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Department of Physics

History of the Department

The beginning of physics at Iowa State Normal School (ISNS), predecessor of the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), was marked by the appointment in 1899 of a physicist, Louis Begeman, who had just received his M.S. from the University of Michigan. Laboratories were introduced in the physics courses which, until then, had been taught strictly by the lecture method. Impetus came from a change in Iowa laws adding physics to the required subjects for the two-year county certificates for public school teachers. Two additional physics staff members were hired in the early 1900's. Improved facilities were provided for physics and chemistry with the construction in 1906 of the new Laboratory Building (now called the Physics Building.) Commitment to teaching physics through laboratory experiences has been characteristic from that time to the present.

Begeman was a colorful character who was a leading activist in the faculty at ISNS. In at least one dispute he went over the head of the president to the Board of Trustees where his position prevailed. He played a major role in bringing about a change in the departmental organization. In 1908 the Board of Trustees created the new rank of Department Head and established 13 departments, with Louis Begeman named as Head of the Physics Department. At a faculty meeting in 1908 Begeman made the motion that the name of the school be changed to Iowa State Teachers College (ISTC) and in 1909 that became the legal name.

In 1910 Begeman received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago under the renowned Professor Robert Millikan. Begeman's Ph.D. work, published in the Physical Review under the title "The Determination of the Charge of the Electron." was based on a water droplet method, a first version of the famous oil drop method which led to the Nobel Prize for Millikan. Begeman was hurt by the lack of recognition by Millikan who was the sole author of later papers. He continued his influential role at ISTC until his retirement in 1935. After his death in 1958 the Louis Begeman Memorial Scholarship was established.

ISTC was the site of early work in radio carried out in 1916 by a student, Eugene Grossman, and a physics professor, J.O. Perrine. One application of their pioneering activity was a play-by-play coverage of a football game between ISTC and what became Iowa State University. Perrine later became a Vice President at the Bell Telephone Laboratories and Grossman became well known for contributions at the new NBC and later formed the sound department at the Fox Film Corporation in Hollywood.

William Kadesch, hired in 1910, also received a University of Chicago Ph.D. under Professor Millikan. Though often in the shadow of the more forceful and dominant Begeman, in his quiet way Kadesch also left his mark as a physics educator at ISTC. The years 1935-49, spanning a world-wide depression and a world war, were a financially lean and troubling period for ISTC with reduction of funding and course offerings. The various science departments were combined into one large Department of Science.

Restrengthening and expanding of the physics program occurred after World War II. Willard Poppy, hired in 1949, and Verner Jensen in 1953 played major roles in this period. The limited mission of preparing teachers became broadened in 1961 along with the name change to State College of Iowa and the offering of bachelor degrees in liberal arts (i.e. non-teaching.) With the expanded mission and increased emphasis on graduate programs to upgrade high school teachers, rapid growth of the physics faculty occurred in the 1960's. In 1967 there was another mission change and a renaming to University of Northern Iowa. Separate science departments were established so, as in 1913-35, there was again a Department of Physics (for two years combined with Earth Science). Poppy served as the first acting head. A number of new physics faculty appointments were made of persons with recent Ph.D. degrees who, in addition to teaching, were expected to conduct publishable physics research suitable for undergraduate student participation. Initial research areas were solid state physics and nuclear spectroscopy. A limited graduate program for continuing education for high school teachers was introduced. Roger Hanson served as Department Head 1969-1980 and Gerald Intemann 1980-1990. After Intemann was named Dean of the College of Natural Sciences in 1991, Fred Behroozi became Department Head. An exceptionally congenial collegial atmosphere has characterized the Physics Department of nine full-time faculty members throughout this period.

After 1968, with the introduction of higher level undergraduate theoretical and experimental courses, several tracks were developed to accommodate a variety of student interests and abilities. They evolved into four undergraduate degree programs: B.A., Physics; B.A., Physics Teaching; B.S., Physics (including a required research project;) and B.S., Applied Physics (including an internship.) During the 1980's and 1990's the dramatic development of personal computers drastically modified the activities of faculty and students in both research and course work. Curricular modifications now provide for the important new subject of computational physics which enables the analysis of many natural phenomena not tractable with traditional experimental or theoretical physics.

