The Final Report of a Higher Education Working Party
set up jointly by
The Institute of Physics
The Standing Conference of Physics Professors
The Committee of Heads of Physics in Polytechnics
The Future Pattern of Higher Education in Physics
In our previous report (reproduced as Annex 1 to this report), we recommended that the content of Single Honours Physics degree courses should be substantially reduced, to include about two-thirds of the amount of material now covered, but taught in such a way that the students achieved a markedly fuller understanding of the subject, and had more opportunity to develop the relevant skills. As an essential complement to this, departments should offer a one-year MPhys course which would build on these revised three-year courses, and provide a firm basis for more advanced professional work in physics. The MPhys would be comparable in standing to European first degree qualifications.
In the present report, we propose a list of topics for inclusion in three-year Single Honours courses, and discuss the ways in which lectures and other forms of teaching could be improved in order to give students a greater understanding of the subject than they attain at present.
The problem, and the proposed solution 2
The aims of a reduced-content BSc course 4
The time available . 5
A suggested list of topics 6
Laboratory work 8
Electronics and computing 9
Other teaching 9
The MPhys 12
Annex 1: The first report 16
Annex 2: A suggested list of topics 22
Annex 3: One possible non-traditional course structure 27
The Future Pattern of Higher Education in Physics
“The mind does not need filling up like a vessel, but merely kindling like fuel” (Plutarch, de Audiendo)
1. This is the second and final report of a working party set up jointly by the Institute of Physics, the Standing Conference of Physics Professors and the Committee of Heads of Physics in Polytechnics in November 1989 to consider the future pattern of degree courses in physics. The members of the working party, who include representatives from the universities, the polytechnics, the schools and industry, are listed on p.21. We have held eight full meetings, and the university and polytechnic members have held a further three meetings to work out the details of the syllabus suggested in para.19 below.
2. It has been clear to all of us, as it was to our parent bodies, that our task was an urgent one. The many rapid changes now taking place in the schools mean that students entering higher education (HE) in physics in future will have had a preparation which differs substantially, both in physics and in mathematics, from that of previous generations of students. Many physicists in HE were alerted to the scale of these changes by the conference on the theme “Physics at 18+” organised by the IOP in March 1989(1), and by the Report of the 16–19 Physics Course Working Party, published by the IOP in January 1990(2), to which the present working party’s reports can be regarded as a sequel. There have also been a number of informative articles in Physics World, including an influential Editorial in September 1989(3) which stressed the need for those working in HE to make a collective response to the impending changes.
3. Quite apart from the changes taking place in the schools, the advent of the single European market in 1992 means that in future we shall need to consider, much more closely than in the past, the comparability of our own degree qualifications with those awarded in Europe and elsewhere. In virtually all countries outside England, Wales and N Ireland, a first degree course lasts four or five years. In the past, we have been able to argue that our three-year courses reached a comparable level, because they were based on a sixth-form education which made up in depth for its admitted lack of breadth. It is clear that we shall no longer be able to argue in this way in future: there will be a welcome increase in the breadth of sixth-form studies, but this will inevitably be accompanied by a correspondingly reduced coverage of individual subjects such as physics.
4. These changes in the schools and in Europe merely intensify a problem which has been building up for many years: the overloading of our degree courses by factual material, to the detriment of real understanding. In the process, other educational aims may be suffering too. A degree in physics has always been regarded as an excellent general education, and physics graduates go into a wide variety of subsequent careers, many of them outside physics. Whatever their ultimate destination, our students need to develop the ability to think critically and to communicate effectively, both orally and in writing, and we must give them the time and opportunity to develop these skills.
5. The task of the working party took on an additional urgency because university physics departments were being required to submit, by June 1990, their planning statements for the years 1991/2 to 1994/5. Since our proposals might well have some bearing on these statements, we were urged by the SCPP to produce a report as quickly as possible, and we accordingly produced a first report in May 1990(4), setting out our main recommendations. For completeness, a copy of that report is attached as Annex 1.
6. In the following paragraphs, we first set out the problem and briefly summarise and extend the arguments and the conclusions of the first report. We then go on to consider the details of the reduced-content Honours course that we propose.
The problem, and the proposed solution
7. Physics has grown enormously in the past 50 years. Such topics as nuclear energy, transistors, digital electronics, computational physics, quarks, lasers, holography, nuclear magnetic resonance, W and Z particles, and high-temperature superconductivity did not exist 50 years ago, but now all these topics and many other recent developments claim a place in an already crowded syllabus. Those responsible for undergraduate teaching are constantly having to resist pressures to include more and more, and they are all familiar with the cry “But we can’t possibly send people out who haven’t heard about ....” this or that new advance. As a result of these pressures, lectures have become largely a crowded account of the theory of the subject, and little else. We try to teach a good deal more than the average student can be expected to absorb and understand, and in consequence even reasonably good students absorb and understand rather little. There are of course always some first- class students who are able to take in practically everything, but they are in a minority, and anyone who has marked examination scripts or conducted oral examinations of final-year students will be well aware that most students have really grasped only a fraction of what they have been taught. Physics is not alone in this, of course; other sciences have similar problems, but they are particularly acute in the “linear” sciences such as physics and chemistry, where recent advances cannot really be understood without a sound grasp of basic concepts.
8. These problems are by no means new, but they will be made much more serious by the changes now taking place in the schools. Our students will in future be coming to us with a less extensive grounding in physics, and it will be quite unrealistic to expect them to master a range of material which is already too much for many of our present students. We accordingly recommended, in our first report, that as from the 1993 student intake all departments of physics should reduce the content of their Single Honours Physics degree courses substantially, so that as a rough guide they aim to teach in three years about two-thirds of the amount of material they now cover, but in such a way that the students achieve a markedly fuller understanding of the subject than they do at present. We believe that if this is done, students will find their courses a good deal more valuable and interesting than they do now, and certainly no less intellectually demanding.
9. It has been suggested several times in the past year that an Honours degree might somehow be compressed into less than three years(5,6,7), but we have to say at once that in a linear subject such as physics, we simply do not believe that students could possibly absorb the range of new concepts they have to absorb, starting as they will be from a broader base, in less than three years. Coming at a time when we are about to move closer to Europe, where a first degree takes at least four years, the proposal is surprising, to say the least.
10. Our future students will not only have less physics; they will also have less mathematics than they have now, and this is equally worrying, because a reasonable mathematical competence is essential to a physicist. We recognise that mathematics A-level and AS-level courses must try to satisfy the needs of future economists and social scientists as well as those of future mathematicians, scientists and technologists, as was noted in the Cockcroft Report in 1982(8), but we are increasingly concerned by present trends. We accordingly recommended in our first report that SEAC should be asked as a matter of urgency to ensure that syllabuses in mathematics give greater recognition to the needs of future scientists, technologists and engineers.
