History: Chapter 5 (1991-1996)

Written by Henry S. Valk (Acting Director, 1991-1995), 2009.

Before giving a description of the activities and faculty changes occurring during my tenure, I would like to make some brief personal comments.

The first concerns the administrative situation alluded to in Dr. Edward Thomas’s contribution. At the time I was asked to become Acting Director, Tech’s President, Patrick Crecine, was generating increasing opposition from the faculty. Although many of his goals were laudable, such as those for increasing the role of the humanities and social sciences, increasing computer literacy, and improving the retention rate for incoming students, he sought to implement these objectives with a management style that seemed more suited to the business world than to an educational institution. As a newly elected member of the Executive Board in 1991 (a position from which I resigned shortly after I accepted the acting directorship in order to avoid as much as possible any conflict of interest), I was able to observe the faculty backlash first hand. This environment added to my reluctance to return to administrative duties.

A second comment concerns the excellent support that the director traditionally received from colleagues who had been delegated the responsibility through the committee structure for many of the essential activities within the School. This was particularly true of those in charge of the graduate and undergraduate programs, namely, the Associate Directors for Graduate and Undergraduate Programs. Observing the yeoman work that was being done in 1991 by Professors O’Shea and Gatland in those positions helped to weaken somewhat my reservations about again involving myself in administrative activity.

When I was asked by the Interim Dean, Robert (Bob) Pierotti, to become the Acting Director, effective with the start of the fiscal year in July 1991, it was with some trepidation that I accepted, having been assured that I would not likely have to serve more than a year or so. As it turned out, that ‘brief’ tour of duty extended over the five years covered in this memoir. I was fortunate, however, during this period of having the support of Dr. Don O’Shea and Dr. Helmut Biritz for the Graduate Program and Dr. Ian Gatland for the Undergraduate Program. To them and the others who gave of their time and effort I remain grateful.

At the time of my appointment, my predecessor, Dr. Edward Thomas, had just hired Dr.  Edward Conrad from the University of Missouri as an Associate Professor. He joined the faculty during this first year. His addition strengthened our experimental research program in Condensed Matter and in particular surface physics.

Because of the age distribution of our senior faculty at this time, retirements continued.  Just as the School had seen the departure of Dr. Charles Braden and Dr. James Tanner in the preceding year, in 1991-92 it faced the retirements of Doctors Rudolph (Tino) Ahrens and David Martin.

Dr. Ahrens’ major research was in the area of particle and nuclear theory. While in the School, he directed the dissertations of seven doctoral students. He was (and still is at the time of this writing) something of a raconteur. Within the past several years he has published a fascinating memoir about his youth in Germany. Although almost exclusively concerned with classroom teaching at the time of his retirement, Dr. Ahrens had published over 20 papers in atomic and molecular physics and had been instrumental in helping establish Georgia Tech as a center for atomic and molecular studies. He was also an individual with wide-ranging interests and a streak of non-conformism. Having taken up flying his own airplane in his mature years, he was only too happy to relate his experiences and try to persuade his less-daring colleagues to join him in this adventure.

1991-92 also saw the resignation of Assistant Professor Margaret Graff, an atomic and molecular experimentalist, who, in the four years that she had been with the School, had already graduated a doctoral student and established a reputation for her skill as an exceptional teacher.  She was also instrumental in starting the School’s NSF-sponsored REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program. This program, designed to bring in bright undergraduates from around the country for research experience with our faculty, was quite successful. Under the subsequent leadership of Dr. James Gole, it went on to become the NSF’s longest continually sponsored REU program. The School, with the aid of the Dean’s office, tried to persuade Dr.  Graff to stay on, but to no avail. She had become committed to a new career in financial planning and advising. She did, however, remain actively interested in activities on the campus such as the Techmasters program.

A recurring theme over the years has been the School’s desire to improve the quality and success rate in its sophomore sequence in the face of increasing enrollments, particularly in those sections of the course devoted to electricity and magnetism, which because of their more abstract character seemed to present greater difficulties for the students. The magnitude of the problem may be judged by the fact that 5284 students took these courses in 1992-93. Rather than follow the School’s efforts to address this challenge chronologically, I believe it is better to collect here some of the attempts that were made during the time covered in this chapter to improve the content and environment for learning in the 2121-22-23 sequence as it was labeled at that time (we were still on the quarter system during the period covered here). Treating this subject separately is especially appropriate since some of these efforts extended over several years and to different directors (or chairs as they later became).

