Physics Program History

The University of Houston-Clear Lake (UHCL) first opened in 1974 as the University of Houston at Clear Lake City. It was established as an upper-level undergraduate and graduate institution in the Clear Lake region of Houston, Texas and neighboring NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (JSC). As an upper-level undergraduate and graduate institution, its original mission did not allow the university to teach freshmen, sophomores or doctoral students, therefore most of the original UHCL programs taught juniors, seniors and master's degree candidates. The origin of the Physics program at UHCL was the UHCL Physical Sciences program, which was established in 1975, one year after UHCL was founded. It was initially developed as an interdisciplinary program with courses in physics, astronomy, chemistry and geology. When working in connection with its sister program, Electro-Optics, it provided many of the same classroom and research opportunities found in many physics departments although it had not yet developed the full set of the required core courses that are normally found in physics degree programs. The Program in Physical Sciences offered the Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BS) and Master of Science (MS) degrees. This mixed program was founded for the following reasons: 1. Data had not yet been gathered to support demand for individual physical science disciplines and to justify the funds required to establish them. 2. Since teacher certification was available for physical sciences, this program also served those students preparing to teach in secondary education. (Historically, enrollment in the undergraduate BA Physical Sciences Program has satisfied the needs of students seeking certification to teach earth science and very few education students sought to become certified in physical sciences.)

The Physical Sciences Program initially included courses in the following rubrics: ASTR, CHEM, GEOL, and PHYS. However, establishing a curriculum across these four disciplines was always difficult. Traditionally, most of the students who earned degrees in this program have concentrated their coursework mainly in one of the four disciplines. In response, Dr. Warren Smith, Dean of the School of Science and Technology, and Professor of Chemistry, spearheaded the drive to create a separate Chemistry Program in 1983. Nevertheless chemistry is a physical science and it remained possible to major in physical sciences even though concentrating in chemistry. In the late 1980's when the School of Natural and Applied Sciences was reorganized, the Electro-Optics Program was put into the Division of Natural Sciences, joining Physical Sciences. Because Electro-Optics is so strongly based on physics, this made good sense and allowed the two programs to work closely together, until the Electro-Optics Program was closed in 1995.

During the 1980's, some students prepared themselves for careers in geology by earning a Physical Sciences BS degree. Beginning in the early 1990's, however, geology as a profession has directed itself more toward environmental concerns, so that most students have instead sought degrees in Environmental Science. Also, very few students have sought a Physical Sciences BS degree to work professionally in astronomy or physics or to prepare themselves for graduate study in these disciplines, since the undergraduate degrees required by employers and graduate schools are in Astronomy or Physics, rather than Physical Sciences.

Most students seeking a Physical Sciences MS degree have been interested in concentrating in Space Science. During the 1980's, about 20% sought the MS degree emphasizing Geology but that has mostly not continued because of recent interest in Environmental Science with an emphasis in Geology. There are a few exceptions, including those interested in remote sensing or planetary science. By the late 1990's the Geology concentration in Physical Sciences was all but discontinued and only the physics and astronomy courses remained viable options for many students. Despite the gloomy outlook during this time, the Physical Sciences Program managed to build an enrollment of nearly 100 graduate students and add 5 NASA astronauts to its list of alumni [*] . These students were primarily interested in the Space Science subprogram.

In 1998, the Physical Sciences program chair, Dr. George Blanford, began working with NASA JSC civil servant, Dr. John Shebalin, to develop a proposal to convert the Physical Sciences degrees to Physics degrees. However, Dr. Blanford, who had been the only physics faculty member at UHCL, retired in 2002. After an initial failed search, a visiting assistant professor, Dr. David Garrison, was hired to serve as the new Physical Sciences Program chair within a month of completing his Ph.D. dissertation. Over the next two years Dr. Garrison and Dr. Shebalin worked to develop a new proposal for a Physics degree at UHCL. This time, they focused on first establishing a Master's degree in Physics while the undergraduate degree remained Physical Sciences. This proposal proved successful due to an unprecedented level of support from employees of JSC and its contractors. Over 200 employees at JSC responded to an online survey saying that they would be interested in pursuing an MS in Physics at UHCL. During this time several new activities were initiated, including the Guest Lecture Series, Astrophysics Seminar Series and the first attempt at establishing a Physics Club at UHCL.

