Initial Publication Date: April 13, 2015

Insights from Other Disciplines

Other disciplines have insights to offer on what it means and what it takes to be a "strong" or "thriving" department. The physics, mathematics and biology communities are currently wrestling with these issues too.
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SPIN-UP: Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics

What follows are conclusions from a study done by the National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics . The study was supported by the American Association of Physics Teachers, the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Physics and the ExxonMobil Foundation.
The Final Report of second study being done in Physics looking at Two Year Colleges (SPIN-UP/TYC (more info) ) came out in the Spring of 2005.

The authors report on efforts undertaken by the National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics over approximately a five-year time frame in which there was a significant downturn in the number of bachelor's degrees in Physics conferred in the United States. There was simultaneously a dialogue in the physics community about responding to a number of external influences providing significant challenges to undergraduate programs.

The methodology for the study included a number of deliberative meetings of the Task Force, site visits to 21 "thriving" undergraduate programs, and a survey of all 759 bachelors granting physics programs in the United States. From this, the authors drew out characteristics that enabled some departments to thrive in trying times. The study defined "thriving programs" as those programs that produced increasing numbers of students or large numbers of students for their size.

Characteristics of "Thriving Programs"

Three broad characteristics were identified by the Task Force:
  • A supportive, encouraging, and challenging environment for both faculty and students characterized by professional and personal interactions among faculty and students and among students both in class and outside class. The students expressed a strong sense of belonging to the professional physics community.
  • Energetic and sustained departmental leadership focused on a vision of an excellent undergraduate physics program with continuing support from the institution's administration.
  • A sense of constant experimentation with and evaluation of the undergraduate physics program to improve physics teaching, undergraduate research, student recruitment and advising and other interactions with students in line with the local needs and mission of the department and the institution.

Each of these broad areas is broken out more specifically in Chapter 4 of the report and the specifics are illustrated with examples from individual programs drawn from the site visits. Two points come across very clearly in this analysis. First, there is no "magic bullet" or one-size-fits-all approach. Each of the highlighted programs has different strengths and has approached these issues in a unique way. Secondly, it is obvious that being a "thriving" department involves more than just having the right curriculum. The program includes the curriculum but also all the co-curricular and extracurricular interactions between faculty, staff, and students.

Models that Work: Case Studies in Effective Undergraduate Mathematics Programs

This study was conducted by The Mathematical Association of America and published in 1995. The authors conducted a set of 10 site visits to departments with undergraduate programs which are considered to be "effective" and drew out commonalities among these successful programs.

The programs that were visited were considered to be effective in one or more of the following areas:

  • attracting and preparing large numbers of mathematics majors
  • preparing students to pursue advanced study in mathematics
  • preparing future school mathematics teachers
  • attracting and preparing underrepresented groups in mathematics

Common Features

There were also some common general themes that developed from the site visits.

  • Curriculum geared towards the needs of the students, not the values of the faculty, is more effective.
  • An interest in using a variety of pedagogical and learning approaches engages the students more in their learning.

In the successful programs, there were three common states of mind among the faculty.

  • Respecting students, and in particular, teaching for the students one has, not the students one wishes one had.
  • Caring about the students academic and general wellbeing.
  • Enjoying one's career as a collegiate educator.


The authors outlined four major components of the current efforts to reform math education at the departmental level.

  1. Assessing the goals of the current program and aligning them with the needs of the students. - "For example, if most of a department's majors are preservice teachers then the mathematics major should not be geared towards the needs of those continuing on for doctoral study in mathematics."
  2. Building support for innovation that engages the faculty. - Departmental support for change can come from the majority of faculty or from the consistent efforts of a few key people who convince the others of the merits of reform.
  3. Initiating the process of change and experimentation. - "Doing new things in the classroom typically causes the instructor to come across to students as a more active teacher which stimulates students to be more active learners as well."
  4. Developing an environment of faculty involvement in the welfare, academic and otherwise, of their students. - Connecting with students outside the classroom was seen as just as important as in-class interaction in successful programs.

Bio2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists

This project of the National Research Council is aimed specifically at turning out more better trained research biologists. New technologies and research have revolutionized the biological sciences, but undergraduate programs are still teaching the same way they have for decades. The research group looked at a dozen exemplary programs at diverse institutions and came up with recommendations for teaching the next generation of bio-sciences researchers. The final report is available online.


  1. Reexamine current courses and teaching approaches to see if they meet the needs of today's undergraduate students. Consideration should be given to developing skills in mathematics and physical and information science and including a broader range of interdisciplinary approaches.
  2. Integrate math and physical sciences into life science courses and provide ways for incorporating life science examples into math and physical science courses. Faculty need to work collaboratively.
  3. College and university administrators and funding agencies need to support the development of new interdisciplinary materials that will be needed. This endeavor is time consuming, expensive and requires cross-departmental collaboration.
  4. Lab courses should be as interdisciplinary as possible to more realistically mimic the real world of research.
  5. Students should be encouraged to participate in independent research opportunities as early in their education as is possible. They should be able to receive academic credit for this research even if it is with off-campus researchers.
  6. Seminar-type courses that highlight cutting-edge developments in biology should be provided on a continual and regular basis. This type of course helps to communicate the exciting frontiers of research in the life sciences.
  7. Reexamine medical school admissions requirements and the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) based on these recommendations so that they do not continue to hinder change in the undergraduate biology curriculum.
  8. Faculty development is a crucial component of improving undergraduate biology education. Faculty should be provided with the time necessary to incorporate the best understandings of STEM educational practice into their current courses or develop news courses.

Association of American Geographers: Healthy Departments Initiative

AAG launched the Healthy Departments Initiative to strengthen the leadership and administrative skills of Department Chairpersons in geography. The project has organized a series of workshops to assist Department Chairs and facilitate sharing of successful strategies for maintaining healthy departments.

The website hosts informational resources to assist Department Chairs and provide practical resources and information that can improve program quality. There is also data one the state of the discipline as well as announcements about upcoming workshops for department leaders. In addition, there are a number of links to other sources for various kinds of information.

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