The transition from lower-level to upper-level physics courses is difficult for many physics and engineering students: the course material becomes more abstract, and the mathematics more sophisticated. Yet, the United States needs to increase the number of students who earn physical science and engineering degrees to meet the demand of industry and maintain the country's leadership in technology innovation. At the same time, our curricula needs to be modernized in order to expose physics and engineering students to current theories and applications, state-of-the-art experimental apparatus, and current computational modeling techniques.

This project is developing a sophomore-level "Applications of Modern Physics" course and laboratory for both physics and electrical engineering students that bridges the lower-level and upper-level curriculum and gives students the analytical, modeling, and experimental skills they need, while also addressing weaknesses in mathematical skills. Materials science and nano-science in particular provide an excellent context in which to address these issues. The course being developed starts from the atom and quantum mechanics, builds up to nano-scale systems, and finally addresses solids and devices. Applications, such as lasers, quantum dots, diodes, and superconductors, are interwoven throughout the course. The accompanying laboratory is closely tied to the class and illustrates complex concepts such as quantized energy levels and probabilities within both classical and quantum physics. The laboratory materials serve to guide students in writing their own simulations and in performing state-of-the-art experiments that motivate and incorporate the theory addressed in the course. The laboratory program highlights the interplay between modeling and experiment that is central to the advancement of scientific knowledge.

The fully developed course directly addresses the needs and misconceptions of students, and it increases students' computational modeling skills and understanding of the physical principles that govern semiconductor and nano-scale devices. It thus serves as an interdisciplinary model for bridging the gap between the lower-level and the upper-level curriculum in physics and engineering. Results from this curricular development are being submitted to journals and digital archives of the physics and engineering education communities, and further dissemination is to occur at regional and national meetings of the AAPT and ASEE.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE)
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R. Hovis
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University of St. Thomas
St. Paul
United States
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