In the fall of 2004, the Physics Master's degree program officially began operations. We believe that it was the first Physics Program in the country to focus on training non-traditional students. Almost all graduate courses were offered in the evenings and over 95% of the students worked full-time. The focus on Space Science and space related physics remained, while traditional core Physics courses were added with the same standards as other national graduate physics programs. Also, because many of the physics courses where already being offered under the Physical Sciences Program, we were able to graduate our first student, Jacob Collins, in the spring of 2005. During the 2005-2006 academic year, we graduated 8 Master's degree students and had about 45 graduate students enrolled, making it the 2nd largest producer of master's level physicists in the state of Texas. During this time, Dr. Garrison was the only tenure-track physicist at UHCL. The program succeeded because of the support of many outstanding adjunct faculty who worked full-time at JSC.

During that first year, Dr. Garrison worked to develop a Professional Physics Sub-plan in Technical Management. This program was developed thanks to a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan foundation and the Council of Graduate Schools. It was part of a program, led by the Council of Graduate Schools, to develop Professional Science Master's Degrees (PSM) to train scientists for the non-academic workforce. This effort proved somewhat successful but ran into several unexpected challenges when the School's Dean proposed a similar program in Engineering Management. The Sub-plan did not appear in the official university catalog until the fall of 2006, when the implementation grant was ending, making recruiting difficult.

In the Fall of 2006, Dr. Garrison and our only other full-time physics faculty members, the newly hired Visiting Assistant Professor Samina Masood and Dr. John Shebalin, who was serving as a Visiting Professor through an IPA agreement with NASA JSC, began working with the faculty of the Physics Department of the University of Houston to establish a Collaborative Ph.D. program. The final agreement was implemented in the fall of 2007. This program allowed UHCL graduate students to complete Ph.D. Candidacy, advanced electives and Ph.D. thesis research at UHCL, under the advisement of UHCL physics faculty. Several faculty at both institutions were given joint faculty appointments and a joint committee was established to help transition students from the master's program at UHCL to the Ph.D. program at UH. This also led to the establishment of a Physics Ph.D. candidacy certificate program, a Joint UH/UHCL Physics Journal Club and the initiation of courses being taught simultaneously on both campuses using videoconference software. In the fall of 2008, John Shebalin left UHCL when the IPA agreement with JSC ended. This again left UHCL with only 2 full-time physics faculty. In Spring 2009, Astronaut Lee Morin earned an MS in Physics making him the 1st astronaut to officially graduate from the Physics program (six total from the Physics and Physical Sciences programs).

In Fall 2009, UHCL won approval for a new bachelor's degree in Physics. For two years, the Physical Sciences program continued to focus on teacher training while the new undergraduate physics program focuses on technical workforce training and preparing students for graduate school in Physics. The Physical Sciences program was finally phased out in 2012.  We now offer a complete Physics Program, offering BS, MS and PhD degrees, the last in collaboration with the UH Central Campus Physics Department. Currently, several students have been admitted to PhD candidacy and many others are in the process of qualifying. The benefits of a strong Physics Program for the local area is clearly evident, and strengthens the University as a whole, while providing a valuable educational resource for JSC, the local aerospace community and others.  As such an Engineering Physics Sub-Plan was added to our undergraduate curriculum at the request of our Advisory Board in the Fall of 2011

In 2014, the UHCL Physics Program became an APS Bridge Program Partnership Site.  This coincided with the admission of UHCL’s first freshmen class.  As a result, we experienced a growth in all areas including undergraduate service courses, undergraduate majors and graduate majors.  We are currently six full-time faculty teaching 25 graduate students, 40 undergraduate majors and about 200 service students per semester with the help of many talented adjunct faculty from the local community.  The UHCL Physics Program expects to grow and mature, fulfilling the potential that has always existed, particularly in relation to the proximity of UHCL to JSC.

[*] Gregory Chamitoff, Michael Fincke, Michael E. Fossum, Gregory J. Harbaugh and Richard Mastracchio