11. Lastly, as an essential complement to the changes proposed in para.8, we recommended that departments should offer a one-year MPhys course which would build on these revised three-year courses, and provide a firm basis for more advanced professional work in physics, either in academic research or elsewhere. The MPhys would be comparable to European qualifications such as the German Diplom. It might be taken either as the fourth year of an undergraduate course(9), like the MEng, or at the start of a PhD course, which would then extend for a further three years; or it could be taken at any time~after a BSc, as an additional postgraduate qualification. It could well be taught in modular fashion, to make it easier to take in mid-career.
12. Since our first report was completed, we have noted with interest that the CVCP has reached very similar conclusions(10); and it is reported that a forthcoming ACOST report is also likely to make similar recommendations(11). There is thus, we believe, general agreement on the need to move in the direction we propose.
13. The recommendations made above relate to the situation in England, Wales and N Ireland. The educational system in Scotland is somewhat different: students commonly move from school into HE a year earlier than elsewhere in the UK, and the structure of both school and higher education is somewhat broader, so that four years of study are required to reach an Honours degree level equivalent to that reached after three years elsewhere in the UK. But the arguments for reducing the content of the Single Honours course apply just as strongly in Scotland as elsewhere, and in particular, the changes taking place in the school curricula in Scotland, though less radical than elsewhere, will again lead to students being less well prepared than in the past. We therefore recommend that in Scotland, as elsewhere, the content of the (four-year) Honours degree course should be substantially reduced, and that, as elsewhere, it should be followed by a one-year MPhys or MSc course for those who wish to take it.
The aims of a reduced-content BSc course
14. The CNAA Handbook for 1989 summarises the aims of all undergraduate courses as follows:
...the development of students’ intellectual and imaginative powers; their understanding and judgement; their problem solving skills; their ability to communicate; their ability to see relationships within what they have learnt and to perceive their field of study in a broader perspective. Each student’s programme of study must stimulate an enquiring, analytical and creative approach encouraging independent judgement and critical self-awareness.
That is an ambitious list of aims, but we would not dissent from it. As far as physics courses are concerned, we have had useful comments from a number of IOP Corporate Affiliate members, one of whom lists the following as desirable qualities in a physics graduate:
1. Curiosity, wonder, excitement and a feel for natural phenomena and an abiding dedication to their explanation and application.
2. The ability to learn, digest and apply new knowledge and know where and how to find it or acquire it.
3. The ability to think logically, analyse problems and phenomena and devise explanations or solutions.
4. The ability to think phenomenologically and construct and manipulate mental pictures or models of reality in order to predict and explain new situations from existing knowledge and apply them usefully.
5. The ability to convert such phenomenological models into realistic mathematical or computer models and to test and critically to analyse these against experimental observations and data.
6. The ability clearly to communicate concepts, discoveries and how they might be applied.
7. A sympathy with measurement methods and a careful approach to experimental accuracy.
We accept these, too, as appropriate aims, and we believe that the revised courses that we propose should come closer to attaining them than our present courses do. We stressed in our first report that although we propose a reduction in the factual content of Honours degree courses, this implied no reduction in the intellectual content: the students would be expected to achieve a markedly greater understanding of the material than many of them do at present. In considering the aims of such a course, we have also found ourselves very much in agreement with the excellent report entitled “Quality in Engineering Education”(12) produced by the Engineering Professors’ Conference in July 1989. Our engineering colleagues face much the same problems that we face, and much of what they have to say about HE in engineering is equally relevant to HE in physics, and indeed in the sciences generally.
15. We distinguish, as does the EPC report, between skills (either manual or intellectual), learnt mainly through practice, knowledge, ie memorised information, and understanding, which leads on to, and makes possible, creative ability – the ability to solve new and unfamiliar problems. To a physicist (as to an engineer) understanding and creative ability are by far the most important of these qualities, but they are also the most difficult to impart. Good lecture courses provide an efficient way of imparting knowledge, and can be very stimulating, but they are not necessarily the best way of imparting understanding. In proposing a new course structure, we shall be particularly concerned with ways of imparting – and of assessing – understanding.
16. The EPC report also distinguishes between various kinds of student: for example, between those who learn most easily if first presented with a broad “overview” of the subject as a whole and those who prefer a serial approach from the outset. In physics, as in engineering, we need to bear in mind the fact that different students learn in different ways. They may also have different aims: some will be committed physicists, intent on a career in physics, while others will be taking physics degrees for their general educational value, and will go on thereafter to a variety of different careers. But both groups need to acquire the ability to think logically, to use mathematical modelling techniques, and to communicate effectively, both orally and in writing. It is these abilities which make a physics graduate so useful in so many different fields. Of course, we cannot expect every student to acquire fully the rather sophisticated creative ability that is characteristic of a good professional physicist, but we must aim to give every student the opportunity to learn enough of those methods of physics that are of value in a wider context.
The time available
17. How much teaching time do we have available, within the three years? A typical Honours Physics course at present involves something like the following load of lectures, laboratory work (including project work) and other teaching (including tutorials, problems classes’ etc).
Hours per week: Lectures Laboratory etc Other teaching
First Year: 10 5 3
Second Year: 10 8 2
Third Year: 8 12 1
(See eg Chambers(13): the pattern has not changed greatly since that survey was made). In the first year, some of the lectures are on mathematics, and are usually given by the maths department, and some may be on other subjects. In the third year, some or all of the lectures are on optional subjects: each student is free to make a choice of options from those on offer.
18. Though less crowded than a typical engineering course, this timetable is far more crowded than that of a typical Arts student. Physics students necessarily spend most of their time on the immediate tasks: going through their lecture notes, writing up laboratory reports, tackling problem sheets, working through exercises in electronics and computing, and so on. They have little or no time to spare for thinking about the subject, puzzling over difficulties, writing extended essays, or even for reading the recommended texts, let alone reading more widely. In other words, they are so busy trying to assimilate information that they have no time to pause and understand it. That is why we propose that the course content should be reduced by about a third, and the load of formal lectures also reduced (though not by the same amount) – to give the students time to think, and to understand. We should say at once that our proposals will not reduce the load on the teaching staff. This load will if anything be somewhat increased, because the reduced load of formal lectures will be more than offset by the increased amount of small-group teaching that will be needed.
A suggested list of topics
19. In Annex 2, we show a suggested list of topics for a reduced-content Single Honours Physics course. We must emphasise at once that this list is not meant to be prescriptive, and moreover that it is no more than a set of ingredients. Although these ingredients are for convenience listed in Annex 2 under the “traditional” headings, they could equally well be arranged in a variety of other ways, and for example Annex 3 shows in outline one possible arrangement, very different from the traditional one, which might be an attractive alternative. It goes without saying that whatever teaching pattern is adopted, it will need to include material which is new and stimulating to the students in all three years, if it is to retain their interest.
20. We have included in Annex 2 a number of topics which are at present covered at A- level, but which may not be in future. Departments will need to monitor the prior knowledge that students have when they enter HE (as many departments already do), and not assume too much. In particular, they will need to check their students’ mathematical competence, and design their courses to allow time for the necessary mathematics to be taught before it is used in the physics lectures. One attractive possibility is to spend some of the first term’s physics lectures, while the mathematics is being taught, on a non-mathematical “overview” course which seeks to give a preview of the whole subject, and of the way in which its parts fit together. This would certainly help many students to appreciate the coherence of the subject more fully, and enable them later to see more easily the relationship between one lecture course and another.
