Less is more in new introductory physics course

When students showed up last year for the first day of “Modern Physical Measurement” — the introductory physics lab course — they were asked to perform an experiment on geometrical optics. Every week thereafter, they had to write full lab reports, often in addition to weekly assignments on error analysis.

But students enrolled in this semester’s course spent their first class plucking a wire and measuring its vibrations. They will not be required to write even one full lab report for the class, physics professor Stephen Irons said.

In the first step in a major departmental overhaul, the Physics Department has made a number of substantial changes to the introductory lab course, which is required of all physics majors.

Inspired by the current Yale College academic review, the department formed the Committee on the Undergraduate Program, also known as COUP, last spring. The committee, charged with evaluating the department, conducted an extensive review of the introductory physics lab curriculum over the summer.

“A lot of us had come to the conclusion that it would be timely,” COUP chairman Tom Appelquist said. “I don’t think there’s actually been an in-depth look at the program in the 25 years I’ve been here.”

The committee has a number of long-term goals including improving physics classes for nonmajors, increasing the number of female students in physics classes, and providing more practical laboratory experience. And as the number of physics majors has decreased in recent years, Applequist said the department is trying to attract more majors.

But Appelquist said the committee is trying to produce short-term results while discussing long-term goals as well.



A cross to bear

Irons, a member of the COUP subcommittee in charge of reviewing the lab curriculum, said changing the general perception of Yale physics is necessary if the department wants to attract more majors.

“We wanted to address the perception that it’s very difficult and a lot of work,” Irons said. “Physics has that as a cross to bear in general, but it’s not necessarily true.”

Irons said there was anecdotal evidence suggesting that students were not majoring in physics because they did not want to take the labs. Four semesters of physics labs — Physics 205, 206, 381 and 382 — are required for the major.

Irons said the subcommittee decided to focus on changing Physics 205 because it is the first lab experience for most students.

“If they have a good experience with 205, maybe they will stick around for the major,” he said.

Students agreed that changes needed to be made to the lab curriculum.

“From what I heard, 205 had the worst reputation of probably any class at Yale,” said Sam Gralla ’05, a mathematics and physics major.

Irons said the class’ bad reputation can be attributed primarily to the heavy workload involved.

“It was ridiculous that it was half a credit,” physics major Magdalena Slosar ’03 said. “It was a lot more work than that. The number of hours spent on the labs outside of class was ridiculous.”



Doing more by doing less

The committee decided that students were spending too much time writing reports and analyzing their measurements and not enough time developing practical lab skills. As a result, COUP’s subcommittee on labs decided to eliminate full lab reports and reduce error analysis.

“‘Doing more by doing less,’ is sort of the philosophy,” Irons said. “We’re covering less but covering it in more depth and focusing on topics that will be more relevant.”

Gralla, who is currently enrolled in Physics 205, said the course was unexpectedly easy during the first few weeks.

“But I think they realized it was too easy and are trying to make it a little more difficult now,” he said.

Slosar, who is taking Physics 381, said she agrees with the “less is more” philosophy.

“It helps you focus on what you’re actually doing in lab, and not on the report,” Slosar said.



Fix the wiring

But Sean Barrett, the director of undergraduate studies for physics, said he wants to make sure the new class actually teaches students better, not just makes their lives easier.

“It doesn’t do us any good to have twice as many majors who know half as much,” he said.

In addition to easing up on out-of-class demands, changes were targeted at making the labs more relevant and contemporary, and included updating equipment and changing the emphasis on certain topics. Barrett said he wants the labs to prepare students for work in real research labs.

“Sometimes the gap between what people learn from introductory classes and what people actually do in everyday science is huge,” Barrett said. “What we’d like is everyone who graduates from Yale physics to be able to fix the wiring in their house and not say, ‘I know, in principle, how a light bulb works, but I’m scared to actually touch the circuit.'”

However, these curriculum changes are just as experimental as the labs themselves, Barrett said.

“The real test will be five years from now,” he said. “If we have minus-five physics majors, we’ll know it was a bad experiment.”

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