Physics department gains recognition
March 6, 2008
Despite not having state-of-the-art facilities, the UW-River Falls physics department stands out from other schools and was recognized when it was named to the Interactions Magazine Honor Roll last spring.
Interactions did a study on production of physics majors in universities across the country since 1997.
“[Ten years ago] was kind of a rough time for physics across the U.S.,” physics department chair Earl Blodgett said. “The number of people graduating with physics majors was pretty low, and just like everyone else we were in a bit of a lull.”
The department has made a comeback since then.
According to the March/April 2007 issue of Interactions, UWRF had a 94 percent increase in physics undergraduate degrees granted in 2003 – 2005 compared to 1997 – 1999.
“We grew really fast [since 1997] faster than most other departments,” Blodgett said. “So we were in the top 10 percent of all of the undergraduate physics programs in the country.”
The department does research in several different areas.
Their main project is called IceCube, which involves researching neutrinos in the South Pole.
A neutrino is a subatomic particle that lacks an electrical charge and can pass through solid matter without colliding with other particles.
IceCube’s Web site states “We are looking for extremely high-energy neutrinos that come from supernova explosions, gamma-ray bursts, black holes and other extra-galactic events.”
Professors Glenn Spiczak, James Madsen and Rellen Hardtke have all spent time in the South Pole working on IceCube.
Besides IceCube, professor Lowell McCann does work with optics and optical trapping, and professor Eileen Korenic works with color science and liquid crystals.
No matter what area of physics students are interested in, there is a good chance UWRF has a major for them.
The department offers five different major options to choose from.
“We think that is a big part of why our numbers are good is that we try and provide some choices,” Blodgett said.
Physics Option I is a 50-credit major for students who are going for a Ph.D. in physics or astronomy.
Option II is 36 credits and is for students who are double majoring or have not decided on graduate school yet.
There is also an applied physics major for students interested in working or going to graduate school in engineering, and a secondary education major for students who want to teach high school physics.
The last option is a dual-degree major, in which students take three years at UWRF, and, with a GPA of 3.0 or higher, are accepted to engineering school at UW-Madison or the University of Minnesota. After two years in that program they graduate with two separate degrees, one in physics and one in engineering.
The department has some equipment, but what it lacks is made up for by creativity and the quality of the faculty.
“We have a good selection of basic equipment you can use for a wide variety of experiments,” Blodgett said. “At a small school like this you want to be as efficient as possible with your use of resources, so if you can buy a piece of equipment that can be used for several purposes, that’s really good.”
There are times, however, that equipment is hardly needed at all.
“I would say Centennial Science Hall is pretty antiquated, but [the faculty] make do with what they have got,” sophomore physics major Trevor Tomesh said. “Dr. Vonk demonstrated a very abstract concept with a couple of balloons and a pop bottle.”
Along with being recognized in the academic world, the department has a good reputation among students as well.
“The strength of the physics department was one of the main reasons I chose UWRF,” junior physics major Craig Witte said. “It is mainly because of the staff and their dedication to the students that the department is so strong.”