Cornell University Project Report 2009
Cornell's calculus-based introductory sequences for life, chemical and earth science students (Physics 2207 and 2208) and for engineering and non-honors physics students (Physics 1112 and 2213) have been using polling/peer instruction, cooperative learning sessions and several other PER-validated methods for more than a decade, and thus provide very good models for effective teaching to our UTAs. However, the third semester of our non-honors (Physics 2214) and honors (Physics 2218) introductory physics courses - covering oscillations, waves and quantum mechanics - have lagged behind our other courses. Physics 2214 is especially important for recruiting students into physics who are considering careers outside of physics research, and thus to increasing the number of physics majors.
Aside from our introductory sequences, our upper division core physics courses - in electricity and magnetism, mechanics, and modern physics - are very traditional. They present an obstacle to the "non-traditional" physics majors we hope to attract.
- A major revision of Physics 2214 was undertaken by the PI beginning in Spring 2008 and continuing in Spring 2009. After significant teething pains in the first semester, there have been significant improvements in student attitudes and overall level of effort. The revised course includes 200 questions for in-lecture polling and self-study, roughly 40 new context, application and/or transferable skill rich homework problems, roughly 25 PowerPoint slide shows on physics applications, and three new lecture demonstrations.
- Based upon a suggestion from a colleague, we both implemented online anonymous feedback systems using Goggle Forms, which provided excellent "real time" feedback useful in tweaking lectures and assignments and in catching TA grading and teaching issues.
- Two students in Spring 2009 decided to switch their majors to Applied Physics and Physics.
- The Physics 2214 website is used as a resource by Physics 2218 students.
- The TIR instituted evening “Homework Parties” in the UTA-supported courses, that have been very popular with students. Some UTAs were assigned to work with TAs in providing help during these parties, and other helped during regular office hours.
- The revision of Physics 2214 was undertaken with no additional senior staff support beyond the standard introductory course allocation, in part because of a shortage of senior teaching staff.
- An important remaining question is whether our honors sequence for majors, which caters only to students with very strong physics and math backgrounds, should be reformed. We need to have a sequence that can adequately challenge these students, but we also need to ensure that Physics majors who follow our non-honors sequence 1112-2213-2214 do not feel like second-class citizens.
- With a new chair and new director of undergraduate studies, the Physics department is likely to soon have an undergraduate curriculum committee that can set priorities and suggest resource allocations in our undergraduate program.
- To make introductory course teaching more attractive to faculty, we need to move to a "no hero" model like that at the University of Illinois.
- Faculty in introductory courses should focus on providing help in learning/studying skills, and not tutorial assistance with course content.
- The first semester of any major reform will always be challenging for both the faculty and their students. Stay the course and focus on continuous improvement based upon a tight feedback loop with the students and TAs.