Research in nuclear spectroscopy was phased out in the 1980's and programs in applied optics, musical acoustics and surface physics have been developed. Though the responsibilities of the physics faculty now include more research, the traditional emphasis on excellent teaching is still primary, with undergraduate participation in research as an important combination of the teaching and research function. The Department prides itself in close informal interactions between students and faculty in both the research and course settings. The preparation of high school science teachers continues to be a high priority. The nationally known PRISMS program, developed and administrated principally by Roy Unruh, Professor of Physics and Science Education, supports and enhances existing high-school physics curricula. The PRISMS program has been expanded into PRISMS PLUS, with the addition of topics in Modern Physics. Under the leadership of Larry Escalada, Professor of Physics and Science Education, PRISMS PLUS and other interactive engagement techniques are used extensively as platforms for professional development experiences for in-service teachers. The excellence of UNI Physics in this area was recognized when the department was cited as one of the outstanding physics teacher education programs in the nation in a National Report on Teacher Education in Physics (December, 2012) based on site visit by the Task Force on Teacher in Physics (T-TEP). In addition, the department has modified the delivery of the introductory physics courses into a more activity-based, interactive format with the goal of improving student understanding of concepts and principles.

In the new millennium (2000-present), the Physics Department has undergone significant changes. Most current faculty members joined the department after 2000. A new Professional Science Masters (PSM) program was added in 2005. As Physics Department Head, Cliff Chancey spearheaded the introduction of the PSM in Applied Physics and other PSM programs housed in the Departments of Biology, Chemistry & Biochemistry and Mathematics. The Physics Building was finally renovated, beginning in the fall of 2005. The rededication ceremony took place in October 2007. The building was renamed Begeman Hall in honor of Louis Begeman. In addition to Begeman Hall, the Physics Department occupies an adjoining section of Lang Hall, where instructional laboratories and a machine shop are housed. Begeman Hall is connected to the adjoining sections of Lang Hall by a skywalk on the second floor. The skywalk was named in honor of Jerry Intemann, past Physics Department Head and Dean of the College of Natural Sciences.

One of the laboratories in Lang Hall is the Center for Education in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (CENN). This facility was established and equipped with aid of grants from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense. A minor in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology was also introduced. The nanoscience courses that support the minor are also cross-listed as chemistry courses. The focus on nanoscience coincided with the research interests of several faculty members in electronic, magnetic and optical properties of nanostructured materials. These faculty were very successful in obtaining external funding for research and specialized equipment more characteristic of a research university. Robotics was also introduced into the curriculum with the assistance of alumnus Randy Dumse. Considering the significant public interest in robotics, Dale Olson, Professor of Physics and Dumse created the Annual UNI MiniSumo Robot Competition in 2006. Robots built by UNI students as well as enthusiasts from all over the world compete for top honors.

After several years of budget cuts, UNI announced in 2012 that it would be cutting some academic programs. All physics programs with the exception of the B.A. degree programs (Physics and Physics Teaching) were to be eliminated. However, strong support from donors and alumni, and unceasing advocacy by the Physics faculty led to the retention of the flagship B.S. Physics degree program. The B.S. Physics and B.A. Physics-Teaching programs now constitute the totality of physics major programs at UNI. Our only graduate program, the PSM in Applied Physics, was terminated. The B.S. Physics program was extensively restructured to promote flexibility. Various tracks were introduced to cater to a variety of postgraduate paths, including graduate school, engineering, business and entrepreneurship, computational science and the biomedical industry. The new B.S. program was first offered in Fall 2013.

In October 2013, Cliff Chancey, who had served as Department Head since 2001, died from ALS. Paul Shand was appointed Acting Head during Chancey’s illness and became Interim Head after his death. Despite the grief and loss surrounding Chancey’s passing, the Physics Department has continued its tradition of excellence in teaching and research. The UNI Department of Physics will continue to offer superb instruction and research opportunities to students for many generations to come.

(Prepared by Roger Hanson, 5/21/97; updated by Paul Shand, 7/22/14)

A history of the Physics Building maybe found on the Rod Library Special Collections page at: