in curriculum is inevitable. Some of the changes in the Reed
Physics curriculum over time evolved because of differences
in preparation on the part of entering students, others because
of the facultys desire to increase scheduling flexibility.
Still other changes have been made to accommodate the influx
of new material, technology, or teaching methods into the
field. Lastly, there are changes wrought as part of the continuing
debate over how to teach physics to non-majors.
curriculum kept to the essentials until the 1950s, when the
need to present a broader range of topics became clear. The
first specialty, non-required, topic to be introduced then
was Atomic and Nuclear Physics. By the 1970s, that class was
joined by Solid State Physics and Classical Field Theory.
Classical Field Theory was introduced at the request of students
who wanted a follow-up course to Wheelers Classical
Mechanics; such a course is by no means standard to the curriculum,
either undergraduate or graduate. In 1979 Astrophysics was
added, followed by Elementary Particles in the early 80s.
Molecular Biophysics is another new offering, introduced by
Johnny Powell, at sophomore level, for the first time in 1996;
it draws students from Biology and Biochemistry as well as
Physics. This is a course not typically offered in similar
institutions, but an area in which many recent Physics graduates
have made careers.
math has been integrated with physics and how it is taught
have also changed over the years. Physics is a highly mathematical
discipline, and physics students have always taken a substantial
number of math courses. Over the years, reactions by the students
to the math they encountered there has varied. "In the
early days of the college, the math taught by that department
was highly applied," says Nicholas Wheeler. "Starting
around 1960, they reacted against that tendency and took pride
in teaching at something approaching a graduate level of abstraction.
Our students then had less opportunity to learn some of the
practical applications that they needed. We had to offer tutorials
for a while."
Reed math courses were famously abstract and geared, naturally
enough, towards math majors," remembers Rachel Somerville
89. "I enjoyed those courses enormously and developed
a knowledge of pure math many physicists lack;
however, I arrived at grad school without a grounding in the
concrete mathematical methods that are the tools of the trade."
recently, the Reed Math Department changed its orientation
again. "Then another generation of faculty took over
with a more experimental approach," says Wheeler. "At
the same time, were finding that the high school preparation
of our students is better in this regard, too. For about the
last 10 years, weve had no need to offer math tutorials."
the early 1960s, the department offered a special class to
allow the well-prepared to accelerate. Physics Chemistry 120
was, essentially, a year of physics in the fall and of chemistry
in the spring. This disappeared in the late 1960s or early
the late 1960s, students were asking for more flexibility
in scheduling. To accommodate this, department requirements
were made less stringent. The three, yearlong courses that
had dominated the curriculum were broken down into units that
could be taken in various sequences. Classical mechanics and
electrodynamics each became two separate semester courses.
The second mechanics course was no longer required. Modern
Physics became Quantum I and II, and the requirement that
students take two third-year math courses was halved.
in the late 1960s, certain one semester, non-required specialty
courses evolved into courses that would be taught in alternate
years. Field theory, added in the 1960s, was one. Particle
physics, initiated by David Griffiths after his arrival, is
another, and astrophysics, initiated in 1979, became a third
were introduced in the early 1960s, bringing change college-wide,
but particularly to Physics.For several years starting
in 1964/5, the only programming instruction available at college
was offered in Fortran in the sophomore physics labs; later
Basic was offered.
1978, Richard Crandall immediately upon joining the faculty
argued successfully that the campus should employ one common
language, and that that language should be Pascal. However
in 1992, at the urging of the Math Department, the high level
language C was also introduced. In 1995/6, Maple followed,
and in 1997, Mathematica. The first quarter of Physics 200
is now training in Mathematica.
Joe Long 90, now a group manager at Microsoft, thinks
that more computer science classes would have been a helpful
addition to the curriculum. He also questions the schools
commitment to the Apple company. "For every one job out
there in MacIntoshes," he says, "there are three
courses offer their own specific types of challenge, and at
Reed this is often confounded by the fact that, while non-majors
must take two semesters of science to fulfill their Group
C requirement, the College as a rule discourages the creation
of classes catering to them. However since the 1950s, it has
proved impossible to fulfill the needs of physics majors with
a class that also works for non-majors, resulting in a special
offering, Natural Sciences 110 (Nat Sci).
its early days, Nat Sci was taught solely by the Physics Department
and was handled differently by different faculty members.