21. Not surprisingly, the list of topics in Annex 2 does not differ greatly from the “core” element of many present courses. The essential difference is that in most present courses, students also take a range of options, often occupying the whole of the third year, whereas we believe that the material in Annex 2 will take up most of the time available in a three-year course, if the students are to understand it properly, only leaving room for one or two 20-lecture options at most. Even so, time is not going to permit a full mathematical treatment of all the topics in Annex 2. It will sometimes be necessary simply to quote a result, with only a brief qualitative indication of its derivation, and we have tried to indicate some of the places where this might happen. At these points, the brightest students will want to follow up the details for themselves, and they should be encouraged to do so; but there is no need to take the whole class through them. Indeed, there may be positive advantages in not doing so.
22. Too often at present, we plod through masses of algebra at the expense of the physics. As a result, students may for example be word-perfect in the derivation of the Bose–Einstein and Fermi–Dirac distribution functions using the Grand Canonical Ensemble, but quite unable to sketch the B–E function or to explain why it differs from the classical distribution function, or why the difference is sometimes inappreciable. Again, they may be able to go all the way through the solution of the Schrödinger equation for the Hydrogen atom, and yet be quite unable to explain why the choice of coordinates does not limit the orientation of a p-state, or even to sketch a p-state wave function. In other words, they have learnt, parrot-fashion, reams of algebra, but they have been given very little understanding of the physics. This is not education. It would often be far better simply to quote the mathematical results without derivation, and spend longer in discussing their physical consequences. Of course this must not happen all the time: students must still be made aware of the power of the mathematical tools of physics, and shown how to use them – but not to the point where mathematical detail leaves no room for physical insight. A good many of the detailed mathematical derivations could well be postponed to the fourth-year MPhys course, where their power could be more fully exploited.
23. In the revised courses, we could also restore to our lectures some of the lecture demonstrations that have been dropped over the years, together with some discussion of the historical development of the subject, and some discussion of the experimental details of classic experiments. How many students know, for example, how the concept of kinetic energy arose, or why Millikan got the wrong value for the electronic charge? Once again, if an Honours Physics course is to be in any sense an education, rather than simply a narrow vocational training, students should surely have time to hear about these things. And most of them, particularly in the future, are likely to find such courses a good deal more attractive, and to respond with more enthusiasm.
24. We suggested in para.21 that if the “mainstream” material in Annex 2 is to be taught properly, it will leave little time for options. Many departments at present offer a very wide range of options, sometimes in the first and second years as well as in the final year, and these are generally held to be an important and attractive part of the course. We would not dispute this. Indeed, bearing in mind the needs of students who see their physics degree as a general education, the range of options offered could be broadened to include for example language courses, and courses on the environmental, social and ethical issues arising out of the development and application of physics. But we believe that most of the virtues of the option system will be retained even if each student can take only two options, and that if the mainstream material is to be taught properly, it will leave very little room for more. On the other hand, a certain amount of the material now taught in options could well be woven into the teaching of the mainstream material, in the form of illustrative applications of that material, and this would make the mainstream courses themselves more varied and interesting.
25. If departments nevertheless feel that more room is needed for options, it can be generated in one of two ways: either by dropping some mainstream topics entirely (or perhaps transferring them to one of the options), or by resorting more often to the process of simply quoting results rather than deriving them. Neither of these steps can be taken too far, though. The material listed in Annex 2 represents about the minimum that we would want to see in a Single Honours Physics course, and we would be reluctant to see any appreciable fraction of it omitted. And the process of quoting results must emphatically not be taken to the point where nothing is given a proper mathematical derivation, as we have already stressed in para.22.
26. The same remarks apply to courses involving a minor subject (“Physics with … “ courses), and to Joint Honours (“Physics and … “ courses). Such courses already cover, of necessity, only part of the Single Honours Physics course, and they will continue to do so, but the choice of topics to drop must be made with care and discrimination. The options offered should again bear in mind the needs of students for whom the course is a general education rather than a vocational one.
27. It is not our task to suggest textbooks, but we note that the kind of course we are proposing, designed for students with rather less physics and mathematics background than in the past, bears some resemblance to American courses. Indeed, a number of UK physics departments have recently begun to use one or other of the large American “all of physics” texts as the recommended text for the early part of their courses. These have obvious attractions, but they also have their disadvantages: we note that some American HE teachers have been strongly critical of the routine predictability of these texts(14,15).
28. So much for formal lecture courses. But there is a danger that if we confine ourselves to these, students will miss out on the exciting things that may be happening now. We tend to assume that they all read the New Scientist, or Physics World, and some of them do, but many of them have never heard of the 3K background radiation, for example, or the missing solar neutrinos, or quasi-crystals, and many of them know very little about high-temperature superconductivity, or the new definition of the ohm, or the brief excitement over cold fusion. We suggest that in addition to the formal lectures, there should be a series of occasional lectures on topics of general interest, to keep students aware of what is going on in the world outside, and also to tell them something about the department’s own research activities. Departments may or may not wish to examine students on these lectures; one hopes that even if they do not, the students will nevertheless come to them out of interest.
29. We recognise that the greater emphasis on practical work in GCSE and in the National Curriculum should give our incoming students greater experimental skills, and this is very welcome. Nevertheless, we believe that there ought to be no reduction in the time spent on laboratory work. Coping with the complexities of the real world in the laboratory forms an important part of the education of a physicist, and it requires an attitude of mind that takes time to learn. Experimental skills are important to the practising physicist, and are rightly valued by employers. Project work in particular gives the student invaluable experience of physics in action, and usually arouses great enthusiasm. We recognise that projects are demanding in staff time; nevertheless, we recommend that some project work should be included in all three years, with a major project in the third year. This should if possible be a genuine piece of research, to which the answer is not known beforehand. In the first and second years, that would be impracticable, but many of the benefits of project work can still be retained even if the same list of project topics is used each year, so long as the problems are new to the students. Project work can also serve as a very useful vehicle for the development of oral and written communication skills.
30. The normal set-experiment laboratory work in the first and second years should be consciously designed to develop a specific set of skills(16). Students should meet a range of experimental techniques, including the techniques of data handling and error analysis, and they should be encouraged to develop critical awareness – that is, the ability to guard effectively against systematic errors, and to extract from a set of experimental data all the information it contains. One of the aims of the laboratory work should be to prepare the students for their major experimental projects in the final year. Students who have a strong inclination towards theoretical physics, and an aptitude for it, should be allowed to choose a theoretical project in the final year, but they should not be able to opt out of laboratory work in the earlier years: even a theoretician needs to have some appreciation of the pitfalls of experimental work, in order to assess the reliability of experimental results.