  1. Recitations in the electromagnetism part of the sequence (2122) were reinstituted and Help Sessions were established for all students to increase personal contact with faculty. A moving force behind these help sessions was Dr. Don Harmer. He possessed the patience and ability to clarify problems for the students. Later, he was joined in this endeavor by Dr. Bob Hume and Mr. Ken Barker. Dr. Hume came to us from other administrative duties on campus, while Mr. Barker had retired from the Navy as a Captain, having commanded a nuclear submarine and been in charge of the NROTC at Tech. They spent many hours working with the throngs of students who would gather on the second floor of the Howey building in the afternoons at one o’clock seeking assistance. It should be noted that Mr. Barker is still with the School, still active in teaching the sophomore courses.
  2. Another approach spearheaded by Dr. Ed Thomas was that of “precision teaching” where he and colleagues from the School of Psychology sought to identify students at risk of having to repeat courses in the 2122, and by repetitive testing have their areas of deficiency identified and reduced.
  3. Among the efforts to improve content, two should be mentioned:
    • In 1991, Georgia Tech was chosen for a trial run of the NSF-American Institute of Physics Introductory Undergraduate Physics Project (IUPP) in which the physical concepts were introduced in the context of some objective or theme. For example, electromagnetism was taught around the theme “space communication,” while mechanics had the objective “launching a space ship to Mars.” Dr. Ian Gatland supervised this project during the 1991-92, 1992-93 years. It was hoped that this perspective would enhance the learning process for the students. While some students found this to be true, many felt that it did not parallel sufficiently with the control sections and hence did not prepare them properly for their subsequent engineering courses.
    • Another innovative approach to content was introduced by Dr. Ed Thomas. In 1995-96, he spent the Spring quarter in England studying the manner in which physics was taught at the Open University. He hoped that this new approach with its practical slant would again motivate the students. He obtained the course materials and with the help of faculty both here and abroad introduced the course the following year. Regrettably, it suffered the same fate as the IUPP.

As part of President Crecine’s planning for the Institute, Dean Pierotti asked each unit in the College in 1992 to develop a “strategic plan,” outlining that unit’s mission, objectives, and plan of action. Physics submitted its response in February of 1993. Among the goals outlined in that document were the further strengthening of the undergraduate instructional program, particularly in the sophomore sequence, and the achieving of a more appropriate balance between experimental and theoretical research within the School.

Some of the actions taken in the former area have been outlined above, but it would be remiss not to mention two other occurrences involving the School’s desire to improve its presentation of introductory physics.

The first concerns the addition in 1992-93 of Dr. Joseph Meyer, a former President of the American Association of Physics Teachers. Dr. Meyer had had long experience in teaching introductory physics and was exceptionally good at it. His name inevitably appeared on any short list by the students of their best instructors in physics. Joe remained with the School for a number of years before his eventual departure for North Georgia College. His availability had been brought to my attention originally by Dr. James Stevenson, our former director. That the School was able to recruit Joe as a visitor is due to Dr. Stevenson’s good offices.

The second relates to the last occasion that I had to work with Dean Bob Pierotti on seeking ways to bring new approaches to our ever-growing introductory courses. Bob had stepped down as Dean of Sciences in 1994 to become involved with the Center for Education Integrating Sciences, Mathematics and Computing (CEISMC), a unit of Georgia Tech that he initiated in 1990.

It was in this new capacity that Dean Pierotti became informed of Jack Wilson’s experiment in teaching introductory science courses at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute called the “studio” method in which the lectures and laboratory were integrated and students worked collaboratively in a technologically enhanced setting. Dr. Pierotti was intrigued by the possibility of initiating such an approach at Tech, and with this objective he set up a visit to RPI accompanied by Aaron Bertrand from Chemistry and me in the Spring of 1995. Tragically, Dean Pierotti, a strong advocate for such innovation, died from a heart attack shortly after we arrived at RPI. This event combined with the substantial costs that the studio physics approach would have entailed precluded its implementation in the School.

In the latter area of faculty balance, the School was too heavily weighted toward theoretical physics. In 1992-93, the School had 16 theorists and 11 experimentalists. Since fewer graduate students are suited to theoretical studies, the preponderance of theory was a danger to our graduate program. This situation was about to become even more skewed in by the imminent departure of one of the experimentalists, Dr. Tai-Huang Huang. Dr. Huang had been recruited in 1986 from the University of Maine to establish a nuclear magnetic resonance facility that would tie in with Georgia Tech’s biotechnology program. Unfortunately, he did not find sufficient support to make his research viable and transferred his laboratory to the Institute of Biomedical Sciences of the Academica Sinica, in Taiwan. In order to correct this situation, the School instituted an aggressive campaign to bring on board more experimental physicists.

As a result of these recruiting efforts, the School in 1993-94 was successful in bringing in two recognized researchers, Doctors William Ditto and Robert Whetten.

