Physics majors practice presentations

For years we’ve been working to give our physics majors opportunities to improve their presentation skills. We do a lot of oral exams but we also want our students to do well in more formal settings. We have a junior/senior seminar that the students take for 4 semesters, and they have to present in three of them. For their first one (fall of their junior year typically) we don’t want them to stress out over physics content so, assuming they don’t have a research project to report on, we tell them to give us a short presentation on a general physics concept that they understand well. This post is my thinking on how to improve that.

Typically students pick something like a projectile problem and they present it kind of like a mix between an oral exam and a mock teaching situation. The former is weird because it’s usually a really easy problem (for juniors) and the latter is problematic because that kind of presentation tends not to be how we’d choose to teach the material (no interactivity, for example). Normally we end with some token physics criticism/question but them concentrate on suggestions for how they could present better.

My biggest problem with this setup is how fake it is. It’s not the type of presentation they’ll likely be giving in the future. Then they’d much more likely be talking about a data-driven decision or conclusion they’ve reached. They likely wouldn’t be defending their understanding of a simple concept and they certainly shouldn’t be teaching like that (mostly dark room, only one person talking, etc).

So my current idea is to have them still have a pretty safe and easy thing to prepare but to have it be much more in the spirit of the types of presentations we’d like to see from them. I thought it might be cool if they could present their data from a lab they’ve already done. It might be a simple lab from general physics or something, so likely none of us would be surprised by the outcome, but they could be asked to approach it as trying to convince someone of the conclusions they’ve drawn. We could then really help them focus on what aspects of the presentation need focus (well done data plots, clear explanation of any theory necessary, etc). We still might make minor physics criticisms or questions but we could focus on the presentation skills we really care about.

I figure we could ask students in their first one or two physics classes to pick the lab write up they are most proud of and we could keep it for them to hand back when their juniors. We could do that early in the semester so they could have time to get their presentations ready.

Your thoughts? Here are some starters for you:

  • I’m in this class and I like this plan a lot, here’s why . . .
  • I’m in this class and this is a stupid plan, here’s why . . .
  • Why not force them to do an actual experiment? You act like it’s only worth 0.5 credits or something.
  • Would this work for the labs that are more along the lines of verification labs (“yep, I get 9.8 m/s/s”)?
  • Why have them pick their best one? Maybe the lab instructor should pick it
  • Maybe you could make sure that no two students do the same lab. Here’s how I’d set that up . . .
  • I like presentations based on ________ better, here’s why . . .
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About Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in syllabus creation, teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Physics majors practice presentations

  1. Lex Kemper says:

    Lovely thought! I do like the idea of giving them something to present, but perhaps you can go intermediate between “doing an actual lab” and “projectile motion.” As a computational/theory person, one of the things I do is numerically or analytically evaluate an expression/integral/differential equation for some cases.

    The students could do this for already worked out results. As an example, studying resonance in a driven damped harmonic oscillator, evaluating the electric/magnetic fields of particular shapes of antennas. These will involve making legible plots, studying the varying limiting cases, explaining why the plots look why they do. This will help them practice making plots, providing context, and if there was a differential equation solving/integration, some talk about methodology.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      I like this. One would assume that they’re doing at least the basics of this in one of the physics classes they’re in at the same time so it shouldn’t be work on top of the presentation prep (making figures etc).

      • Lex Kemper says:

        You can extend this to a lot of other simple things — integrals come with error bars, in particular if you do them numerically, so they can plot these as well and talk about where they came from. You can even go fancy and do something like Monte Carlo integration if you have students that are particularly interesting in writing some very simple code.

        Continuing with my stream of consciousness, it’s also a way to discuss and illustrate approximations to certain integrals (which we do all day, right?). I’m thinking along the lines of the Taylor series-type graphs (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taylor_series#/media/File:Sintay_SVG.svg) but for physics quantities they’re learning about. That may require numerical evaluation of integrals and things, which they can do with Simpson’s rule algorithms or just by calling the appropriate routine in Matlab/Mathematica/Numpy.

  2. I’ve heard Bruce (Professor Bolon) describe the need for presentations as an exercise in giving interviews/etc. That is, once we graduate, we have good experience with public speaking and interaction such that we can present OURSELVES into the job market with better quality.

    Also sometimes the seemingly simple can slip past, as we saw last Friday in seminar (the difference between linear and angular momentum). Maybe presentations the way they are going are helpful 1) because they help students really understand what they understand quantitatively if not qualitatively, and 2) it helps professor here understand what is not “getting through” to us students.

    Just a thought?

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Absolutely presentation practice is vital to prepare students for both graduate school and the job market. I guess my point is that most of the time those presentations will be about experiments that the student has done. For my own job search I did have to do some teaching, but presenting to a darkened room and doing all the talking would not bode well for a job candidate showing off how well they could teach.

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