Physics Department Learning Goals

Physics is the art of leaving behind common assumptions in order to see everyday events as the result of simple natural causes and of describing those events in mathematical approximations. In every physics course our overarching goal is to nurture students’ ability to observe normal, everyday phenomena with more attention and in greater detail, in order to glimpse the larger patterns of the workings of the universe.

I. Students in distribution courses (non-science majors)

Physics emerged from the original artes physicae of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music of the seven liberal arts of the classical curriculum and still stands solidly within the liberal arts today. The study of physics promotes understanding of the basic workings of nature. It also extends that understanding beyond the realms of our everyday lives, from the scales of atomic nuclei to those of galaxies. It is essential for understanding the role of technology in society as well as important policy issues. In all of our distribution courses our goal is that students demonstrate an understanding of the nature of physics and scientific evidence by focusing on the habits of mind of the physicist or astronomer. With that in mind students in our distribution courses should be able to demonstrate an understanding of the following key features of physics:

  • the assumption that the processes of the world can be studied with sensory data which can be used to build predictive models of the universe;
  • that experimentation requires a disciplined approach to the acquisition of data, which allows physicists to refine and evaluate their own models;
  • that physics is an ongoing community activity which requires public presentation of results and the critique of results by independent researchers, and that disagreements among researchers and challenges to “conventional wisdom” are constant and important aspects of the process.

II. Science majors in required introductory physics courses

A number of other degree programs recognize the importance of a solid grounding in the observations and habits of thought that we use in physics. Our department has traditionally spent the bulk of our resources providing courses that fulfill this mission. In addition to the goals we have for the distribution courses, we also ask of these students a deeper understanding of the content and methodology of the discipline. In particular they should be able to demonstrate

  • a basic understanding of the core concepts of physics,  including mechanics, electricity and magnetism, wave motion and optics, heat and thermodynamics, and modern physics;
  • some understanding of the perspective and values of physics as it differs from other natural sciences;
  • skills in problem solving techniques requiring the reduction of complex situations to essential elements and the application of physical laws in their appropriate contexts; 
  • an awareness of uncertainty in laboratory experiments where interpretation and analysis of the data are tied specifically to physical laws studied in the classroom; and
  • skills in the understanding, use, and limitations of graphical representations of data, emphasizing that physics equations are expressions of relationships among physical quantities.

III.  Physics Majors

Our curriculum is designed to allow our physics majors to succeed in graduate programs in physics and associated disciplines as well as a variety of other careers. We seek to give our majors a solid grounding in physics as a liberal art, as well as theories and laboratory practices in physics that will enable them to pursue whatever career they choose. Toward this end, our specific goals for physics majors are that they develop and be able to demonstrate

A. Content

  • a deep understanding of the common concepts of physics developed through a core curriculum of physics courses consisting of introductory physics, modern (20th century) physics, classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, and quantum mechanics;
  • an appreciation of the history of physics as a process of continually refining and revising our understanding of the world that has resulted in our current understanding of the universe;
  • the ability to apply their knowledge of this core curriculum to solve problems;

B. Experimental techniques and methods

  • the ability to design an experiment to test a model;
  • the ability to quantify uncertainty in measurement and to follow the propagation of uncertainty through a calculation;
  • the ability to build and refine a simple model from the analysis of data;

C. The methods of mathematical models

  • an understanding of mathematical relationships and a facility with mathematical manipulations from which physics models are built and physics problems are solved;
  • the ability to use the computer to collect, analyze, and display data;

D. The Culture of Science

  • the ability to communicate their own work effectively to appropriate audiences including oral presentations, lab reports, and lab notebooks.

Majors’ courses demand increasing levels of mathematical rigor as the student progresses through the 4 years, while the laboratory courses require increasing levels of independence. These culminate in the required senior project (SYE), where ideally the student draws on all or most of the skills listed above.