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