Physics Department balances high enrollment and not many professors

Jamie Shearer

Popular electives help drive efficiency

Jonathan Secaur, assistant professor of physics, teaches Seven Ideas that Shook the Universe. Among other things in Friday’s class, he explains why electrons can only be found in places around the nucleus of an atom. LAUREN CRIST | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: DKS Editors

Kent State’s Physics Department not only has the fourth highest enrollment in the country, but it’s the most efficient, according to a recent study.

Physics Professor Declan Keane conducted the study in September with information from the American Institute of Physics, which provided statistics for 739 out of 762 universities in the country that offer at least a bachelor’s degree in physics.

The study is based on introductory courses for non-science majors and shows the department is teaching more students with fewer faculty than any other university.

“Our department is number one in the U.S. for making physics interesting and attractive to non-science majors,” said Jonathan Secaur, assistant professor of physics.

The department has a 10-year annual average enrollment of 4,713 students, which followed Brigham Young University, with 5,849 students; the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with 5,616 students; and the University of Central Florida, with 5,409 students.

Five of the introductory physics courses this semester have about 2,035 students enrolled. The enrollment from these five courses alone generates at least $1.4 million of instructional fees for the university.

According to the study, about one in five students take an introductory physics course every year.

“At Kent State, the vast majority of students don’t need to take a physics course,” Keane said. But they still do.

One course in particular seems to be the reason behind these results: Seven Ideas that Shook the Universe. The popular course outlines topics from astronomy to energy to conservation and has, by far, the highest enrollment in the department. The Kent State main campus has about 1,275 students enrolled in nine sections this semester.

The course, which is taught by three Distinguished Teaching Award recipients this semester, has a history of being popular with students. The Physics Department Web site notes a Daily Kent Stater survey from 2003 where Seven Ideas beat Human Sexuality and a geography course about wine as the “Best Elective Class.”

“Physics was able to beat out both sex and alcohol,” Keane said.

Secaur, who has been teaching the course for more than 20 years, realizes that most of his students aren’t science majors and tries to make the course relatable to them. One of his assignments this semester is for students to find arguments supporting and opposing the end of the world in 2012.

Having so few professors teaching so many students could seem like it would affect the quality of the course, but political science major Chris Meluch doesn’t think so.

The junior took Secaur’s “Seven Ideas” his freshman year to fill his science requirement. Despite the large lecture class, Meluch thought Secaur made the class less intimidating.

“He really made it feel it was a small class,” he wrote in an e-mail. “He was amazing.”

Dave Goldshtein, freshman political science major, is taking Seven Ideas with lecturer John Barrick this semester and likes that Barrick makes the material relatable to students.

“He makes the students interested in the subject matter,” Goldshtein wrote in an e-mail. “Not only by his teaching style but by relating the physics that we are learning into everyday situations.”

Secaur said class size doesn’t matter if the professors are engaging.

“We just happen to have faculty with a lot of experience who love doing what we do and have been recognized as being excellent in doing what we do,” he said. “It’s so embarrassing to say this, but I think that’s a big part of it. That’s why it works so well. We have this core of three people who really enjoy doing these classes.”

Contact academic affairs reporter Jamie Shearer at [email protected]