Physics is perhaps the most basic of sciences, describing concepts which are the underpinnings for all other scientific fields. The physicist's approach is to describe the world through the application of basic physics concepts to increasingly realistic models. As such, there are several fundamental skills that the physics curriculum seeks to promote in its students.
- Content knowledge. As scientists, we benefit from centuries (or even millennia) of the work of others. While we wouldn't want to accept any particular theory or "law" as being unquestionably true, there are quite a lot of well-established principles we would be wise to accept as valid until/unless we have a really good reason to doubt them. This built-up body of knowledge is a crucial part of our training.
- Modeling. Real physical systems are usually quite complicated, often with many effects all acting at once. How can we describe a simpler version of physical systems to which we can apply the basic principles of physics? To do so, we need to include the essential pieces, while neglecting the non-essential pieces. It takes experience to know the difference, and gaining that experience is a significant part of what we do.
- Experimental measurements. The ultimate test of a theory or model's validity is whether it accurately describes the behavior of the physical system on which it is based. So we need to be able to make measurements of physical systems so that we can compare the results of those measurements to what our theories and models would predict. Our students will study experimental design, data analysis, and the skills involved in comparing experimental and theoretical results.
What then do students study in the classroom as a physics major at Westminster College?
- A physics major begins his/her study of physics at Westminster with a two-semester calculus-based sequence of Principles of Physics (I and II). Students will develop an appreciation for the basic principles of classical mechanics, sound, fluids, thermodynamics, electricity, magnetism, and optics. And they will use these principles both in solving problems and analyzing data acquired in the laboratory. At present, these courses are taught with the support of the excellent text Understanding Physics. Just as the textbook is guided by the latest findings of physics education researchers, Westminster's physics department seeks to incorporate activity-based physics in the approach to these crucial introductory courses.
- Students entering Westminster in the fall of 2010 will find their sophomore year devoted to a further study of Thermal Physics and additional study of Classical Mechanics. The Thermal Physics course is accompanied by the book of the same title by Schroeder. With this exceptionally well-written and very readable text, Westminster's physics department will introduce students to such fundamental concepts as entropy, temperature, chemical potential, and free energy. The Mechanics course uses the text Analytical Mechanics by Fowles & Cassiday and introduces students to new levels of mathematically sophisticated analysis. Meanwhile, students will be introduced to advanced mathematical modeling techniques and numerical problem-solving skills in the two-semester sequence of Computational Physics I and II.
- In their junior year, students who enter Westminster in the fall of 2010 will study Modern Physics, Electromagnetic Theory, and Experimental Physics (I and II). Modern Physics introduces students to the two major innovations of the 20th century - special relativity and quantum mechanics, while Electromagnetic Theory gives students an advanced picture of the interactions of charged and/or magnetic particles with each other. The laboratory experiences in Experimental Physics go well beyond the level of the laboratories performed in the first year. In these courses, students are much more involved in experimental design and analysis of data. Many experiments touch on the early evidence for quantum mechanics and are thus well-aligned with the contents of the Modern Physics Course. Students will also take a course in Astrophysics during the junior year (optional for those in the 3-2 engineering concentration). The Astrophysics course provides students with the opportunity to take a detailed look in on one specific modern area of scientific inquiry to build a better understanding of what contemporary physics research is like.
- As seniors, those students pursuing the 3-2 Engineering concentration will have departed to the engineering department of another institution, there to pursue additional training in their chosen engineering field. All others will complete the Capstone courses. In the fall, seniors receive additional training in professional writing and speaking, a review of important principles in physics (especially relevant for those heading off to graduate school in physics), and most importantly guidance in selecting a topic for the projects they'll complete in the spring. The diligent work of the spring leads to a successful capstone experience! Moreover, students who enter Westminster in the fall of 2010 will greet a more detailed approach to Quantum mechanics during their senior year. Students will learn the fundamental principles that underlie the quantum mechanical approach to understanding the world and apply those principles to solvable 1- and 3- dimensional problems. Students will also be introduced to the approximation techniques required to solve most quantum mechanical problems. The text used is the elegant book by Griffiths.
- Westminster's physics department regularly offers elective courses in Electronics, Optics, and Nonlinear Dynamics for additional enrichment. Moreover, the faculty encourages students to study areas of particular interest in independent study classes. In recent years, students have taken independent study classes to pursue additional research opportunities as well as studies in Advanced Quantum Mechanics, Fluid Dynamics, and Microcontroller Technology.
Students at Westminster may elect to participate in the 3-2 Engineering concentration to complete their physics studies.