Core physics curriculum

This past weekend I attended the American Physical Society’s Physics Chairs Conference. It was great to meet so many physics edu/administrators. I got a lot of ideas I’m interested in kicking around at my institution, but this post is about one controversial idea: A physics BS that doesn’t include the normal “core” curriculum of:

  • Electricity and Magnetism
  • Theoretical (or classical) Mechanics
  • Quantum Mechanics
  • Thermo/statistical Mechanics

This conversation was seeded by Steve Whisnant, who is the chair of the James Madison University physics department. He shared how they’ve developed several tracks, mostly to aid in recruiting. As he says, most physics students (and their parents) don’t know what to do with a physics degree, so they make tracks that have a more immediate connection with careers.

As he was laying these tracks out for us, one of the chairs in the audience asked if it was true that they were granting BS physics degrees with students who don’t take quantum. It lead to a short but spirited discussion, and I’m glad that I was in the breakout session later with the person who brought up the question. In that breakout session, we talked at length about what all physics majors should know (or, perhaps more accurately, be exposed to). Lots of related issues came up, including:

  • What the core should be
  • Is there a difference between a “physicist” and a “physics major graduate?”
  • Is computation now in the core?

I found myself thinking about an analogy with typical high school physics curriculum, which is often dominated by mechanics/kinematics. As I’ve written about before, while that dominates most of society’s understanding of physics, there are few physicists who study that particular field. However, it makes sense to teach it, I think, because it’s such a fantastically successful model, and physics is really just model building/applying/refining/testing.

So I raised my hand and said “the core courses we’re discussing are the most powerful models we have. It makes sense to teach them, but, really, we’re teaching our students how to do physics, ie, modeling.” Now, some thought I was talking specifically about computer modeling, but I meant modeling like the very popular high school curriculum where students are encouraged to develop their own understanding of a model like the “constant velocity model.” They look for what its characteristics are (graphical, equations, patterns, applications, etc) and use it until they’re forced to find situations where it breaks. Then they refine and are directed on the road to the “constant acceleration model” and many others.

What I was trying to say was that we need to prepare our majors to be able to do such model building, and it makes sense to expose them to very successful models. However, I was also saying that the modeling idea is more important than hitting all the big models, so I was defending the choice of the JMU physics department.

So what do you think? What is physics at the undergraduate major level? Does the traditional format of intro physics, some labs, advanced lab, and the core above still make the most sense? Should graduation education change from how it (specifically the coursework) has looked for 50 years? I’m really hoping to catch just a little of the passion of that breakout session in the comments below. Chime in!

As is my wont, here’s some easy choices for comments if you can’t organize your thoughts:

  • I was in that breakout session, and you’ve got it all wrong . . .
  • We need all those core courses and second semesters of at least the first 3
  • The physics major should just be a whole bunch of projects where students learn what they need to do their investigations.
  • You were at that conference?! Why didn’t you say hi?
  • What do you mean there’s a difference between a physicist and a physics major?
  • If we just do modeling, we’re just teaching math
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About Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist

Associate professor of physics at Hamline.
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25 Responses to Core physics curriculum

  1. bretbenesh says:

    “If we just do modeling, we’re just teaching math.”

    “Just?!?” I resent that :-)

    A couple my colleagues and I were talking yesterday about what a math major should mean—same conversion, just a different field. I haven’t opinion about physics other than that this conversation should be happening more than it is.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Haha, I should have known I’d get a fast response from you about that, Bret. It was presented that way, not, I think, to belittle math, but, rather, to say that we should be distinguished from math. Can you give us some of the flavor of how the math conversation goes?

      • bretbenesh says:

        I can give you a sense of how that particular conversation went; I don’t often hear much conversation about this sort of thing generally.

        We were largely talking about Calculus I. We came up with some goals for the course (“critical thinking,” “introduce students to higher level mathematics,” etc), and realized that the usual method of implementing Calculus I fails to meet just about all of them. In many ways, it is usually taught as glorified algebra, with differentiation and antidifferentiation just being new algebraic procedures.

        This is not what we want to show our liberal arts students, and this is definitely not what we want to show our future majors. In fact, it seems a little dishonest for math majors to only see glorified algebra for the first quarter of her college career. I think some of the students field that there is a bit of bait-and-switch going on by the time they are seniors.

        So we largely talked about how to improve this. One clear way is to emphasize the delta-epsilon definition of limits more (or “at all”). We basically were trying to figure out how to gently distribute proofs through the entire mathematics curriculum, rather than essentially waiting until math majors are almost half done with college before seriously seeing them.