Dennis Hoffman, who taught it often in at that time, found
it an eye opener. "I learned that physics terminology
was interpreted very differently by people from different,
non-science, backgrounds," he remembers. "This got
me interested in the philosophy and history of science. I
went back to the American University in Washington, DC, for
a summer program, funded by the National Science Foundation,
to learn more about those subjects so that I could use that
information in teaching Nat Sci." Hoffman laughs. "Given
the number of non-science majors in that class, we had some
strange final projects. I remember some dance students who
did a dance of the planets, where I sat in the middle as the
sun." Robert Reynolds, who also often taught this class,
used a variety of subject matter: astronomy, earth science,
a mix of the two, or straight physics. The variety often worked
recently, Nat Sci has been taught in what Nicholas Wheeler
terms "disjoint cooperation" with the Chemistry
Department. By the mid-1990s, it was considered a problem
course by many of parties involved.
in 1999/2000, a new approach has been put in place. A new
course, Physics 101, is offered, which will be taught by different
faculty each year or two, with a variety of approaches. It
will not repeat itself, and unlike any other course at college,
will be one that a student could take twice for credit (or
to fulfill the Group C requirement).
Physics 100 remains the introductory class for majors. Although
introductory, the class demands a certain level of math skills,
in particular, calculus. At times this has been a problem.
Recently some changes in style and content of instruction
were given a brief trial. These changes were the local reflection
of a national trend, stressing, among other things, interactive
methods and peer instruction.
have a vital upper division program," says James, "
but I think our lower division program is not as creative
as it could be. We have 100 students in a big lecture, and
then in conferences and labs. Students tend to compartmentalize
between the three forms of class, and not carry information
over from one to the other. Some schools have integrated these
in innovative ways, but I couldnt get my colleagues
here interested in the specific ideas I put forward. And,
certainly, in terms of faculty time, the way we have now is
more efficient. We have enough majors in this department that
this does not appear to them to be a problem."
Griffiths acknowledges that students bring a wide range of
preparation to Physics 100. "Id break it into two
sections by degree of preparation," he says. "But
other than that I thinks the class functions well."
voice other concerns about the current curriculum, although
seismic changes do not appear in the offing. Johnny Powell
worries about students in the Physics 200 Lab. "They
work with transistors without formal instruction in how transistors
work. Its a big jump for them that the department is
just beginning to recognize. Its a serious need."
John Essick is concerned that students only receive one-half
credit for the Jr Lab. "Its a lot of work for that,"
he says. "Thermal physics really should be required,"
says David Griffiths, "but given the students loads,
we cant. The second semester of Classical Mechanics
should be advertised as varying as much as it does from year
one student of the 23 interviewed for this history spoke directly
and at length about the issue of curriculum, but her comments
were extensive. "The Reed Physics Department left some
serious holes in my preparation for graduate school,"
says Rachel Somerville 89. "Some of this was my
own fault; I took the minimum required physics classes so
that I could pursue other interests. None the less, part of
the responsibility of an undergraduate degree program is to
at least make sure that a student is aware of what she will
need in order to go into a graduate program in that field.
I dont feel that my advisors and professors made this
clear enough to me."
examples: I was allowed to graduate with only one semester
in quantum mechanics out of a low level textbook
without taking a single course in statistical mechanics or
condensed matter/solid state physicsin fact since those
courses were only offered every other year, managing a reasonable
sequence of them would have been difficult. Both of these
omissions caused serious problems for me when I reached graduate
school. I struggled painfully in my first graduate quantum
class because I did not have the standard background at the
level of the standard textbook by Schiff. I failed the graduate
qualifying exam on the first go-round because I failed the
statistical mechanics and condensed matter sections
Nick Wheelers electricity and magnetism course
was one of my favorite courses ever and very possibly a large
part of what inspired me enough to go on in physics, much
standard material was not covered," Somerville
continues. "A large part of physics, no matter how smart
one is, is having seen something before. In graduate E and
M, I was at a disadvantage because I had never solved a problem
from the standard text
because of the shortcomings in my undergraduate background,
I did very badly in the physics subject test of the GRE (though
I was in the 99th percentile
on all the general sections) and I did not get accepted to a single graduate school
the first time I applied.
The second time, I was accepted only to schools considered
rather second rate. I went to the University of California,
Santa Cruz, and I struggled very, very hard my first two years
In the end, I graduated with distinction and even won the
departmental award for best physics graduate student of my year, but
the process was painful, and I know of cases of other Reed physics graduates with
less happy endings."
Reed Physics Department
Era of Experimentalists: 1911-1963
Era of Theoretical Physics: 1963-1897
Structure and Issues
Role of Research and the Integration of Research and Teaching
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