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Academic Structure and Issues–The Curriculum

Change 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 faculty’s 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.

The 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 Wheeler’s 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.

How 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."

"The 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."

More 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, we’re finding that the high school preparation of our students is better in this regard, too. For about the last 10 years, we’ve had no need to offer math tutorials."

In 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 1970s.

By 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.

Also 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 after 1991.

Computers 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.

In 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.

Graduate 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 school’s commitment to the Apple company. "For every one job out there in MacIntoshes," he says, "there are three in PCs."

Introductory 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).

In 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 well.

More 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.

Starting 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).

Meanwhile, 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.

"We 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 couldn’t 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."

David Griffiths acknowledges that students bring a wide range of preparation to Physics 100. "I’d break it into two sections by degree of preparation," he says. "But other than that I thinks the class functions well."

Faculty 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. It’s a big jump for them that the department is just beginning to recognize. It’s a serious need." John Essick is concerned that students only receive one-half credit for the Jr Lab. "It’s a lot of work for that," he says. "Thermal physics really should be required," says David Griffiths, "but given the students’ loads, we can’t. The second semester of Classical Mechanics should be advertised as varying as much as it does from year to year."

Only 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 don’t feel that my advisors and professors made this clear enough to me."

"Specific examples: I was allowed to graduate with only one semester in quantum mechanics out of a low level textbook… and without taking a single course in statistical mechanics or condensed matter/solid state physics–in 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….

"Although Nick Wheeler’s 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…

"Partly 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."

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
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