Electronics and Computing
31. All departments nowadays teach some electronics and some computing, not only because they are both essential tools to the physicist, but because many of our graduates in fact go on to become either electronic engineers or computer scientists. Most departments find some difficulty in this teaching, because some of the incoming students know nothing about either electronics or computing, some know a lot about one or the other, and a few know a lot about both. To cope with this problem, many departments either divide the class into beginners and others, or adopt a self-paced learning approach of some sort. In this way, the whole class can be brought up to a basic level of competence in a reasonably short time, by a combination of lectures and laboratory work. Beyond this, it would be inappropriate in a Single Honours Physics course to devote too much time to these topics, and we suggest that their teaching should be integrated with the physics teaching: the problem sheets can include problems which involve some computing, and the laboratory can include experiments which involve some electronics design and construction. For those who wish to go further within a Single Honours course, third-year options can be offered.
32. If the style and content of the lectures change in the ways we have suggested, we believe the students will as a result understand the subject significantly better. But they must play an active rather than merely a passive part in the learning process, and the most effective ways of helping them towards a real understanding lie outside the lecture room, in tutorials, in problems classes, and in skill sessions(17,18). If the time spent on lectures is reduced somewhat, as we believe it should be, some of the time released should therefore be spent on these alternative methods of teaching and learning, to try to attain our aim of producing an increased understanding. We believe that the load on the students should not exceed a total of 20 hours per week of lectures, laboratories and other teaching, if they are to have time to read, to digest what they are being taught, and occasionally to relax. Even so, we recognise that the teaching load on the staff will if anything be increased, because these other teaching methods are much more labour-intensive than lectures. It is therefore essential to use the time spent on them as effectively as possible. It will not be spent effectively if departments have not thought out clearly and in some detail what they hope to achieve by this other teaching, and how they hope to achieve it. Departments should recognise that staff will need some training in order to achieve these ends.
33. It is in small-group tutorials, perhaps, that most of us think we really impart understanding rather than merely information. But how successful are we, in fact? In the 1970s, the Nuffield Foundation sponsored a project called the Higher Education Learning Project (Physics), whose findings were published in 1977 in a series of four books, one on individual study, one on practical work, one on students’ reactions to their courses, and one on tutorials. All four are still well worth reading, but the last in particular(17) paints a very sobering picture of what really happens in tutorials. Unless they are carefully thought about beforehand and expertly conducted, they only too easily degenerate into a monologue by the tutor, or a mini-lecture. Given all the other pressures on staff time, it is not surprising that little of it is spent in preparing for tutorials, but they are an extremely labour-intensive form of teaching, and it is really rather wasteful to use them inefficiently. We suggest that there should be a departmental view on the aims of tutorials, and on how best to achieve them, which could then be used as guidelines by individual tutors, and by students too. They too should know what the aims are: the success of a tutorial depends greatly on the extent to which the students have prepared for it themselves.
34. All departments presumably issue problem sheets to their students. In some departments, the students are expected to hand in their answers to their tutor, who marks them and hands them back; in others they are dealt with in a problems class, attended by perhaps 20 or 30 students. This is less labour-intensive, but the tutor no longer has so direct a check on the performance of individual students. Perhaps the best compromise is to use the problems classes to discuss fairly routine exercises on the lecture material, and use the tutorials to discuss more conceptually demanding questions, but again this is a matter on which there should be a departmental view.
35. In skill sessions, as originally devised(18), a group of first-year students tackle, collectively, questions designed to train them in various skills such as making order- of-magnitude estimates, making appropriate approximations in calculations, interpreting graphs and so on. The same approach might be used to give second-year and third-year students experience in tackling “real” physics questions: not the rather artificial questions usually encountered in problem sheets and in examinations, but questions of the kind that practising physicists are constantly having to answer. Many departments include in their examinations a general problems paper, containing questions of this sort, and Thompson(19) has published a collection of such questions, with the appropriate title “Thinking like a Physicist”. Problems papers test understanding and problem-solving ability rather directly, and students usually do rather badly on them, even if they have done well on their other papers. Tutors often spend some of their time in tutorials discussing problems paper questions, in an attempt to show students how to get to grips with them, but skill sessions could do the same thing in a more organised way. By getting groups of five or six students to tackle the questions together, and then compare their findings with those of other groups, skill sessions would give practice in collaboration and communication, as well as providing one of the most direct routes to the encouragement of understanding, and the kind of technical competence that a practising physicist needs.
36. Taken together, tutorials, problems classes and skill sessions should enable us to fulfil many of our aims, if they are properly used in a carefully planned way. Communication skills, for example, can be developed by asking students to write essays and prepare talks for their tutorial groups, and this of course already happens, but often in a rather sporadic fashion. How many essays and talks should each student be asked to prepare? And on what kind of topics – large themes like the expansion of the universe, or a history of the concept of energy, or more manageable topics such as, for example, a critical comparison of the treatment of subject X in textbooks A, B and C, or the use of vector notation? Should tutorials be used to discuss problem sheets, or questions from general problem papers, or should those be left to problems classes and skill Sessions? What other ways can be found of encouraging understanding rather than rote learning? Again, the students of the future will have learnt their physics at school in a much more active, participatory way than in the past, involving more self-directed learning: how can we best build on the enthusiasm this has generated? We need to strengthen links with local schools, to find Out about the new teaching methods used there to motivate students, and to learn from them. For example, should we make more use of learning assignments? The department should have a view on all these matters, and should in particular offer clear guidance to tutors on how best to use tutorial time.
37 It is not always easy to find the best answers to all these questions, and we suggest that the Education Group of the IOP might usefully organise a series of occasional seminars at which representatives from different departments could compare notes and exchange ideas on new ways of teaching.
38. Ultimately, the effectiveness of any course is determined largely by the way the students are assessed at the end of it. If their examinations permit them to gain high marks simply by memorising a set of lecture notes and reproducing the right bits, without actually understanding anything, we shall have been wasting our time and theirs. It has to be said that some examinations do still have something of that quality, particularly those on the more advanced optional courses. Some years ago, Thompson(20) carried out a survey of assessment practices in 47 UK physics departments, and for nine of those departments he analysed the questions (or parts of questions) set in Finals papers into six types. Very roughly, these were (a) descriptive and bookwork parts, (b) familiar problems, (c) unfamiliar problems within a familiar context, (d) what might be called “general problem paper questions”, (e) questions involving critical evaluation, eg of theories or techniques, and (f) essays on general topics. He pointed out that departments seldom have any conscious policy on the kinds of question they set, and he found that his sample of nine departments showed a remarkable range of variation in the proportions of questions of these six different types.
