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NPACI-Supported Computational Physics Program Celebrates Its First Graduate

Published 06/12/2003

Jon La Follet

Jon La Follet, a computer whiz who wasn't sure he wanted to attend college after graduating from high school in a small Oregon logging town, will on June 15 receive Oregon State University's first bachelor of science degree in computational physics. The degree represents a milestone not only for La Follet, 23, but also for the university, its pioneering physics professor Rubin Landau, and organizations such as the National Science Foundation and the National Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure (NPACI), which supported Landau's efforts to establish the Computational Physics for Undergraduates program at OSU.

"This all started 16 years ago," said Landau, the author of three physics textbooks, including Computational Physics: Problem Solving with Computers. "I first proposed one course in computational physics, which grew into others. In 1998, I thought, 'Why don't we offer a rigorous degree program for undergraduates?' " The program is intended to address a demand for university-trained computer specialists with strong backgrounds in science and mathematics.

The Oregon Board of Higher Education in October 2001 approved the new Bachelor of Science degree at OSU for students majoring in computational physics. Landau's Computational Physics for Undergraduates program within the Department of Physics now offers six quarter classes in computational physics and a computation lab.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) earlier had awarded Landau a Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement grant to help him establish the computational physics program. Landau also received a range of technical and curriculum support from the Education, Outreach and Training Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure ( EOT-PACI), which was formed in 1998 with a grant from the NSF to develop human resources across a broad range of science disciplines through the innovative use of emerging information technologies in order to understand and solve problems. The physics professor also received assistance from NPACI and the San Diego Supercomputer Center at UC San Diego. NPACI is a research consortium of 37 U.S. universities and research institutes and four international research centers, with SDSC serving as the leading-edge site. NPACI's Education Center on Computational Science and Engineering at San Diego State University also provided high-performance computing and research tools to Landau's program. The tools were developed for research, visualization of data, and interactive collaborative environments.

La Follet grew up and attended high school in Molalla, Ore., a town with a population of about 3,600 nestled in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains about 60 miles south of Portland. "I really didn't know if I wanted to attend college or not," he said.

La Follet attended Clackamas Community College in Oregon City for two years before transferring to Oregon State. He will graduate on Sunday with a double major in physics and computationalphysics. He satisfied OSU's requirements for BS degree in physics, and to satisfy the computational physics requirement he completed the program's seven courses, plus additional courses in mathematics and computer science.

"I don't really feel like a pioneer," said La Follet. "I actually didn't realize the computational physics curriculum was so new."OSU President Tim White will confer degrees to about 3,700 students, including La Follet, on June 15.

There are currently seven additional OSU students with computational physics as at least one of their declared majors. "They all think doing science and math on the computer is fun," said Landau. "I've been teaching at Oregon State for 29 years, and this has been my only experience teaching undergraduates where physics is like a game to them. It's exciting and fun, but they learn a lot, too."

Illinois State University is the only other university in the United States known to offer a bachelor's degree in computational physics, according to the American Institute of Physics. (Several other universities offer bachelor's degrees in physics with minors or specialties in computational physics.)

Landau said students not majoring in computational physics also enroll in his program's courses, two of which are now required of all undergraduate physics majors. "So it's sort of a bootstrap effect to get computational physics into the undergraduate physics curriculum," he said.

Landau is urging other departments at OSU to offer computational-science degrees. "I would like the College of Science to move toward computational math, computational biology, and computational chemistry degrees," he said. "Those departments can share many of the same components."

Landau is also working to establish a graduate degree program in computational science. "The Department of Physics is hiring more computational physicists and teaching and helping to develop a graduate-level computational physics program will be a big part of their jobs," he said. "This new graduate program needs to be truly interdisciplinary because no single department in the College of Science, on its own, would have enough students to warrant a separate graduate degree program."

Media contact: Greg Lund, San Diego Supercomputer Center, 858-534-8314, greg