Dr. Ditto began his professional career as scientist with the Department of the Navy.  There, and later at the College of Wooster, he became well known for showing that chaotic dynamics could be manipulated and even controlled. In the subsequent nine years, he and his group made Georgia Tech internationally recognized as a center for research into applications of chaos control to medical problems such as heart arrhythmia and epilepsy. He left Tech in 2002 to become the founding chair of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Florida. He has recently been named to a similar position at Arizona State University.

Dr. Whetten came to Tech from UCLA where he and colleagues had built up a laboratory to study molecular, carbon, and metal clusters in beams. This group was responsible for some of the significant early developments in the field. After some negotiation with UCLA, he was able to bring a good part of the laboratory equipment with him, cutting down on the delays normally associated with establishing a new laboratory. His research was thought to tie in well with Tech’s ongoing activity in chemistry and materials science area. As of this writing, he is still at Tech as Professor of Chemistry.

I have already noted the death of Dean Bob Pierotti in 1995, but that year also witnessed a grievous loss to the School with the passing of two pillars of our faculty: Regents’ Professor Emeritus Harold (Hal) Gersch and Regents’ Professor Joseph Ford.

Although Dr. Gersch had formally retired in the late 80’s, he remained a force and a resource in the School. He had the extraordinary knack of being able to explain the most complex phenomena in a way that they could be clearly understood. He could be relied upon to be our “house theorist.” Nor were his post-retirement contributions confined to his colleagues.  He continued to teach introductory courses where his incisive lectures delivered in his native Brooklyn accent earned him the description by his students as being “Archie Bunker with a Ph.D.” Bunker was an opinionated character with a typical New York accent in a popular sitcom of the time.

Dr. Joe Ford was one of the first to call attention to the importance of non-linear dynamics and chaos in physical phenomena. His insights and contributions in this area brought him and the School international recognition. A charismatic lecturer, he often referred to himself as the “evangelist of chaos.” The School later set up an annual lecture series in his honor.

An ongoing intention of the School during these years was the achievement of greater diversity among our graduate students. The success of this effort is indicated by the fact that as of the Fall of 1994, the School counted among its doctoral students eleven under-represented minorities (9 African-Americans, 1 Hispanic, and 1 Native American), most of whom went on to complete their degrees. To further increase the School’s visibility in the African-American community, the School of Physics maintained close working relationships with the units of the Atlanta University complex and acted as a co-host of the 1995 Conference of Black Physicists, having already hosted the 8th Annual Conference of Black Physics Students in February of 1994.  In addition, mentoring arrangements were introduced to assist those graduate students with deficiencies in their undergraduate education. Although these efforts have brought success for a time, the School has now experienced the same decline in minority enrollment in its graduate programs as in the rest of the United States.

The last year of my stewardship of the School, 1995-96, saw the retirement at the end of the academic year of two long-time faculty, Professors Don Harmer and Augustus (Gus) Stanford.

Dr. Harmer had joined Georgia Tech in 1959 after two years as a postdoctoral position at Brookhaven National Laboratories. Although primarily known in his later years for his contributions in computer-aided instruction and in supervising the Help Sessions for our introductory physics courses, he had carried out research in a number of areas of atomic and nuclear physics, the most notable being the neutrino detection experiments with Professor Ray Davis, for which Davis received the Nobel Prize. Dr. Harmer retained his role in the sophomore sequence even after retirement.

Dr. Stanford was associated with Georgia Tech for almost his entire academic career, having received his B.S. degree from Tech in 1952. He joined the faculty in 1964, specializing in solid state and biophysics and writing a text on the latter subject. His research in biophysics, however, must have created somewhat of a problem for the School at that time since it involved the setting up of a laboratory with live rodents with its related inconveniences. Gus, however, became best known to generations of Tech students as the face of sophomore physics. In their view, no one could help them find their way through the intricacies of introductory physics like Professor Stanford. He died in 2008, having remained actively involved in science education almost to the end.

These imminent vacancies made the recruitment of new faculty a matter of some urgency. The School was fortunate in that the Institute had begun to recognize the importance of supplying incoming faculty with substantial start-up packages. With these increased resources, the School was now able to bring in three outstanding faculty members for the next fiscal year:

  1. Walt de Heer as Professor from the University of Lausanne,
  2. Michael Schatz as Assistant Professor from the University of Texas, and
  3. Li You as Assistant Professor from Harvard.

All are still with the School and continuing to make significant contributions at the time of this writing.

Finally it should be noted that the administration was able to persuade Dr. Rajarshi Roy to succeed the author of this chapter as Director (Chair) of the School of Physics, effective July 1996.