Physics Learning Objectives and Assessments
The Physics program at Penn State Behrend has three primary learning outcomes for students who complete our degree program. Our outcomes include a mastery of the following:
- Domain knowledge in the fields of physics
- Research methods and laboratory skills, and
- Communication skills, including technical and informal communication.
We require our students to attain minimum standards of physics knowledge in our introductory and upper-level classes, as demonstrated by solving problems that require an understanding and application of physics concepts. We also require our students to attain sufficient knowledge of other sciences and mathematics that support our upper-level courses and their application to our world.
We provide opportunities for original research experience—both experimental and theoretical—while modeling accepted research methods, laboratory skills, and ethics of the scientific community. This mainly occurs in our introductory and upper-level classes, but we also require our students to participate in other investigatory activities, i.e., chemistry labs. We also have a research or internship requirement where our students participate in supervised research with physics faculty or have an integrated experience in an industry setting supervised by physics faculty.
Students are required to be able to communicate technical information in formal and informal settings and complete courses in written and oral communication in their general education requirements. We build on those courses with our physics curriculum, cumulating with our research requirement. Communication skills are required throughout the process, from the literature search to the preliminary plan for investigation to the technical write-up of results.
Additionally, we are in the process of requiring all physics students who complete research under our supervision to disseminate their results to the scientific community in some form, such as a presentation at the Penn State Behrend-Sigma Xi Undergraduate Research Conference or another professional conference.
The following courses will be used to monitor students’ performance as compared to the program objectives.
- Physics 211 Mechanics
Physics 211 is taken by mainly engineering, chemistry, and physics majors. It is the first required physics course taken by our majors and is the foundation upon which our curricula is built. We use the SCALE-UP (Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs) teaching method, which uses student-centered activities to foster conceptual understandings. Our students work in groups of three, with three groups sharing a round table. Each group has its own set of lab equipment and a computer. Communication skills are fostered here, both informally within the group and formally with presentations to the class and the instructor. Research methods and laboratory skills are introduced in this class with the various hands-on activities involving equipment and with data analysis of videotaped scenarios of bouncing balls or collisions. Lastly, we assess students’ application of physics concepts with real and videotaped examples of bodies in motion.
- Physics 420 Thermodynamics
Physics 420 introduces the important principles of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. These are, of course, major fields in physics. However, the ideas in statistics and probabilities that students are introduced to are essential in all their future endeavors, whether in statistics or another field. In addition, a goal is to give the students a feel for the beauty and power of the mathematics they encounter in physics and the power of statistical mechanics and thermodynamics to probe questions in varied fields of physics, chemistry, and biology.
Physics 420 is an example of one of our upper-level physics courses taken primarily by our physics majors. We require our students to come into the class with physics knowledge from our introductory classes and their mathematics classes. They must blend this content to help their understanding of the role of statistics and probability theory in the underlying concepts of statistical mechanics. The class utilizes accepted statistical theories and methods to develop understandings of scenarios described by physics, chemistry, and biology. Lastly, the students are required to communicate to the professor, using accepted technical language, their findings on homework assignments and exams.
- PHYBD 421W Research Methods
PHYBD 421W is Behrend’s writing-intensive physics course, which is required for all physics majors. One can think of it as one of our capstone courses, where students have sufficient domain knowledge in physics to replicate and appreciate a sampling of classic experiments. A substantial portion of this class is independent of the group; the class meets regularly three times a week at the start of the semester and then meets less often as the students work individually on their projects. The students work on three experiments, chosen with the instructor’s approval, that are often of interest to the student or the student’s field of interest. Each experiment has five components: the projected schedule, the weekly progress reports, the research paper, reviewing other research papers, and the rewritten paper.
The students must have the knowledge and content background in each of their three experiments. This is often assessed through communication with the instructor. Accepted research methods and standard laboratory skills are also needed to plan and run the experiments, again evaluated by the instructor in the weekly progress reports. Our students need informal communication skills to work with the instructor and our Physics and Chemistry Technician, along with the technical communication skills needed for their research paper. Additionally, our students use a peer-review method of assessing each other’s papers, which gives them a practical example of the difference between inter-student communication and the required technical communication skills needed in research or industry applications.