The introductory physics curriculum at St. Olaf features a three-course sequence especially designed for physics majors. Unlike introductory courses at many colleges where just one beginning course is taught, incoming students at St. Olaf who are intending to go on in physics join a small class of their peers with similar interests in physics and other physical sciences. This enables us to focus the curriculum and the depth of coverage in ways not otherwise possible. For example, elements of special relativity are encorporated as we cover Newtonian mechanics. Students also learn how to construct numerical (computer) solutions to some problems that are otherwise too difficult to solve analytically. Problems involving friction and more than two objects interacting under gravity are examples.Most physics majors take a physics course each semester together with a course in mathematics, at least through differential equations. Thus many physics majors at St. Olaf become double-majors in mathematics, a strong combination that serves them well.
Research with faculty is an important part of undergraduate physics education and at St. Olaf we have a well developed summer program that includes financial support and housing for a ten week period. This past year 12 physics majors joined 55 students from the other science departments in the program. In addition to the time spent doing research in the lab or on field projects, our summer research experience includes a science communication series, social activities, and poster and presentation sessions given by the participants.
Physics majors go on to a wide variety of activities after St. Olaf. Most enter graduate programs to earn Masters or Ph.D. degrees in fields such as engineering, computer science, mathematics, geophysics, atmospheric science, medicine or law, as well as in physics. Some go to private industry in physics-related positions. A background in physics turns out to be excellent preparation for a wide variety of fields.Our physics graduating classes average about 15 but vary from 11 to the low 20’s. Thus we are among the leading four-year colleges in producing physics majors and also those going on to earn Ph.D’s.
Early on in their studies, physics majors form close friendships with their classmates through problem-solving groups and laboratory work. Graduating seniors often tell us that this camaraderie is one of the most distinguishing and important things about being a physics major. Formal group activities are supported through the Society of Physics Students (SPS) which sponsors trebouchet and other building ‘competitions.’
The department has a weekly colloquium series that brings to St. Olaf a variety of speakers who tell us about physics applications in the ‘real world.’ Presenters are sometimes faculty colleagues or distinguished alumni. They are also from professional organizations, graduate schools recruiting physics majors and from nearby industry. Often these talks become the inspiration for summer positions, graduate school choices, or the seed of an idea for careers.
Questions about the department should be directed to Brian Borovsky, chair.