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Change Our Classes? January 22, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in university.

Our department is involved in a debate over the course content of our undergraduate program. We have one of the largest physics undergraduate programs in the country — I think we and University of Maryland keep trading off for most number of BS degrees each year.

The problem comes from several sources. First, the physics program here at UW looks very different from the one that many of us experienced as undergraduates. Many of our graduates are not planning to go on into graduate school. Many will be moving off into other jobs that require some sort of scientific background. Management in a tech company, for example. The fact that we have courses that cater to them means we have a much larger program than we might otherwise.

However, not all is well. The biggest complaint I hear over and over is that we aren’t teaching enough modern physics to our students. By modern I don’t mean quantum mechanics (which is typically called modern physics), but, rather, I mean recent discoveries. Dark matter/energy. Applications in condensed matter. Materials. Basically, the stuff we do for research, or did perhaps 20 years ago (and so is well established at this point). I think everyone agrees with this basic idea.

Here is the rub: if you want to teach more of something new, you’ll have to teach less of something old. One group pushing for this upgrade points out we have some redundancies on our program. People who argue that you can’t do the advanced stuff before you do the basic stuff say that without repetition the students don’t really learn the material.

I find myself on the outside of this argument. I’ve not taken an undergraduate course in a long time. I’ve only taught the introductory courses here at UW. I’m 100% sure that the honors folks could do with an upgrade. Part of the reason is almost everyone in the honors program has already seen the material once in a great high school. The regular course is already packed to the gills and many people there are seeing the stuff for the first time. I’m not 100% sure they can absorb everything. Or if they do, their understanding of it will be less than it might otherwise. Finally, there is the part of me that mutters: “it doesn’t matter anyway. The only time you’ll ever really learn any of this is when you have to use it for something you want; school is just building an index.” That would be the cynic in me.

I think the department is leaning towards revamping the curriculum. I’m glad I won’t be doing much teaching next year: the first person to teach after a change like this always has the most work. The rest of us can copy them…



1. Sujit - January 26, 2007

Hm. Trackback doesn’t seem to be working. Well, this post has been referenced here!

2. Sujit - January 26, 2007

Hm. Trackback doesn’t seem to be working. Well, this post has been referenced here!

3. Sujit - January 26, 2007

(Sorry for the double comment – the first link is wrong).

4. Book Review: The New Physics « metadatta. - June 11, 2008

[…] Watts had a post a few days ago on undergraduate physics curricula, noting that: The biggest complaint I hear over […]

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