whether it’s in the classroom, on specific projects, or in determining a major or career,” seconded Brad Andrews, senior vice president for academic resources. “Our faculty does a great job in opening new areas of thought for our students. This recognition indicates that we are engaging people in the study of physics early in their academic careers, and also engaging students in all the possibilities at the end of their academic careers.”

After Graduation

Where do students go from here?

Recent Carthage physics graduates have gone on to graduate programs in aeronautical engineering, biomedical engineering, physics and other fields — but most have taken a non-traditional route. They’ve gotten jobs in software consulting, telescope operation, financial services, health care software development, engineering and information systems.

“They’re taking their knowledge into the real world and working for companies in engineering, software development and health care information,” Prof. Quashnock said. “Most physics graduates go into non-traditional fields. Most don’t go on to get their Ph.D.s in physics to become professors. They go into business, law or engineering.”

These “hidden physicists” have developed problem-solving skills that transfer well across different domains, said Prof. Kevin Crosby, chair of the Division of Natural Sciences. “If you look at corporations and technical institutions around the world, you find people who self-identify as engineers running the place. These are folks who are actually physicists by training.”

The Division of Natural Sciences hosts a Natural Sciences Career Fair, during which Carthage alumni talk to current students about their jobs. “We do these things to give students a taste of what can be exciting in science and give them that spark,” Prof. Quashnock said.

Anticipating Results

Learning what works

Once AIP completes its research, the organization will share its findings with Carthage faculty, Prof. Quashnock said, adding that the department is eager to see results. “We want to know — tell us what we’re doing right,” he laughed, before adding, “I can tell you what it is: It’s hard work. Just plain old hard work.”

It’s the curriculum: “We make sure our classrooms and laboratory experiences are authentic, so that students are engaged in activities that have an end result that matters to them,” said Prof. Crosby.

It’s the faculty: “They are dedicated to their students’ development and learning in the professional and academic world,” said Provost Julio Rivera. “Students line up at their doors with real questions about physics, not just questions about the homework. They’re engaged.”

It’s undergraduate research: “Most of our students do SURE projects or earn REU internships (National Science Foundation-supported Research Experiences for Undergraduates),” Prof. Quashnock said.

Overall, it’s the community: “It’s providing students with a space where they can meet and work together,” Prof. Crosby said. “The only thing we do directly and consciously is try to awaken a student’s innate curiosity and joy you get from solving problems.

“We look at everybody as a potential physics major. I think we all feel that it’s the best training for a life of rewarding, critical inquiry into whatever the subject of your life’s journey becomes.”

Physics major Stephanie Finnvik, '12, was one of six students in the state selected to participate in the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium's Elijah High Altitude Balloon Research Program.Physics major Stephanie Finnvik, '12, was one of six students in the state selected to participate in the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium's Elijah High Altitude Balloon Research Program.