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The HBCU Physics Community Welcomes Two New Physics Departments

The HBCU Physics Community Welcomes Two New Physics Departments

As an alumna of the Ph.D. program in Physics at Hampton University, graduating in the first class that was awarded a Ph.D. at this prestigious university, I am an ardent advocate of STEM education and research, but particularly physics education and research, at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Like physics departments at most small universities, physics departments at HBCUs struggle to have to justify their existence. They educate nursing, pre-med, engineering, mathematics and chemistry majors among others in their introductory courses, but they traditionally don’t graduate large numbers of students with degrees in the discipline. And in a world where the only metric that seems to count is the number of graduates, the consequence has been that a number of physics departments have been merged with other departments and others have been dissolved altogether. The historic physics department at Virginia State University, for example, with its impressive list of successful alumni and alumnae exists no more.

In light of this somewhat depressing reality, I am particularly pleased and excited to tell you about two departments that have recently been added to the list of physics departments at HBCUs. There are now twenty-eight HBCUs that offer the undergraduate degree in physics.  Of these, five institutions offers master’s degrees and six offer the both master’s and PhD degrees in physics.

Virginia Union University, a private historic university founded in 1865 and located in the heart of Richmond Virginia, recently restored the physics major with the help of a grant by the National Science Foundation to Dr. Shaheen Islam and a financial commitment from the university to support a new physics lab. An article in Inside Higher Ed [1] states:  “Virginia Union, another historically black college, had its own physics program roughly 60 years ago, but it was shuttered, according to information from the department”.  The new department offers    the bachelor degree in physics, as well as a 3+2 physics and engineering program.  One of the partnering engineering schools is Howard University.

Embodying the strength of women scientists at HBCUs is Dr. Shaheen Islam, who is the driving force behind this effort. She worked tirelessly at establishing the new department, despite a heavy teaching and advising load, having been the only physics faculty at Virginia Union University for many years.

The University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) Board of Trustees approved a bachelor of science degree in physics with a concentration in astronomy in October 2016.  UVI, established in 1962, is a public HBCU located on the islands of St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas. A press release [2] states: “The new degree program will provide educational training and research opportunities for undergraduate students who wish to specialize in physics and/or astronomy and who may intend to pursue graduate studies. Dr. David Morris, assistant professor of physics and director of the Etelman Observatory, said the degree program will allow UVI to retain students who would normally transfer to schools on the U.S. mainland to complete their degrees”. The B.S. degree in Physics degree is also called the Physics with Astronomy Authentic Research Experience program. Students can take advantage of the unique location of the Etelman Observatory to participate in authentic research experiences.

The UVI Observatory, located at 1325 ft atop Crown Mountain on the island of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, houses a research-grade 0.5 m automated Cassegrain telescope. The telescope is maintained and operated by astronomers at the University of the Virgin Islands, the College of Charleston, and South Carolina State University.

Please join the HBCU-UP program in welcoming the two new physics departments at our historic institutions and in wishing much success to the students and the faculty.

With best wishes - Claudia


Claudia Rankins, Ph.D.
Senior Program Officer, HBCU-UP
Division of Human Resource Development
National Science Foundation


[1]  https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/02/06/time-some-fear-closure-physics-programs-virginia-union-starts-one
[2]  http://www.uvi.edu/news/articles/2016/16_139_bot.aspx