39. Just as departments need to think about what they are aiming to achieve in their tutorials, so they need to think about what they are aiming to achieve in their examinations, and structure them accordingly. If we expect students in future to read around the subject more than they do now, for example, we can encourage this by setting questions which they should be able to answer from their reading. More importantly, if we are to achieve our aim of deepening the students’ understanding, the examinations need to contain more questions of Thompson’s types (c), (d) and (e), and fewer bookwork questions. In a few departments, students are allowed to bring their notes into the examination, which makes it virtually impossible to set questions of the traditional “bookwork plus problem” type; but this can make it difficult for the weaker candidates to gain any marks. More often, departments provide a formula sheet which lists some of the basic formulae relevant to the course concerned, so that students do not feel they have to memorise everything in their notes parrot-fashion, and this may be a better solution. The papers need to be structured so that the ablest candidates are stretched, while at the same time their weaker brethren are not totally crushed. But even for the weaker candidates, the papers should seek to probe understanding as well as factual recall; otherwise we shall have reduced the factual content of our courses under false pretences. The role of external examiners is crucial here: it is their responsibility to ensure that our courses do indeed remain intellectually demanding, and that we are indeed educating our students, and not merely filling them with half-understood facts.
40. We are convinced that the changes proposed above will produce better Honours Physics courses, and graduates better fitted for the world of work. Equally, however, we are convinced that these reduced-content Honours courses will need to be followed for some students by a further one-year MPhys course, for at least four reasons:
(a) as a result of the reduction in content and in specialisation of the BSc course, students who wish to embark on PhD courses in most areas of physics, or who wish to work as professional physicists on advanced projects, will first need to cover additional material;
(b) at the same time, they will also need to develop further their problem-solving abilities and other skills, to the level required of a high-grade professional physicist, and this will often call for more sophisticated mathematical techniques than are used in the BSc course;
(c) nationally, there will in future be an increasing need for highly qualified manpower, particularly in subjects such as physics which to a large extent underpin economic growth; and lastly
(d) comparability with European qualifications will become increasingly important after 1992.
41. Connerade(21) has given a perceptive analysis of European Higher Education systems, and of the impact of the single market. While the UK scores highly in terms of the quality of HE provision in science and engineering, other countries show greater recognition, on the part of industry and society, of the importance of HE in these subjects. Moreover, first degree courses in other countries typically last four or five years, and the level reached is correspondingly higher than in the UK, particularly in the more mathematical parts of the subject and in the thorough treatment of fundamentals. The increasing mobility of students throughout Europe is making these differences more manifest, particularly in subjects such as physics, with its strong international dimension. We must expect the single market to lead to a rough comparability, at least, between the capabilities of graduates from different countries, and our young people will certainly expect their HE courses to lead to qualifications comparable to those elsewhere in Europe. This cannot be achieved on the basis of a three-year degree.
42. The PhD is regarded throughout the world as a token of the achievement of full professional research standing, and PhDs are highly sought after by industry. In this country, a recent survey(22) showed that the entire current output of PhDs falls significantly short of industry’s estimate of its needs, and there is strong competition for them from the USA. At present, our students are expected to reach PhD level only six years after leaving school, but only exceptionally gifted students will be able to do this in future, if the level of our PhD is to remain comparable with that elsewhere. In all other countries, physics students typically embark on their research training at least two years later than in the UK, for example after the DEA in France, the Diplom in Germany or the Laurea in Italy. The MPhys will be essential if we are to provide a comparable broad base of knowledge and understanding on which to build PhD work.
43. The MPhys needs to cover those topics which traditionally appear in the syllabus but which have been omitted from the list in Annex 2, including a deeper discussion of mathematical techniques and of fundamental physics and its applications. The course needs to take students to the frontiers of knowledge in a few areas at least, and to give them some experience of real research through an extended project. Students who have been through such a course will have reached a level comparable to that of a German Diplom, and they will be well equipped to join research and development teams in industry or in Government research laboratories, or to go on to a PhD. Not all students will want or need such a course, and indeed there will be some PhD projects for which it may not be needed. As a rough estimate, we might expect that between 30% and 40% of Honours Physics graduates would go on to take an MPhys, or one of the more specialised courses which already exist and which lead to an MSc.
44. Some MPhys courses might include an introduction to the commercial and managerial aspects of the work of physicists in industry. Good physics graduates are well placed to play a leading part in the multidisciplinary teams increasingly found in industry, but they would be better equipped to do this if they had learnt something about management first. This kind of training is commonly included in MEng courses, and the greater breadth and flexibility of physics graduates should make them at least as useful in this role.
45. We would like to see the MPhys developed on a modular basis, so that it could be obtained either by one year of full-time study or through a credit-accumulation scheme. This would help to meet the increasing need for highly qualified manpower to provide the basis for economic growth in a technological society.
46. The present physics degree structure is unsatisfactory, and ill adapted to meet current needs. The recommendations contained in our first report (see Annex 1) provide a clear way forward. We trust that they will be found acceptable by the physics community, and that they will be generally implemented. A concerted move needs to be made by all departments towards the new degree structure, and it is proposed that the changes should be introduced for the 1993 student intake.
47. In this second and final report we have made suggestions on teaching strategies which will, we hope, be found helpful. There are doubtless other and perhaps equally good or better approaches, and we encourage others to explore them further, and to share their experiences.
1 August 1990
1. “Physics at 18+”, IOP Short Meetings Series, No.20, 1989.
2. “Report of the 16–19 Physics Course Working Party”, IOP, January 1990.
3. Editorial, Physics World, September 1989.
4. “First Report of the Higher Education Working Party”, IOP, May 1990 (reproduced as Annex 1 to the present report).
5. UFC letter 20/89, para. 10; report in the Independent of a speech by Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, 1 August 1989.
6. “Possible Restructuring of Courses and Awards”, CNAA Consultative Paper, 8 May 1990.
7. “More Means Different”, RSA Report by Sir Christopher Ball, May 1990, paras. 4.8, 4.9.
8. “Mathematics Counts: the Cockcroft Report”, HMSO, 1982, paras.566–577.
9. Gareth Jones, Physics World, February 1990, p.16.
10. Times Higher Education Supplement, 4 May 1990.
11. Physics World, June 1990, p.6; report in the Independent, 7 July 1990.
12. “Quality in Engineering Education”, Engineering Professors’ Conference Occasional Paper No.1, July 1989.
13. R G Chambers, “A Survey of Laboratory Teaching”, Bulletin IPPS, April 1964, pp.77–84.
14. A P French, AmJPhys 56, 110, 1988.
15. J S Rigden, Physics Education 23, 197, 1988.
16. R G Chambers, “Laboratory Teaching in the UK”, in New Trends in Physics Teaching, Vol.2, UNESCO, 1972.
17. P J Black et al, Small Group Teaching in Undergraduate Science, Heinemann, 1977.
18. P J Black et al, Physics Education 9, 18–20, 1974; see also ref.(17), pp.137–158.
19. N Thompson, Thinking like a Physicist, Adam Hilger, 1987.
20. N Thompson, “The Assessment of Candidates for Degrees in Physics”, Studies in Higher Education 4, 169–180, 1979. (Phys Bull, Sept 1977, p.420 has a brief summary of part of this paper).
