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Majors & Minors

Course Catalog

Physics and Astronomy

Physics is the study of the fundamental nature of everything. Through experiment and theory physicists seek to explain the interactions of matter and energy in terms of a small number of basic laws. Physics deals with everything from the very large (e.g. the structure of the universe) to the very small (e.g. atoms, nuclei, quarks and even smaller structures). The devices we depend on in our technological society are based on fundamental principles of physics. Both experimental and theoretical physicists are people who enjoy understanding how things work. Studying physics develops excellent critical thinking and problem solving skills, which are applicable to many careers. Many of our physics graduates continue with graduate school in physics, astronomy or engineering. Others continue with professional training in medical school or law school. However, it is not necessary to pursue more education to have a rewarding career with physics. An undergraduate physics degree is a spring board to a broad spectrum of career options, including engineering, systems analyst, financial analyst, management, national security, medical research, education and journalism. Nationally, employment opportunities for physics graduates have been especially good in recent years. The department offers a major and a minor in Physics. Students planning to major in Physics should consult with a member of the department as early as possible in their college careers. Incoming students who plan to major in Physics should take PHYS 120-130 and MATH 135-136 or MATH 151 in the first year. Most pre-engineering students must take PHYS 120, 130, and 350. Students interested in pre-engineering should consult with a pre-engineering advisor as early as possible. The physics major is also appropriate for students who wish to attend graduate school in astronomy.

Requirements for a major


Total courses required Nine
Core courses PHYS 120, PHYS 130, PHYS 220, PHYS 270, PHYS 280 (1/2 course), PHYS 480 (1/2 course)
Other required courses
  • Two of the following, one of which must be either PHYS 370 or PHYS 380: PHYS 240, PHYS 250, PHYS 300, PHYS 370, PHYS 380
  • Two of the following: PHYS 410, PHYS 420, PHYS 430, PHYS 440
Number 300 and 400 level courses Three and one-half
Senior requirement and capstone experience

All senior physics majors must complete PHYS 480, Senior Seminar. This course is designed to allow students to read, interpret, and discuss primary literature from current physics research. It follows a format similar to journal clubs that are found in many physics graduate school programs. The specific topics and content vary from year to year. Students utilize the knowledge base that they have developed during their previous coursework to understand the foundational principles of the contemporary research topic.

Majors who want to conduct their own independent research investigations may do so by enrolling in an independent study project under PHYS 390. These projects usually involve the student working with a department faculty member on a topic of mutual interest. The projects often produce research posters or papers that are shared with the larger community.

Additional information MATH 151 (or MATH 135-136) and MATH 152 required
Recent changes in major The number of upper level courses required for the major was changed from four and one-half to three and one-half (May 2014).
Writing in the Major Writing is a critical skill for all physics majors. Knowledge of physics is often shared by the written word. Advances in physics generally build on the work of others that is recorded in reports, and publications. Physics majors must be able to document their work in the laboratory, providing sufficient detail to allow others to understand why they chose to conduct the investigation, what they did, how they did it, and the results they obtained. Additionally, there are many occasions that require them to explain the subtleties and importance of physical phenomena and events to people who are not physics majors. Physics majors complete a series of assignments in four specific core courses, PHYS 220, PHYS 280, PHYS 370/380 and PHYS 480.

In PHYS 220, Principles of Physics III, students write a set of formal laboratory reports with particular attention to the details that are necessary for another individual to conduct the experiment and understand how to analyze the results. At least two of these reports will require a rough draft and interchange with the faculty member teaching the course before submitting a final report. At the end of the course, the instructor must certify that the writing in the course is competent.

PHYS 280, Experimental Methods, features an extended project. As part of that work, students write a proposal that includes a persuasive argument for doing the project and an article explaining the underlying physics in terms that can be understood by an educated individual outside of the physics community. Of course, the project will also include an extensive report of project's results. Again, at the end of the course, the instructor must certify that writing in the course is competent.

PHYS 370, Introduction to Atomic and Molecular Physics, and PHYS 380, Introduction to Nuclear and Particle Physics, both involve formal laboratory reports including at least one extended laboratory experience that takes multiple weeks to complete. The extended project will often involve a proposal that argues for the necessity of undertaking and completing the project. The report on this extended project will involve and interchange with the course instructor before a final report is submitted. Again, at the end of the course, the instructor must certify that writing in the course is competent.

PHYS 480, Senior Seminar, involves a series of oral presentations. In addition to the presentations, students write a document for each activity. Some activities are designed to be informative to the general public and the document will be written in a style similar to a general interest science magazine like Discover or Science News. Other activities will mimic conference presentations and will result in documents similar to articles in physics journal accessible to undergraduate students like Physics Today or the The American Journal of Physics. The final presentation of the semester will be a formal research paper based on a literature search with an annotated bibliography and multiple drafts reviewed with the instructor before the submission of the final report. Finally, at the end of the course, the instructor must certify that writing in the course is competent.

Requirements for a minor


Total courses required Four
Core courses PHYS 104 or PHYS 320; PHYS 310.
Other required courses Two additional from: PHYS 103, PHYS 203, PHYS 320, PHYS 330, PHYS 360, and PHYS 390A.
Number 300 and 400 level courses One


Total courses required Five
Core courses PHYS 120, PHYS 130, PHYS 220
Other required courses PHYS 310 may not count toward the minor.
Number 300 and 400 level courses One