NSF-AIRE at Reed
Reed Home
Mentor Program
Science at Reed
Participating Departments
Other Resources
Student Theses
Department Grants
Biology   Chemistry   Physics   Psychology
Teaching Style

By most measures, the Reed physics department is highly successful. Its faculty have, by and large, been well respected and made contributions particularly to the field of physics education extending well beyond the confines of the Reed campus. Tony Knowlton and Ken Davis rose to national leadership in the American Association of Physics Teachers. Beginning with Tony Knowlton’s influential physics text (1928), continuing through the work of Ken Davis, Dennis Hoffman and Byron Youtz on the Physical Sciences Study Committee in the 1950s, on to David Griffiths’ three widely known texts, Richard Crandall’s and John Essick’s volumes on computer applications, not to mention the numerous articles by faculty and students alike in journals such as The American Journal of Physics,the output is impressive. Faculty have received explicit recognition as well. Knowlton received the 1951 Oersted Medal, David Griffiths the Milikan Medal in the 1990s.

Of course, the ultimate success of a college or a department rests not with the eminence of its faculty, but with the numbers and achievements of its graduates. A relatively small department, Reed ranks within the top 20 colleges and universities in the number of bachelor’s degrees in physics. Four graduates have been finalists for the Apker award for undergraduate research, and one of them won it. The department has produced four Rhodes scholars: B. Gale Dick, 1951; Raymond Mjolsness, 1953; Patrick Call, 1971; Douglas Holmgren, 1976.

More significant in the long run, however, is the consistent number of graduates who routinely advance further in physics and a variety of collateral fields: astrophysics, biophysics, geophysics, computer science, and engineering, as well as the history of science, medicine, and law.

What ultimately in their experience as they pass through the physics department is responsible for the success of these graduates?

"There is no single answer," says Nicholas Wheeler, "and the reasons change over the years." Wheeler points out that Tony Knowlton, who contributed to setting the original tone of the department was "very serious, a critical thinker who pushed students to find the most they could produce. Also," adds Wheeler, "it helps that here students find themselves among a fairly sizable population of people who also take physics seriously, as does the faculty."

"Reed students start off unusual people," comments John Essick, "and they stay that way after they graduate. I’d like to say that the college is entirely responsible for their success, but we attract a certain kind of student, very academically oriented and self-directed, who generally know what they want from their education–although, of course, some flounder and leave."

"I hope part of it is that we foster cooperation rather than competition among the students," says Mary James.

"Our general mindset is to get students to think broadly and systematically," Robert Reynolds comments. "We treat students with respect, and, based on good intellectual capacity and strong interests, they will go anywhere we take them.

"In the 37 years I’ve been here, I’ve been (negatively) surprised by a student’s attitude exactly once, when someone complained because the introduction to a text we used said it had been written for graduate students. I remember it so clearly because it was such an atypical attitude."

David Griffiths agrees that students’ attitudes are key. "I’ve seen students as bright as those at Reed in other schools," Griffiths says, "but students here are overwhelmingly the most committed. They are serious. Not only do we not have football and fraternities, but the center of social activity–even at 2 AM–is the library. "Reed is probably not the best place for the student who will win the Nobel Prize," he adds, "but it is very good at turning a pretty good student into an outstanding one."

The Reed Physics Department
The Era of Experimentalists: 1911-1963
The Era of Theoretical Physics: 1963-1897
Achieving Balance: 1987-Present
Academic Structure and Issues
Junior Qual
Senior Thesis
The Role of Research and the Integration of Research and Teaching
The Curriculum
Relations with Students
Teaching Style
Back to Science at Reed Reviews

Reed College 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd., Portland, OR 97202-8199 Phone 503-771-8201 Fax 503-777-7769 Link to Reed Home