21. J-P Connerade, Physics World, April 1990, p.29.
22. Brian Davies and Gareth Roberts, Physics World, January 1989, p.39.
IOP/SCPP/CHPP Higher Education Working Party
1. This joint working party, which includes representatives from the universities, the polytechnics, the schools and industry, was set up in November 1989 by the Institute of Physics, the Standing Conference of Physics Professors and the Committee of Heads of Physics in Polytechnics, to consider the future pattern of degree courses in Physics. It was felt by all three parent bodies that such a review was urgently necessary, primarily because of the rapid changes now taking place in the schools, but also because of the advent of the single European market in 1992.
2. The membership of the working party is shown in Note 1. We have so far held six meetings, and have now reached broad agreement on our recommendations. We have recently had an opportunity to discuss our views at two meetings: a meeting of the IOP Education Group on 21 March 1990, on “Restructuring Undergraduate Physics Courses”, and a meeting of the SCPP on 23 March 1990. At both meetings, our views received general support, and at the SCPP meeting we were urged to produce a report as quickly as possible, because university physics departments will very soon be required to submit their planning statements for the period from 1991/2 to 1994/5, and their bids for students for 1994/5. If our recommendations are accepted, they may materially affect these departmental statements. We are therefore producing this first report now, summarising our main recommendations. We hope to produce our final report within the next three months.
3. We concentrate here on Single Honours Physics courses, taken in three years, but we believe that our conclusions are equally applicable, with obvious modifications, to Joint Honours and Applied Physics courses and to sandwich courses. We also confine ourselves to the situation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland: we are well aware that the situation is different in Scotland, and the problems there are (we believe) less severe.
4. Outside Scotland, the problems are now becoming urgent. The effects of the changes in the schools have yet to be felt in HE, but it is already clear that our traditional teaching patterns will have to be drastically rethought. We welcome this: we believe that we have an opportunity here to develop new courses which will provide our students with a substantially better education, and one which will fit better into the European scene.
The problems of overloading and of the changing intake
5. It is already the impression of most HE teachers that incoming students are less well prepared in physics and (particularly) in the mathematics relevant to physics than they were, say, ten years ago. Moreover, some of these students do not find our courses particularly rewarding. In a recent study commissioned by the CNAA(1), it appeared that physics students did not feel that they had gained as much from their courses, in the way of self-confidence, communication skills, ability to absorb information and other desirable qualities, as students in a number of other disciplines. At the same time, our industrial colleagues also tell us that our graduates are not always able to communicate effectively, either orally or in writing, and that they show little aptitude for solving the kinds of problem that need solving in industry.
6. Students and employers thus seem to agree that our present courses are not satisfactory. We have no doubt at all why this is: we try to teach far too much, and in consequence teach it ineffectively. We crowd into the syllabus far more material than most students can absorb and understand in the time available, and give them no time to digest it. We do this in a commendable but increasingly unsuccessful attempt to reach in three years the level that students take four or five years to reach in all other European countries and in North America. Given the changes now taking place in the schools, we are convinced that in future it will be unrealistic even to attempt to do this for the great majority of students, and it would be educationally disastrous to do so. If we aimed to teach less, we could teach far better. Moreover, students would then have time to learn how to find out things for themselves, from a variety of sources, and we should have time to give them some training in communication skills and in the problem-solving skills needed by industry and others. And in doing so, we should be giving them a far better education than we do at present.
7. Changes of this kind have already been advocated in the Edwards Report(2) (paras. 3.29 and 3.34), and, forcefully, by Sir Sam Edwards himself as President of the British Association last September. But the need for change is rapidly becoming much more urgent, because of the changes taking place in the schools.
8. AS levels, GCSE and the National Curriculum all represent welcome attempts to move towards a broader and less specialised pattern of schooling. But this broadening means, inescapably, that entrants to our HE courses will in future have a less extensive grounding in physics and mathematics than they had in the past, even if the schoolteachers (and other resources) can be found to teach the new courses properly. It may well be that the emphasis on process rather than content in physics will produce students with greater experimental skills and with a fresher interest in the subject, and that the introduction of balanced science will attract a higher proportion of girls; and if all this happens it will be entirely welcome. But the reduced physics content cannot be ignored: if we already expect our students to master an unrealistically wide range of material in three years, it will be out of the question to expect future students to master it, starting from a lower base.
9. Even more worrying is the lack of relevant mathematical ability already apparent in HE entrants. These entrants may well have a reasonable A-level pass in mathematics, but much of the mathematics now being taught in schools is not of the kind which is directly useful to a physicist or engineer. We believe there is an urgent need to provide A-level mathematics syllabuses which will recognise the needs of future scientists and engineers, and we believe our engineering colleagues would strongly support this view. We accordingly recommend that existing A-level mathematics syllabuses be re-examined with a view to making them more directly relevant to the needs of intending scientists and engineers. We note that a similar recommendation has already been made in the Report of the IOP 16–19 Physics Course Working Party(3).
The proposed solution
10. Because we believe that our present three-year honours degree courses are greatly overloaded, we recommend that they should be substantially reduced in content: we believe that we should aim to teach, at most, about two-thirds of the material we try to teach now. It would be an over-simplification to say that we should aim to teach in three years what we now aim to teach in the first two, though this gives an idea of the scale of the reduction we have in mind. Because we shall be starting from a lower base, our courses will need to be rethought completely, and not just pruned here and there. In our final report, we plan to include suggested model syllabuses, not in any way as an attempt to be prescriptive, but as an indication of the level to be aimed at. We shall also include in our final report a number of other recommendations, on such matters as teaching methods, introductory “overview” courses, project work, skill sessions and training in problem-solving. Here again, our intention will certainly not be to be prescriptive, but rather to offer suggestions on good practice.
11. Departments of physics will find it far easier to reduce the content of their courses in this way if they all agree to make the change at the same time. At the recent SCPP meeting, we were urged to propose as soon a date as practicable for this, and we accordingly recommend that all physics departments should change their courses in time for the 1993 student intake at latest.
12. Although we propose a reduction in the factual content of three-year honours physics courses, this does not imply a reduction in the intellectual content, and indeed we believe that our students will gain a substantially deeper understanding of physics from these courses, and a greater range of skills, than they do now. Accordingly, we believe that these courses will still be at least as intellectually demanding as other honours degree courses, and will be equally worthy of an honours degree.
13. We have given careful thought to the implications of these changes for students going on to professional careers in physics. They will emerge from the three-year course with a sound intellectual grounding in the subject, and with we believe improved problem-solving skills and communication skills, but with, inevitably, a reduced knowledge base. As an essential complement to these courses, therefore, we recommend that HE institutions should offer a variety of further one-year courses, which might be taken either immediately after the first three years, or later in a career. Such a pattern has already been proposed in para.4.2.6 of the IOP report on Physics in Higher Education(4), and we fully endorse the proposals made there. To quote from that report, such courses “could be in one of the following categories:
(a) courses to ... give an opportunity to see the subject at some of its frontiers, with emphasis on one or two specialist areas taken beyond present first-degree level. These courses would be appropriate for those who will go on to join research groups in universities, research institutions and industrial laboratories.
(b) profession-orientated courses, for example for science teaching, for instrumentation and control technology, for high-technology systems design, for physics applied to medicine, health, safety and environmental control.”
