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National institute names UNG top producer of physics graduates

September 23, 2020

For the second time in the past few years, the American Institute of Physics (AIP) recognized the University of North Georgia (UNG) as a top producer of graduates with bachelor's degrees in physics.

AIP designated its top producers as departments averaging 15 or more graduates earning bachelor's degrees from 2016 to 2018. The colleges and universities are divided by departments granting bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees.

"For the category we are in, we are in the top 10% of schools," said Dr. Richard "Dick" Prior, professor emeritus and former head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UNG.

UNG is one of two University System of Georgia (USG) institutions to earn this distinction. UNG tied with Georgia College with an average of 17 graduates each.

Three other Georgia higher education institutions have a higher average number of graduates earning bachelor's degrees in physics for the same three years, but those schools award master's or doctoral degrees. Schools with master's or doctoral programs that award bachelor's degrees in physics are recognized by AIP in two separate categories.

Prior, who retired from UNG on June 30, credits the AIP recognition to the physics and astronomy faculty at UNG. He explained students receive a warm welcome their first semester and connect with the young faculty members.

"A few years ago, we started our freshman seminar," Prior said. "All faculty come and meet the students and make a presentation. They also tell the students about themselves, where they went to school, what drew them into physics, and what kind of research they do."

He noticed students started approaching faculty sooner about undergraduate research projects. Faculty reinforced this action with open-door policies.

"The students know they can come into any faculty member's office and talk to them about physics or anything," Prior said.

Amanda Ash, who is pursuing a degree in physics, agreed. The senior from Woodstock, Georgia, said the faculty offer students many opportunities for undergraduate research. She participated in her first project as a freshman.

"That was the start of me being a true scientist," Ash said, explaining the faculty turned into her mentors. "The faculty are always behind me and in my corner."

Prior said it's the nature of the physics and astronomy department.

"We feel that our department is a family with the faculty and students," Prior said.

Over the years, the family has grown. When Prior started at UNG in 1994, he joined three other faculty members. Now, the department has 16 faculty members with six on the Gainesville campus and 10 on the Dahlonega Campus. Its physics graduates have also increased. In 2014, eight students graduated with physics degrees. That number increased to 20 physics graduates in spring 2020.

The department itself has also evolved. Last fall, the department changed its name to physics and astronomy, which is a nod to the four faculty members specializing in astronomy. The department also celebrated the completion of its new North Georgia Astronomical Observation with a small invitation-only ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 25.

"All of our faculty are enthusiastic and express a high level of interest in the work," Prior said, adding it is paying dividends. "The number of graduates we produce is a measure of our success."

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