History of the Department

The Early Years

The Physics Department was created in 1966 when Illinois State University evolved from a teacher-training institution to a multi-purpose university. During the early years, the Department concentrated its efforts on the physics component of the University's general education program and building a curriculum to serve a growing number of physics majors. During the period when enrollments in upper division physics courses were low, the Department developed a new self-paced, modular approach to advanced physics courses. This Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) was adopted by other universities across the nation and is still available today for majors at ISU wishing to use these individualized modules for topics outside the current curriculum.

Faculty working in 1969

Expansion of the Department

During the 1980's two important developments took place. First, the Department recognized the impact computers were having on physics and engineering and responded by giving the curriculum a unique computational physics emphasis. Today, majors are introduced to state-of-the-art computing as freshmen and continue to use the Department's own computer facilities throughout their entire course of study. The heart of the system is a bank of networked Unix workstations, complemented by several labs with personal computers, located throughout the Physics Department. Second, the Department recognized research as an important adjunct to teaching physics. While excellence in teaching remains our primary mission, professors now also engage their students in several areas of research: computational biomolecular physics, surface physics, computational space physics, experimental molecular physics, theoretical atomic physics, and condensed matter physics.

Computational Sience Lab in the late 1990s

In the 90's our commitment to computational physics deepened with the initiation of the Undergraduate Computational Science Lab, an interdisciplinary lab to develop computational science courses and research. One product of this effort is the new degree sequence in Computational Physics, one of only a handful in the world. At the same time, our physics teaching degree program has been revitalized with a new thrust in active learning and expanded hands-on lab and computer methods. The creation of the Intense Laser Physics Unit provides a focus for undergraduate research activities in laser-atom interactions, including a series of seminars, both tutorial and cutting-edge, covering this exciting research area.

Alison O'Connel (EGP, 2009) is shown working in the Intense Laser Physics Lab in 2005

In addition to its computational facilities and research labs, the Department also has very well-equipped instructional laboratories and a model shop staffed by a full-time model maker. Finally, the Department operates the ISU Planetarium which offers hundreds of shows per year to audiences including college classes, pre-college groups, and the public at large.