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Issue No. 05 - September/October (2006 vol. 8)
ISSN: 1521-9615
pp: 11-15
David Winch , Kalamazoo College
You know one if you see one, but can you define a computational physics course in general? Even more fundamentally, can you specify what role numerical computations should have in any standard physics course?
The quest to address such questions was the motivation for a project that has culminated in the publication of this special issue. I believe and hope that our nonphysicists readers will regard this special issue as an opportunity to gather information and learn lessons that extend beyond physics to other disciplines.
Humble Beginnings
To appreciate CiSE's concern, I refer you back to the remarks of the editor in chief at the magazine's inception. George Cybenko had this to say about the merger between Computers in Physics and IEEE Computational Science & Engineering (vol. 1, no. 1, Jan./Feb. 1999, p. 1):
" CiSE is setting up camp at the confluence of two great intellectual rivers—the physical sciences and the computational sciences. This camp will grow into a town and then a city but only if we learn each other's languages and trade in good faith.
[…] By publishing novel ideas from such a broad array of topics and specialties, we must be open-minded and helpful to each other. More likely than not, what might appear to be a wrong-headed argument or approach in one community is what another community takes as gospel. This creates opportunities both ways. We stand to learn a lot or to reach an enormous new audience by setting the record straight, whichever the case may be."
The genesis of this theme issue began at a discussion on computation in physics courses hosted by the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) Educational Technologies Committee in 2005. It was a lively exchange that covered a range of questions and issues: What is computational physics? Is computational physics a new, third branch of physics? What factors encourage or impede the development of computational physics? What is the state of undergraduate computational physics programs? What can we do to promote computational physics? What are the most appropriate mechanisms for sharing information? Is there a need to train faculty?
As in any academic dialogue, the participants voiced a spectrum of opinions, but one consensus emerged—namely, the need to conduct a national survey on the state of computational physics at the undergraduate level. Furthermore, the person conducting the survey should possess two qualifications: to be a known and respected leader in physics education and to have an open mind about the nature and role of computations in undergraduate physics courses. Following this recommendation, Norman Chonacky ( CiSE's current EIC) commissioned Robert Fuller, a professor of physics emeritus at the University of Nebraska, to conduct a national survey on the uses of computation in undergraduate physics in the US.
Survey Results
More than 250 physics departments responded to Fuller's 28-question survey, which revealed a strong overall interest in computational physics but a range of opinions on the functional details. Ultimately, the survey results contained some interesting and thought-provoking responses.
Building on this study, the AAPT Educational Technologies Committee hosted a three-hour invited undergraduate computational physics programs session followed by a two-hour poster session at the AAPT 2006 summer meeting, which ultimately featured six invited papers and 17 posters. The organizers selected the presentations and posters to give voice to a range of opinions on computational physics from experienced faculty. Most of the effort and progress in this field has come from dedicated and often isolated faculty. We hope this special issue of CiSE—and the special sessions on which its articles are based—helps grow a supportive community that will facilitate the development and integration of numerical computation into all aspects of undergraduate physics curricula.
In this Issue
Norman Chonacky opens the issue with a discussion on the rationale for Fuller's survey; you'll also find a detailed report of Fuller's findings.
In "Computational Physics: A Better Model for Physics Education?" Rubin Landau offers a peek at Oregon State University's new BS in computational physics, which includes five multidisciplinary courses. The physics department has developed textbooks for each course and makes extensive use of Web-based curricula materials.
In "Implementing Curricular Change," Marty Johnston describes why it's not an easy task to integrate computational elements across the entire curriculum, particularly because of the widely varying levels of computational skills among the faculty.
In "Using Computational Methods to Reinvigorate an Undergraduate Physics Curriculum," Jaime R. Taylor and B. Alex King III explain how to incorporate computational methods into a physics curriculum by either creating a separate computational methods course or teaching it across the curriculum. Regardless of the approach, specific elements are important to prepare students for careers in physics.
Finally, in "An Incremental Approach to Computational Physics Education," Kelly Roos discusses a program that integrates a successive approach to incorporating computational methods into a traditional physics curriculum. Students are introduced to, and produce, numerical solutions involving chaos and nonlinearity.
The Fuller survey's results are revelatory and promise to continue to be useful as the computational physics community moves forward. Repeating my opening remarks, I hope that readers from other disciplines might consider doing similar studies. The study has given us a much clearer view of the state of undergraduate computational physics and provided the opportunity to initiate the formation of a community of interested people. The sidebar lists abstracts for all the poster materials. If you'd like to get involved with the discussion, join the recently initiated discussion board on computational physics hosted by the National Science Digital Library's ComPADRE facility ( psrc/bulletinboard/ForumDetails.cfm?FID=28).
David Winch is an emeritus professor of physics at Kalamazoo College. His technical interests include educational software and technologies. Winch has a PhD in solid state physics from Clarkson University. He is a member of the American Association of Physics Teachers. Contact him at
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