        Do you have any thoughts about this as a physicist?

      • bretbenesh says:

        I thought of one more aspect of the math conversation, which mirrors the question “can you truly be a physics major if you have not had quantum?” We were discussing if there is a “core” for mathematics. Our school does, in that each student must take calculus I and II (NOT necessarily III), linear algebra, an introduction to proofs course, and a semester of abstract algebra and real analysis.

        We all had different opinions about whether this was sufficient for a core. And I am not totally sure what I even think.

      • Joss Ives says:

        I wonder if Calc III is typically considered more important as a core course for Physics majors than Math ones?

      • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

        I’ve been an observer of similar conversations in our own math department. They seem to be of similar minds about what a true math education should consist of, but it seems they differ on whether Hamline students could get it done in 4 years.

    • Kate Owens says:

      Ha! That was my exact thought :) — what do you mean, “just” teaching math?!

  2. Here’s an alternate view, wherein I’ll take way too long to end up saying I agree with you. Probably.

    One of my dirty little secrets is that I have no clue what general relativity is all about. I mean, I do, in that way that we talk about it in astronomy class with the non-science majors in a really hand-wavy way that works for what it is and that blows away the class conceptually, except many of them find it cool. But, I never took a GR class in grad school, and I’m not sure what it would take right now for me to pass a GR class right now if I had to.

    Does that make me less of a physicist / physics professor / physics Ph.D.? I hope not, and I don’t think so. But, I am sure there are physicists who disagree vehemently. I have to live with that. For some reason, we as a profession have come to an implicit agreement that the physicist who knows GR is unquestionably a physicist, but the physicist that knows oscillation problems that happen to be 4th order differential equations is less of a physicist if he/she doesn’t do HEP, condensed matter, astrophysics, or any of the other fundamental branches of physics.

    But physics is naturally a wide science. It takes all types to make sense of this universe, so who cares what others specialize in?

    If I believe that for the graduate level, then I probably have to believe that for the undergraduate level. Besides, as I learned as a graduate student: everyone comes to grad school with deficiencies. Part of the first 2 years was supplementing my deficiencies. So, any hole in a person’s studies can be filled if needed at a later date.

    I guess that means I should be looking for an online class on GR, then, right?

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      I’m with you about GR. The more I teach, especially classes where the students develop their own projects like our advanced lab, the more I realize how rich every field of physics is. Take my summer research: we’re twirling beads, for cripes sake! And yet, it’s rich, awesome, fun, challenging, and frustrating. Just what the doctor ordered ;)

  3. Chitra Rangan says:

    All other forward looking disciplines are teaching modern topics (genomics, proteomics, organometallics), only we physicists want to leave out the 100 year old “modern” topics. QM should be in high school, and we should be building on it at U.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      I think the analogy to other disciplines is important, and, seemingly, embarrassing for physics.

      • grant bunker says:

        I agree that ideally there should be an introduction to QM and relativity in high school physics (I was self-studying QM at that time which got me interested). But we’re a long way from that happy situation in general.

        I don’t think the comparison of physics with other disciplines is embarrassing unless we were only to teach the old stuff, but we don’t limit ourselves to that. Biology changes quickly because it’s still the wild west – for example only recently have biologists started to get a handle on epigenetics and the programs running in “junk” DNA. Physics is relatively simple in comparison but advances are still being made. The fingerprints of physicists are all over modern biology.

        Re new stuff: most junior level courses in classical physics include nonlinear dynamics, chaos etc, which are truly modern physics (albeit with long roots in history). I think E&M can/should include at least a brief discussion of negative index metamaterials which are new. If the department is large enough, to introduce modern research topics there should be a colloquium series and specialized courses. Otherwise take some field trips to larger universities and attend their colloquia. And of course there is a series of tubes called the Internet.

        If you’re talking graphene or nanotech or higgs or dark matter, well you need some knowledge of quantum for that. All the more reason to make sure they get QM in the core curriculum.

  4. The computer science department at Stanford asked itself these same questions a few years ago. By the time their undergrads finished the CS core, they had no time for all of the new and interesting things like artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction. So, with some resistance, they created 8 separate tracks (plus the options to design your own track). The number of CS majors increased dramatically, and the undergrads cited this flexibility as a big factor. The physics department now loses many undergrads to computer science, which is now the largest major at Stanford.

