Our Purdue University Fort Wayne Department of Physics gives students a place to experiment, fail, learn and grow – an approach that helps it graduate the most students in the state.
Eleven Purdue Fort Wayne students earned a bachelor’s degree in physics in the 2016-2017 school year, the most of any undergraduate-only program in the state according to the American Physical Society. Only Purdue University (40) and Indiana University (30) graduated more in the public school category.
Department Chair Mark Masters noted that the physics program at Purdue Fort Wayne is different from others, starting with a “teach, don’t tell” approach.
“We agree that lecturing up front is not going to be a successful method,” he said. “We have grown to really stress skills, so that our students, when they graduate, have lists of skills they can put on their resume.
“We have made sure that there are a lot of hands-on experiences, which I think is really critical, and we also have built up our concentrations, which essentially allow you to specify your degree to a certain level.”
A growing program
Since 2012, Masters said, the program has doubled from 30 students to 60 – up triple, he added, since he took over as chair 10 years ago, and still growing.
“Our goal is to actually grow bigger,” he said. “It’s one of the things we’re working on, but it’s partially dependent on resources.”
He said that the department has seven teaching personnel dedicated to physics – five tenured professors, and two continuing lecturers.
“What [the growth] really corresponds to,” he continued, “is, we did a cultural shift when I became chair. As faculty, we changed how we were interacting with students. We started to really focus on building community amongst the students and faculty.
“We also made absolute certain that the introductory classes were taught in essentially a research-based pedagogical method – in other words, it wasn’t just sitting there, ‘lecture, lecture, lecture,’ it was, ‘No, we are going to follow some form of interactive class engagement.’
“That’s not just using clickers – that’s talking to students. You talk with the students, you get them to interact, you get them to solve the problems.”
This sense of community helped alumni Matt Siri ’16 grow as an engineer and as a person.
“There’s an actual back-and-forth, and a discourse,” he said.
Siri, who also earned an electrical engineering degree from Purdue Fort Wayne and recently started a consulting business, emphasized the importance of hands-on learning.
“By trying things out, and actually having a hands-on program,” he said, “you develop a certain sense of humility – you go into things thinking, ‘You know what, I’m probably going to be wrong, and that’s totally fine. That’s part of the process; I’m going to learn,’ and you don’t get as discouraged nearly as bad, which is nice. So, then you can tackle bigger and bigger projects.
Siri credits his physics experience for developing his electrical engineering skills, saying that building equipment as a physics major taught him much of what he knows.
“You can go to class and you can study books and you can develop sort of an understanding of a thing, but until you go and try it out, you don’t tease out those areas where your understanding is wrong or insufficient,” he said. “Going back and forth between studying and applying, studying and applying, studying and applying – and evaluating yourself each time you go back and forth between those – that’s how you learn.
“The whole time, you’re confused, and that’s OK because you’re learning.”
“These are handed out like candy to students,” Siri added, picking up a plastic microcontroller. “Go, break them, go learn – they’re not that expensive, and they’re fun to learn on. And then, you develop real-world skills. That’s some hardcore engineering that you can do with those.”
According to Masters, students are encouraged to experiment – and yes, even to fail.
“We try to have a safe environment where you can fail without being held responsible for it,” he said. “If the equipment is too valuable for anyone to touch, then it’s not worth having.”
A sense of community
In addition to the hands-on learning experience, Masters credited his department’s community for the high number of graduates.
Siri said Masters once told him Purdue Fort Wayne physics professors view their students as colleagues.
“That’s super-true. When I was going through the program, I felt like a person,” he said. “I didn’t feel like a student; I felt like, ‘Oh, I’m a person who interacts with these people, and we’re all in this together, working through complex material and doing complicated research. It’s a wonderful community.”
Masters added, “Students are not customers… they’re not products. They are people who you’re trying to help – they’re colleagues.”
Along with the respect inherent in being colleagues comes the expectations implied by that phrase.
“We expect the students to function in a similar way,” Masters said. “You can’t just show up for classes and disappear; you have to be part of the community.”
When recruiting, Masters emphasizes that sense of community in his department, as well as the research requirement for the program.
“Those are things that we will talk about, and then we add in there the ability to specialize in certain things,” he said.
- Engineering physics
- Optoelectronics and photonics
- Biomedical physics
- Computational physics
“The fact that students can specify the way they’re going really helps,” he said. “It tells prospective students that this is an attractive place to be, that we are going to pay attention to you; you aren’t going to be a number.”
Siri said that he chose Purdue Fort Wayne for the scholarship, “but I was surprised when I came into the physics department. This place is fantastic.”
“I hung out here most of the time when I was in college,” he continued, “and it’s because of the community – because you are treated like a colleague.
“I don’t know that there are a lot of departments like there – not just physics departments, but departments period.”
Masters noted that his department’s community isn’t just about current faculty and students – alumni, he said, often touch base and give talks.
“All of the ones, really, from the last 10 years, I keep in close contact with,” he said. “Our alumni have done really quite well.”
Kim Slack ‘01 is currently a lead engineer at Johns Hopkins University, building a camera system for a satellite destined for Jupiter, and gives video talks to current students.
Jeff Gust ’02 is the chief corporate metrologist for Fluke Corporation, and recently spoke to Purdue Fort Wayne physics students.
“Our students are really in a lot of places, doing a lot of different things,” Masters said. “We get them to come back and do a presentation of what they’re working on… in general, they really want to help, because there is a certain level of attachment back to the program.”