Quotes from students (past and present)
“When I decided to major in physics two years ago, I didn’t expect it to be a life-changing decision. I knew I liked science and math, and I knew that I wanted to have challenging classes. What I didn’t know is that learning physics involves learning totally new ways of thought. Now I approach everyday problems in the same way that I was taught to attack physics problems – logically, precisely, and with an awareness of the bigger picture. I’m undaunted by things that look complex because I know that most problems can be broken down into easier steps and ideas. Now that I can look back at the point where it all started, I can say that becoming a physics major was the best choice I made in college.”
“I meet with my advisor regularly; he makes tea and we can talk about any topic – from a problem I’m having on campus to my long term goals. He will be a mentor for life.”
“Drew University has been the ideal place for me to study physics. This particular science has a reputation for being very cutthroat, but my experience with the major was quite the opposite. Rather than struggling alone with textbook and calculator to score higher grades than students sitting next to me in lectures, I found my peers eager to work together in and out of the classroom. Such a cooperative attitude is almost inherent at a small university, and Drew is no different.”
“As a physics major in a small, friendly but intensive learning environment, provided by some of the most active physicists from academia and industry, Drew could not have prepared me better for my career as a practicing scientist in a field that is ever evolving and transforming.”
“Drew is a great place to study the science of physics in a liberal arts atmosphere. The individual attention students receive from the tremendously supportive faculty makes it clear that teaching, even at the introductory level, is their highest priority. The high caliber of students and staff, combined with the diverse student body, make physics at Drew an outstanding learning opportunity for young men and women.”
“The faculty at Drew’s physics department have created an environment where their time and knowledge is accessible to any student most of the time. Their love of physics is contagious, allowing students to focus on Physics, the Science’ rather than Physics, the Math Exercise.'”
“I am a proud Drew alumnus. Many of my friends in graduate school were from big name undergraduate schools with huge physics departments. I was just as prepared as anyone else.”
“The Drew physics department has it all. The class sizes are great for learning the challenging course material, and for getting to know your classmates. Socially, the physics department is as strong as any other major. There are Society of Physics Students events, and departmental sponsored picnics and parties. A good balance is struck between work and play.”
“The course of physics instruction at Drew was just right. It dwelt on the fundamentals! Someone knew (my Drew professors) that if you learn the fundamentals well, you are positioned for all sorts of different physics careers. Physics moves fast! So understanding fundamental physics is the key. One can move easily from area to area provided you have a good, broad background. That is just one of the positives Drew gave to me!”
“Drew’s physics department is small, as are the number of physics majors. This contributes greatly to the personal attention devoted to the development of each student as they progress through their college career. The physics major taught me to think analytically. This is a very valuable tool, regardless of where my career may take me.”
A first year student’s view of the physics department
Submitted by Erinn O’Neill for her College Writing Class, Spring 2010
Physics Department: Close-Knit? Good or Bad?
There are several benefits associated with having a close-knit department within a University. Here at Drew University, the Physics Department is extremely close-knit. Although I am majoring in chemistry, I still participate in events with this department because I plan on minoring in physics. Through interviews and participant observation, I have discovered that the reason the Physics Department at Drew University is so close owes to the fact that it is extremely small and the communication between students and professors can therefore be maximized.
The student body of the Physics Department at Drew is extremely small. However, there are not very many teachers either. There is approximately a three to one student to faculty ratio, allowing the faculty to really take an interest in their students (Respondent #1, 18 Feb 2010). However, there are enough students to allow for diversity while being able to know everyone and really appreciate them (Respondent #5, 05 Apr 2010). In upper level physics classes, there are typically about five to ten students, which allows professors to focus on their students, especially in the laboratory, and students have a better chance of conducting research with a professor since there are fewer competitors (Respondent #2, 18 Feb 2010). For twenty years, there were only two physics professors: Dr. Fenstermacher and his former mentor. In 1988, one more faculty member was added, and in the 1990’s, a fourth professor was added. Finally, just this year, the fifth professor in the physics department was added, bringing up the total to five physics professors (Respondent #3, 22 Feb 2010). Dr. Fenstermacher, the professor who is known by many students as the man who “built the entire physics department” stated that “the small number of faculty and the small number of majors meant that I could do lots of things that I hoped would make us closer, both in and out of the classroom” (Respondent #3, 22 Feb 2010).
