Physics (13) A new, innovative physics course, The Science of Information Technology (ScIT). ScIT has been developed and piloted in the studio format in Rensselaer's physics department. ScIT is unusual because (a) it is an upper-level physics course with no prerequisites, (b) it is topically-based, combining discussions of fundamental physical principles with information system applications that interest students, (c) it brings world-class researchers with several different specialties into a classroom of non-majors to talk about the current state of research, and (d) it attracts students from diverse concentrations, with performance in the course essentially independent of physics background.

The course does not have a suitable textbook, and supporting materials must be either newly created or drawn from a variety of non-traditional sources. This project supports for the creation, refinement, testing, and national distribution of materials for the course, such as text, multimedia guest lectures, and appropriate in-class activities. The Science of Information Technology covers several topics, such as atomic structure, fiber optics, semiconductor properties, and quantum physics, that are not covered in most traditional introductory courses yet are crucial to the working of information systems used daily by students. Furthermore, the course covers these topics without requiring advanced calculus or prior physics experience from the students, making the course accessible and attractive to the entire student body, as an elective should be. The contributed guest lectures by prominent researchers gives the students insight into the obstacles facing further development and some possible ways to overcome those challenges. This combination of features give ScIT the potential to increase the level of scientific literacy among the rapidly growing population of information technology consumers and users, fostering a greater appreciation for science in general, and physics in particular.

A variety of materials are being developed. These include (a) a textbook, which will provide a measure of uniformity to the course; (b) illustrations of the concepts covered within the course, best done with animated graphics, such as Java applets or Shockwave presentations; (c) interactive inquiry-based activities. Existing activities are being refined, and all activities are being evaluated for learning, relevance, and soundness. In addition, guest lectures by researchers are being videotaped, digitized, and integrated into the course materials. Activities and lessons are also being used in and tested for the enrichment of K-12 teachers. Once the course materials have been fully developed and evaluated by respected experts in the relevant fields, they will be distributed nationally through a publisher and an on-line distributor like WebCT. In this way, ScIT is being developed from a pilot offering of a novel science elective to a well-organized, pedagogically-sound learning experience bringing both technology and cutting-edge research into the classroom of non-science majors.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
Duncan E. McBride
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
United States
Zip Code