Courses of type (b) might also include courses in management skills, as suggested in the Edwards report(2) (para.3. 16), though many employers may prefer to give such training in-house.
14. Apart from the PGCE course, the courses in category (b) would differ little from the present postgraduate taught courses leading to an MSc, and could well continue to lead to that qualification. Courses in category (a) should, we recommend, lead to a different qualification, which might be called the MPhys. This would be of similar standing to the MSc, but would denote a more general course. Some students might enter higher education with the clear intention of emerging after four years with an MPhys as a first degree, and in that case they should be able to register for an MPhys at the outset, just as some Engineering students register for a four-year course leading to an MEng. An MPhys (or MSc) would form an excellent basis for research leading to a PhD.
The question of comparability
15. The existence of the MPhys will do much to establish parity between British degrees and those awarded in the rest of Europe a matter of increasing importance as 1992 approaches. The establishment of the Erasmus programme has already led to a much increased awareness in the UK of the standards of degrees in other European countries (see, for example, the excellent review by Connerade(5)), and it is generally agreed that the German Diplom, for example, is substantially higher in standard than our present BSc. This is not surprising, because like other European first degrees it takes at least four years of study. There can be no doubt that our proposed reduced- content three-year degree will not be comparable with other European first degrees, but we would confidently expect the MPhys to be accepted as fully comparable with the Diplom. Likewise the combination of an MPhys with a three-year PhD would be fully comparable with a higher degree from other European countries or from North America.
16. As noted in para.3, we have confined ourselves to the problems of HE outside Scotland, because the Scottish situation is rather different. But the pattern that we are now proposing is not very different from the Scottish pattern: three years for the first qualification, with a further year for those wishing to pursue the subject in greater depth. There is one clear difference, though, and that is in nomenclature: we propose that the qualifications awarded after three years and after four years should be the honours degree and the MPhys, whereas in Scotland they are the pass degree and the honours degree. We are very conscious of this mismatch, but at present we see no way of resolving it. We are quite clear that the first degree we have in mind, based on a fuller understanding of a reduced content, will fully merit the award of an honours degree. [See note 2]
17. In summary, we recommend:
(i) that SEAC should be asked as a matter of urgency to ensure that A-level syllabuses in mathematics give greater recognition to the needs of future scientists, technologists and engineers. (Para.9)
(ii) that, as from the 1993 student intake, all departments of physics should reduce the content of their Single Honours Physics degree courses substantially, so that as a rough guide they aim to teach in three years about two thirds of the material they now cover, but in such a way that the students achieve a markedly fuller understanding of the subject than they do at present. We propose to make more detailed recommendations on course content in our final report. (Paras.10, 11)
(iii) that, following the proposals put forward in the IOP report on Physics in Higher Education, departments should offer a one-year MPhys course which would build on the reduced-content three-year course, and provide a firm basis for professional work in physics, either in academic research or elsewhere. (Paras. 12, 13). The MPhys would be fully comparable to European qualifications such as the German Diplom.
27th April 1990
1. “Higher Education and the Preparation for Work”, CNAA, September 1989.
2. “The Future of University Physics Edwards Report)”, HMSO, 1988.
3. “Report of the 16–19 Physics Course Working Party”, IOP, January 1990.
4. “Physics in Higher Education”, IOP, March 1988.
5. J-P Connerade, “Higher Education and 1992”, Physics World, April 1990.
Note 1: Membership of working party
University and Polytechnic members: Bob Chambers (Chairman; Bristol University), John Coleman (Coventry Polytechnic), Yvonne Elsworth (Birmingham University), Norman Fancey (Edinburgh University), Gareth Jones (Imperial College, London), Bob Lambourne (Open University), Derek Martin (Queen Mary Westfield College, London), Russell Stannard (Open University) and Joe Vinen (Birmingham University).
Schools members: Tim Akrill (Clifton College), Derek Bodey (St Brendan’s VIth Form College, Bristol), Averil Macdonald (Kenilworth School) and Sue Ross (Godolphin and Latymer School).
Industry members: Ian Blair (UKAEA) and David Pitt (Renishaw).
IOP staff: Becky Parker, and Susanna Lithiby (until 2/90), Philip Diamond (from 2/90).
Our colleagues in Scotland feel that paragraph 16 is misleading if not erroneous. The structure of the broader Scottish school and university educational system requires four years of study to Honours Degree level. The effects of changes in the schools, and of the single European market, are just as important in Scotland as in the rest of the UK, and the desirability of the MPhys is just as great there as elsewhere.
A suggested list of topics (see para.19)
Real and complex numbers
Basic functions (exp, log, trig, hyperbolic; inverses)
Differentiation and integration
Taylor’s theorem, series expansions and summations
Ordinary differential equations (including series solutions)
Partial differentiation and partial differential equations
Vectors, vector algebra and vector analysis
Line integrals and multiple integrals
Fourier series and integrals
Matrices and determinants
Computing and numerical methods
Basic familiarity with the use of the computer in various ways, including simple programming, but no specific requirements
Basic electronics (reinforced by practical work)
Potential difference, current, Ohm’s law, Joule’s law
Circuit elements: resistors, capacitors and inductors
Simple dc and ac circuits. Input and output impedance Theorems of Kirchhoff and Thévenin
Reactance and impedance; LCR circuits, transients
Diodes, op-amps, logic gates (introductory)
Basic ideas about experimental practice, data analysis and errors
A range of practical experience, but no specific experimental requirements
Mechanics (using vector methods)
Frames of reference, inertial and non-inertial
Basic kinematics: displacement, velocity and acceleration
Angular velocity, angular acceleration
Basic point dynamics: mass, force and Newton’s laws; momentum, angular momentum and kinetic energy
Fields of force, potential energy, work, power
Conservation laws, collisions
Harmonic oscillators; simple, damped, driven, resonant
Circular motion, centripetal force
Inverse square law fields; circular and other orbits
Basic rigid body dynamics; moment of inertia, torque
Rotational momentum, rotational kinetic energy
Gyroscopic motion (basic treatment only)
Continuum mechanics of solids and fluids: elasticity, Young’s modulus, viscosity, Reynold’s number, Bernoulli’s equation, laminar and turbulent flow. Comparison of solids and fluids; surface energy
Electrostatics: the electric field (F = qE(r))
Charge, Coulomb’s law, Gauss’s flux theorem
Electrostatic potential; Poisson’s and Laplace’s equations
The field and potential of a point charge and an electric dipole
Capacitance and stored energy
Magnetostatics: the magnetic field (F = qvxB(r))
Electric currents; the Biot–Savart law, Ampère’s circuital theorem
The field of a linear current and of a magnetic dipole/current loop