Of the five people I have interviewed, four physics professors and one senior physics major, it is unanimous that the Physics Department is an exceptionally bright, successful, and functional group. Dr. Murawski, a professor of astronomy and university physics stated that everyone in the Physics Department at Drew is very “warm” and there is “the right combination of personalities” (Respondent #1, 18 Feb 2010). In a follow up interview, Dr. Murawski then stated that since physics is such a tough program, a bond is created between everyone in the department since the students all struggle together and the teachers know that the work is tough and try to help (Respondent #1, 25 Feb 2010). Dr. McGee, the chair of the department, told me from his own personal experience that “there are a lot of “unfriendly” physics departments, both in the way students are treated and in the way faculty interact” (Respondent #2, 24 Feb 2010). When I asked him why he thinks the professors are so warm, he replied that “in part it comes from seeing the wrong way to run a department (those departments I’ve seen at other places). And again, it goes back to being with other people who enjoy their jobs. When everyone enjoys their job, it’s not hard to be warm” (Respondent #2, 24 Feb 2010). Dr. McGee also mentioned that a faculty member in the department might teach a course three times before switching to a new course, which allows them to learn new “approaches and techniques” (Respondent #2, 18 Feb 2010). However, I have found that a very significant factor contributing to this closeness is all of the department traditions. Dr. Fenstermacher listed a few of these traditions, “a spring picnic off campus where we play softball for the day, a fall welcome back picnic to help introduce new students to the department, a holiday taco party to celebrate the end of the semester and share physics toys with one another, and an awards banquet in the spring to give formal prizes and induct students into the national physics honor society” (Respondent #3, 22 Feb 2010). Dr. Kouh believes that the close relationships between students and teachers are beneficial because it “allows them to understand one another better at multiple levels. Better understanding leads to better communication which ultimately leads to better and more effective learning and teaching in courses and research projects; which is ultimately what both students and teachers are striving for” (Respondent #5, 05 Apr 2010). Dr. Kouh also told me that when he was in college, he did not establish close relations with his teachers like the students here do, “partly due to not as outgoing personalities and mostly due to the fact that students and professors at my school were both busy with multiple priorities/responsibilities, so it was difficult to establish close relationships. Unless there is enough spatio-temporal overlap in the trajectories, it is hard to get to know one another. That’s why it’s good to be in a small community” (Respondent #5, 05 Apr 2010). Close relationships between students and professors are very beneficial in establishing good communication and understanding.
The Society of Physics Students meets at noon every Friday to watch a physics movie for an hour and eat pizza, which allows everyone to bond over food. When I asked a senior physics major, Michael Jokubaitis, what his favorite thing was about the department, he responded “I have great difficulty selecting a single aspect of the physics department that I like the best because I happen to love all of it. If I had to pick one thing, though, I would have to say that I enjoy the atmosphere of creative energy and collaborative effort that characterizes the department. Everyone is driven to succeed but we are certainly not cutthroat” (Respondent #4, 20 Feb 2010). My experience as a member of the Society of Physics Students (SPS) certainly corroborates Michael’s observations. I have noticed that each and every physics student is driven to succeed and gain research experience, yet everyone is nice to each other and nobody ever argues. Michael also stated that he feels that the physics professors here have contributed to his success as a student. He stated that “of course you can learn physics by yourself from a textbook; what the professors at Drew provide is their experience and perspective that is so crucial to making you realize that physics can be more than just a subject you study. For me at least, physics is a passion: a passion that has been nurtured by the guidance and wisdom of my professors. Without them, I seriously do not know whether I would have respect and love of physics that I do without them. They are truly great mentors” (Respondent #4, 20 Feb 2010). The physics professors at Drew provide the knowledge and experience that us students need in order to understand what we will be doing with our lives; this knowledge is crucial for each and every student to succeed.
The most appealing and important characteristic of the physics department, in my opinion, is the calm and warm disposition of each professor. Dr. Murawski believes this is “either that warm people are attracted to a warm place, or that warm people create a warm place. Perhaps a little of both. When I interviewed at Drew I just felt like these are people I can relate to. Like-minded people will seek out other like-minded people” (Respondent #1, 25 Feb 2010). This warmness affects the students because the teachers rub off on the students. The teachers try to be role models for the students and they hope that the students will develop a passion for the subject as well. Dr. McGee believes some of this originates from the overall commitment of the university to “maintaining a personal and welcoming learning environment. This means that faculty such as Dr. Fenstermacher will hire other faculty who can contribute to this environment” (Respondent #2, 24 Feb 2010) and “who would buy into the physics activities and continue keeping the department close knit and “family-like” (Respondent #3, 22 Feb 2010). Dr. McGee also stated that a pleasant environment “lowers the fear barrier to doing physics and science in general. That’s part of our job, so it’s important we maintain an environment that does not scare students away. The subject matter can be difficult enough, so we feel it requires an extra effort to help students find their way” (Respondent #2, 24 Feb 2010). Physics tends to be a very difficult subject that many people, including myself, have great difficulty understanding. It is important that students see that the teachers here care for them so they can “learn more, and acquire the skills needed for when the going gets tough in physics” (Respondent #2, 24 Feb 2010). As I have mentioned earlier, many students have the opportunity to do research with a professor since there is limited competition, which also allows for students to communicate with professors on a regular basis. Dr. Fenstermacher also mentioned that about 75% of physics majors at Drew go on to graduate school in physics or a related field, which is higher than any other department at Drew. Not only is the department practically family, but it is, in my opinion, one of the most successful departments in the university.
There are several factors that contribute to the closeness of the Physics Department at Drew. The most important reasons are the small size and the several traditions that bring all of the members together. The “close-knitness” of the department has really drawn me in and intrigued me. This department is so friendly that I felt compelled to join, even though the subject matter is difficult. The reason these close relations are needed is to allow students to feel that they can ask for help at any given time which will contribute to their success.
Fenstermacher, Robert. Email interview. 22 Feb 2010. (Respondent #3)
Jokubaitis, Michael. Email interview. 20 Feb 2010. (Respondent #4)
Kouh, Minjoon. Email interview. 05 Apr 2010. (Respondent #5)
McGee, David. Email interview. 18 Feb 2010 and 24 Feb 2010. (Respondent #2)
Murawski, Robert. Personal interview. 18 Feb 2010 and 25 Feb 2010. (Respondent #1)