    I think it would be good to offer different tracks, but some smaller departments might have trouble filling all of their classes. At my undergrad, they said they couldn’t offer tracks because the enrollment in quantum 2 would drop below the enrollment minimum for a course, which was somewhere around 6 or 8.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      I have to say that I’m really intrigued by the notion of improving the marketing of our discipline/my department using things like tracks. I was interested to hear Whisnant say that not very many of the tracks are heavily used.

  5. bwfrank says:

    I’ll chime in about tracks in our context. We have four tracks here: Professional track which is intended for students who are going to graduate school; Astronomy; Teaching of physics; and most recently “Industrial Physics”, which is supposed to be more applied. We don’t have an engineering program at MTSU, so this last one is looking to make physics look more appealing to engineering-oriented students who typically choose other majors or transfer out. We used to have a medical-physics track as well, but we officially had to drop that due to low participation; however, we still offer lots of courses and many of our students go on to graduate programs in medical physics. During the five years or so that MTSU has developed these tracks and done other things to improve recruiting, we have shifted from graduating 4-5 majors a year, to 8-10 per year.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Did you have to drop the med one because it required a special class that always had low enrollment? The JMU model seems to leverage a bunch of existing courses in interesting packages.

  6. cgoedde says:

    How did the “physicist” versus “physics major graduate” discussion turn out? How many other fields would this even be a question? Do faculty in the history department talk about the difference between a historian and a history major graduate? I think sometimes in physics we are overly preoccupied with this question. There are many reasons to major in physics beyond becoming a physicist.

    Our main concentration here is “Standard Physics” which used to require 2 quarters each of classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, and E+M. A few years ago we switched the requirement to any four of the six. So, in principle, students can graduate with a B.S. without taking QM or E+M or CM. In practice, this doesn’t happen very often at all, and many students take all six. (We didn’t reduce the total number of required classes, just made the requirements more flexible.) In my view, it’s better to have more flexible requirements and use advising to make sure students’ course load matches their long term goals.

    We also have a concentration called Interdisciplinary Physics that has very flexible requirements (I think it’s just the six first- and second-year physics courses we teach plus six or seven more physics courses) that is specifically designed for students who don’t want to continue in physics. It does require a minor in a second field as well. This is probably our second most popular concentration.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      The “physicist” conversation was very rich, I thought. My take is Monster.com doesn’t have any jobs for “physicists” while it does have some for “biologist” and especially for “chemist.” The only people I know who call themselves physicists seem to have PhD’s, but I’d love to be corrected about that.

      • I wondered about that after graduating with my bachelor’s degree. Was I considered a physicist? I sure felt like i was one. There seemed at the time to be a large number of people who argued that you’re only a physicist if you have a doctorate and do research. Then I heard about medical physics, geophysics, and industrial physics, where a masters or even in some cases a bachelor’s is a qualifying degree. Those people are physicists. And then the AIP began talking about “hidden physicists” with one or more degrees in physics but a nontraditional job. You can’t be a hidden physicist without being a physicist… Then what about community college professors with masters degrees, or those with PH.D’s who do no physics research?

        I’m a high school teacher with two degrees in physics. I’m a physicist… I use physics every day.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Thanks, Jim, for giving that view. I will say that the physics teachers I know think more deeply about physics than most PhD physics people I know. I guess the question is whether the label affects what we think the core curriculum should be.

      • Good question…I don’t necessarily think it does. It’s more of a sociological phenomenon.

        With regards to core curriculum requirements, I do recall wondering why it is that there are bodies that establish standards for chemistry (ACS) and engineering (ABET), but not physics. Shouldn’t AIP have tackled this 50-100 years ago?

  7. grant bunker says:

    I was the main curmudgeon alluded to by Andy, and he invited me to contribute, so here is a brief synopsis of what I think about it.