Lorentz force law, force on current-carrying conductors
Motion of particles in electric and magnetic fields
Electrodynamics: Faraday’s law, Lenz’s law and induction
Inductance and stored magnetic energy
Maxwell’s equations and electromagnetic waves
The electromagnetic spectrum
The Poynting vector
Fields in media: D and H; permittivity, permeability and dielectric constant: basic ideas, related to their microscopic origins
Energy storage in media
Optics and wave motion
Waves: simple wave equation
Harmonic waves, complex representation, amplitude and phase
Wavelength, wave number, frequency, period, phase velocity
Travelling waves, standing waves and superposition
Adding waves of different frequencies; beats and pulses
Wavepackets, dispersion and group velocity
Plane waves and spherical waves; inverse square law
Wavefronts, rays, laws of reflection and refraction
Geometric optics (introductory treatment only)
Prisms, mirrors and thin lenses; focal length
Apertures, stops, f-numbers
Basic optical instruments. Spatial resolution
Physical optics: polarisation, Malus’ law, birefringence, Brewster’s angle
Diffraction and interference
Fraunhofer diffraction (basic ideas only)
Young’s slits and diffraction gratings
Thin films, interferometry. A high-resolution spectrometer, eg Fabry–Perot
Fourier optics: Fourier transforms, relation to diffraction
Coherent and incoherent sources
Stimulated and spontaneous emission
Properties of laser light
Basic ideas of holography
Quantum phenomena and quantum mechanics
Breakdown of classical physics
Black body radiation and Planck’s law
Photoelectric effect and Einstein’s equation
Compton effect and Compton wavelength. Photons
Atoms and spectra. The Bohr model
de Brogue’s relation. Electron diffraction
X-rays and their origin
Non-relativistic single particle quantum mechanics (in some detail)
Schrödinger’s time dependent equation. Wavefunctions
Schrödinger’s time-independent equation. The Hamiltonian
Eigenfunctions, eigenvalues and energy quantisation
States, measurements and observables (including the idea of a time-dependent state)
The double Stern–Gerlach experiment
Probability distributions, uncertainties and expectation values
Non-commuting observables. The uncertainty relations
Solving Schrödinger’s equation: steps, barriers, wells and the harmonic oscillator
The classical limit of quantum mechanics
Concepts of time-independent perturbation theory
A brief introduction to relativistic ideas in quantum theory
Particles, nuclei, atoms, molecules and spectroscopy
The discovery of particles: cathode rays
Thomson’s e/m experiment; Millikan’s experiment; electrons
Rutherford scattering and the nucleus (including differential cross-sections)
Protons and neutrons
Sources of particles: cosmic rays and accelerators
Baryons and mesons
Fundamental particles and their interactions
Strong, weak, electromagnetic and gravitational forces
Quarks, leptons and exchange particles. Antiparticles
Particle collisions. Cross-sections. Decay rates
Nuclei: radioactive decay (alpha, beta, gamma)
Atomic mass unit, binding energy, semi-empirical mass formula
Basic ideas about nuclear models, nuclear shells and magic numbers
Fission, fusion, nuclear reactions and reactors (basic ideas only)
Excited states of nuclei and nuclear spectroscopy (basic ideas only)
The one-electron atom. Angular momentum, spin and atomic quantum numbers
Magnetic moments, spin–orbit interactions, Stern–Gerlach experiment
The spectrum of the one-electron atom, including the Zeeman effect
Multi-electron atoms (qualitative), and the concept of degeneracy
Identical particles: fermions, bosons, Pauli’s principle
Electron configurations and the periodic table
NMR and ESR
Molecules: interatomic forces and the origin of molecular bonding (pictorial, qualitative treatment)
Simple molecules and their movement; rotational and vibrational states and spectral lines
Physics of space and time
Concept of a coordinate transformation. Galilean transformation
Special relativity: Einstein’s postulates
The Lorentz transformation; flat space-time
Length contraction, time dilation, the twin paradox
Relativistic mechanics; E = mc2, p = mv, E0 = mc2
General relativity (very basic ideas; non-tensorial)
Concept of curved space-time
Basis of Einstein’s approach to gravity. Black holes (qualitative)
Experimental tests of general relativity
Rudiments of cosmology: the cosmological principle
Cosmological models. The R:t graph; redshift and Hubble’s law
The Big Bang model. Cosmic microwave background
Thermodynamics and statistical mechanics
Thermodynamics: temperature, temperature scales and thermometers
Thermodynamic systems and equilibrium states
PVT systems, equations of state and PVT surfaces
Heat, work, internal energy and the first law of thermodynamics
Specific and latent beats (basic definitions)
Reversible and irreversible changes. Adiabatic and isothermal processes
Carnot cycles. Entropy and the second law
Combined first and second laws (dU = TdS – pdV)
Free energy and available energy
The thermodynamic scale of temperature. Absolute zero
Thermodynamic potentials and Maxwell’s relations
Thermodynamic relations in general, with examples (eg Cp – Cv)
Phase equilibria (very brief); vapour pressure
Statistical physics: states of statistical systems
Density of states
Boltzmann factor; Boltzmann’s constant
The statistical interpretation of temperature and entropy
The statistical view of thermodynamics
Fluctuations and noise
Statistical calculation of thermodynamic quantities (eg ideal gas pressure)
Indistinguishable particles: Bose–Einstein and Fermi–Dirac functions; Fermi energy
Particles in a box; density of states and occupation density
Ideal gases: Bose–Einstein, Fermi–Dirac, Maxwell–Boltzmann
Black body radiation; Planck’s function, Stefan–Boltzmann law
Physics of matter
Gases: equilibrium properties of ideal gases
Equation of state and its kinetic derivation
Internal energy for gases of atoms and molecules
Specific heats at constant pressure and constant volume
Adiabatic behaviour; and its relation to specific heats
Transport properties of gases: diffusion, viscosity and thermal conduction; elementary kinetic theory
Solids: structure and bonding
Classes of solids. Crystalline and amorphous solids
Examples of lattices, unit cells and crystal structures
X-ray scattering and neutron diffraction: Bragg’s law
Mechanical and thermal properties of solids
Elasticity; strength of materials; dislocations
Specific heat: Einstein and Debye models; phonon and electron contributions
Thermal conductivity and thermal expansion (very brief)
Electrical, magnetic and optical properties of solids
Conductors, insulators and semiconductors
Dielectric constant and refractive index
Simple models of conduction.
Basic band theory (not necessarily including Brillouin zones)
Pure semiconductors: electrons, holes, mobility and thermal dependence
Doped semiconductors: p-type, n-type, donors and acceptors
Simple semiconductor devices: diodes, transistors and LEDs
Paramagnetism, diamagnetism and ferromagnetism
Liquids: introduction to structure and properties
One possible non-traditional course structure (see para.19)
[Not all the topics listed here would be covered in depth; they are included simply to show where they would fit into the logical structure].
Dynamics (classical and quantum)
Special and general relativity
The standard model
Dynamical phenomena; properties of matter; materials
Electromagnetic phenomena; optics
Kinetics; thermodynamics; information; noise
Earth; the environment
Stellar, galactic and cosmic structures
4. Experimental investigation of structures:
Scattering and diffraction
5. Methods and skills:
Mathematical (and. algebraic computing); computing; Information technology
Electronics and instrumentation
Communication skills; project work; laboratory work