Recent Course Syllabi
Here are the syllabi from some of my recent courses taught at Carleton. Although I tend to use the same outline for each syllabus, every course has particular needs that lead to differences in assignments and how grades are determined. (That's probably the most interesting variation between syllabi, I think.)
- Introduction to Astronomy (Fall 2011)
- Introduction to Astronomy is taught for non-science majors
(in this iteration, the majority of the class was new freshmen,
in fact). The goals for the class are to learn what science is
(and is not), how to use the scientific method to answer
questions about the natural world, and how to write with data.
Of course, I also wanted them to learn something about the
planets, but that was, for me, secondary.
Part of how I approached this class, then, was to use a variety of writing assignments (three papers and a wiki assignment) as well as a lot of in-class group-work. Students also had to pick a research question about some movement in the sky that they could observe, figure out how to answer their question with their own observations, and then execute their plan. The final result was short research papers and either a 5-minute talk or a poster during the final exam period (in lieu of an exam). You can find many of the activities on the activities page and the project and papers on the page.
- Revolution in Physics
- Revolutions in Physics is a course aimed at non-science majors as well. (In fact, science majors are explicitly barred from registering.) My goals here were similar to Intro Astronomy above, except this class focused more on the historical development of physics and astronomy. The major theme of the class was that science develops in conjunction with philosophy, art, and other areas, each of them building on the others. Students had to write two papers on topics relevant to one of the four units (Greeks/Romans, Renaissance, Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics) as well as an op-ed piece early in the term. The finals were group talks on a revolution in physics that was not covered in the class with each group getting chose their own topics. (Results ranged from Maxwell's E&M to Chaos Theory to the Big Bang.)
- Gravity and the Cosmos (Introductory Physics)
- Gravity and the Cosmos is a 5-week (half-term) introductory
physics class that's nearly always followed by Relativity and
Particles. Gravity and the Cosmos is aimed at students who have
had strong physics backgrounds in high school (or in some cases,
particularly strong math) and are interested in being physics
majors. The material covered is the same as our Newtonian
Mechanics course, but it's taught in the context of gravity,
orbits, cosmology, and other related topics. The subject matter
permits a deeper investigation of mechanics in an applied
context, making it more fun than a more traditional course that
is relatively abstract. The class is also lab-based, although
most labs end up being on computers since we can't really do a
lot of gravity experiments in the intro lab. (The Dean's office
forbade us from creating a miniature black hole, apparently.)
I taught this class more traditionally (no PowerPoint notes and lecturing at the board), but spending around 1/4 of each class in group discussions. I tried to givem them a sample problem or topic to discuss, although some days I let them come up with their own topics. (One day I handed out this XKCD comic and had them first verify the result and then estimate the error using propogation of error techniques we covered in lab the previous week. I put a lot more stock in exams in this instance than in other classes, as you may notice, given that my students would be using this material in the next class that they took.
- Environmental Physics
- Environmental Physics is another 5-week intro physics class. This one is in the second five weeks (so it followed mechanics) and covers topics related to energy and the environment. The people who take this class are generally science majors (although we have a few artists in the class, for example), but not physics majors. The class clearly has an applied goal, but also covers a lot of fun material not often covered in intro classes at Carleton. (Topcis included E&M and Circuits and thermodynamics, neither of which our physics majors see until at least sophomore year, really.) For this class, I gave them a mid-term exam to wrap up the basic physics material, but for the their final I broke them into groups and had them write an investment strategy for three alternative energy options which I selected. Students had to consider things like the likliehood that the particular generation mechanism would work, how much power it could produce, cost, and other real-world considerations. It was quite a lot of fun and I think that they learn a lot from it.
- Analytical and Computational Mechanics
- This was essentially one class divided into two five-week
segments. Although the first five weeks were nominally about
analytical classical mechanics and the second about
computational methods, in reality, the two topics were
interwoven too much to separate. The class is typically taken
by sophomore prospective majors and is a gateway to the major.
I was fortunate in that about half of the class had taken
Gravity and the Cosmos from me the previous year, so we started
out with a pretty good working relationship. I was also pleased
that most of the class went on to declare majors in physics, so
I apparently didn't scare them too much.
The class is a return to mechanics, but treated in a lot more depth and introducing things like Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics as well as computational methods for solving intractable problems. At least, that's the nominal material. In reality, I came to see the course to be as much about learning to cope with messy problems and how to approximate and simplify situations so that you can at least give some idea of what to expect in a given physical situation. The final project for the class was to build and analyze (as a group) a trebuchet (or other catapult, really). I inherited the project from Bill Titus, although I briefly flirted with dropping it in favor of a solar system dynamics problem. However, I realized that by physically building the trebuchets and analyzing the motion, they would be forced to confront a physical situation that they could readily see and then see how messy the problem was.
I am really sad I only got to teach this class once. The material was, of course, fantastic, but even more wondeful was watching the students learn to deal with uncertainty and approximations. They weren't total physicists when we were done, but I think they took some significant steps to getting there. Sadly, I didn't get to implement some of my ideas and I've learned a bunch of things teaching the class once that I'd love to fix. Someday!