    •I don’t think it’s necessary to diminish the degree by cutting out essential concepts. Restructuring the course sequence and adjusting content to reduce redundancy could be a good idea.
    •Physics is not reducible to modeling: other fields do that too. It’s science.
    •the acknowledged versatility of physicists (including those with BS degrees) is grounded in both the style of thinking (abstract modeling) + mathematical facility, and also in having a firm grounding in the fundamentals of physics: classical, quantum, statistical, E&M. This allows them to go almost any direction, invent new fields, and transform existing ones. (The core also provides a route to more advanced work in which the “big 4″ are further condensed to relativistic quantum field theory + GR. ). Other fields are more balkanized than physics is. Physics is relatively simple so a core makes sense.
    •20th century physics has made enormous advances in our understanding of the universe, I would argue more than all previous centuries put together. These have transformed our technology and society (e.g. computers), made clearer our place in the universe, and helped us to understand our own nature (e.g. DNA, functional MRI). This is a big deal.
    •Physicists (including BS level) can help raise awareness of the role and importance of physics (and science in general) in providing perspectives and technologies that can and do improve the world. Physicists can only do that well if they have a solid grasp of all of the basics.
    •The current standard set of undergraduate classes to me are not sacrosanct, although the core ideas in each of the areas (classical, quantum, E&M, statistical) should be represented (I like to sneak at least an introductory lecture on GR too). I think there is (or should be, if General Education hasn’t marched through and burnt down your curriculum) plenty of room in the curriculum to retain the core, while still offering room for specializations and tracks. Actually I would prefer to have an overview of modern science in the GenEd requirements.
    •I think we should mix QM and other advanced subjects sooner into the curriculum to motivate students. Would you have gone into physics if it were all about masses sliding down inclined planes or throwing baseballs? Not me.
    •Tracks/specializations can be OK (we have a couple) and also help with recruiting. Just don’t cut the core. A BS in physics should have QM.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Thanks, Grant, for adding this. One of the big questions I’m struggling with is what you talk about at the end, where you’re referring to where in the curriculum these ideas might go. We still call our sophomore course “Modern Physics” and we go through expectation values, spin calculations (to a small degree), and the hydrogen atom. We don’t do bras and kets, though that seems to be a math approach, but we also don’t mention the phrase “Hilbert Space,” which might be problematic along your lines of thought.

      • grant bunker says:

        I don’t want to try to generate a minimal curriculum on the fly, but I think it’s important to demonstrate that QM offers far more than just providing spatial probability distributions and energy levels of atoms and potential wells – it’s the full dynamics of the system.

        I would start out with the basic difference between classical probabilities and quantum probabilities (via probability amplitudes). I would include the time dependent schrödinger equation to handle dynamics. Dirac’s state vector formalism is simpler and more general than wave functions; fortunately it’s really not difficult to use, and the notation is ubiquitous. It clarifies the complementarity representations of the state in position and momentum space and why they’re related by a fourier transform. Commutators are essential hardware; I like to do a formal derivation of the heisenberg uncertainty principle, if only to make clear the principle represents a rigorous lower bound on uncertainties, and not merely a collective shrug. I like to estimate sizes of atoms using the uncertainty principle without any fancy math. Spherical Harmonics as the general solutions for the angular solutions in spherically symmetric potentials are also important, and connect with addition of angular momentum. Ladder operators in harmonic oscillator and angular momentum are just too much fun to pass up, and creation and annihilation operators lead naturally to quantum fields; even though you wouldn’t have time to develop it, students like to look down the road even if they choose not to go there.

        I have both studied and taught most of this stuff at the sophomore level/junior level, so I know it’s feasible to work it into a four-year curriculum without it being a horrendous slog. My main goal generally to convey the power of QM concepts while having some fun explaining real-world phenomena with it, and gaining a comfort level and profiency with the apparatus.

  8. Joss Ives says:

    I’m very intrigued by this discussion of using tracks as a recruitment tool. The physics degree at my institution is perhaps the least-prescribed major I have encountered. Up until recently, the requirements were intro physics, classical mechanics, intermediate E&M, mathematical physics and 9 upper-year courses. That was it. No QM, no stat phys, no comp phys, no upper-level labs. There are various reasons why our degree ended up looking like this, but one of the big ones was that making a course required forces us to put it on no matter how few students are available to take it. That was potentially a really large problem when the program was quite new. Instead we poll our students which courses they want to see offered and use that to help guide which courses will be offered in a given year. Of course this means that we have graduates with what people would consider to be gaping holes in their undergraduate physics education.

    We also offer an Honours degree (common in Canada) and this degree hits all the courses that we feel are important for students that want to get into grad school (basically the courses that have been discussed as the core in this post). Since we now have to offer a bunch of these courses to make sure that student can meet their Honours degree requirements, it negates the reason for our under-prescribed major that I discussed above.

    Back to the discussion of using tracks as a recruitment tool. I’m curious to hear about what sort of evidence people have that offering tracks was the thing that increased enrolment in their programs. I think this idea is something that could gain some traction within my department if the evidence was convincing.

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