Learning from peers: student-led physics seminars resume this semester

Puneet Sandhu/Catalyst

Third-year Brent Boland explains the possibility that hypercanes – long-lived, powerful hurricanes extending farther up into the stratosphere – may have caused the extinction of dinosaurs.

Occupying a small wing upstairs in the Heiser Natural Science building is a corridor devoted to the study of physics. Like dark matter, the existence of this subject at New College remains to most students an accepted though not personally experienced truth. Beginning last spring, however, a series of student physics seminars provided an opportunity for students to come face-to-face with the reality of this academic field.

Yet the purpose of these seminars, which resumed this spring, is not to draw attention to the physics department but rather to fulfill a requirement for the Physics Seminar class. The class was first offered last spring by Professor of Physics George Ruppeiner. This semester, Professor of Physics Don Colladay teaches the course.

Colladay explained the reason for adding the course. “Part of it came from students having [baccalaureate] exams [but not having] a lot of experience actually speaking in front of people and so this is to give them better experience at that,” Colladay said. “Also … if they go on to a science career [or] if they go to [graduate] school, they’ll have to give talks, so [this is] just to get them to learn how to give talks and to give them feedback on things they’re doing, how they can improve [and] things they need to think about.”

According to Colladay, students in the class pick their own topics for the seminars. “They talk to me about it, then [we] discuss whether it’s a relevant topic and whether it’s something they can understand,” Colladay said. “Usually I try to focus them to a specific piece of the topics that they can actually do a calculation [on] and present … some mathematical derivation associated with it to understand what they’re talking about.” As with a typical scientific seminar, question and answer sessions follow the nearly hour-long presentations.

This semester, five student physics seminars have already taken place, with the final seminar scheduled for May 11. Topics so far have included superconductors, relativistic quantum mechanics, hurricanes and holograms. While the seminars may be technical at times, not all the information presented would necessarily be lost on those without a physics background and even students outside of the Natural Science department may appreciate a basic introduction to some of the subject matter.

Though the seminars are open for all to attend, Colladay said attendance has generally been low. “A few physics students usually come [and] a few people from outside the discipline — friends of the students — and some faculty [come].” E-mails announcing seminar dates are sent to faculty and students, but no advertising for non-NCF affiliates takes place.

Colladay said the course will likely be offered again next year. “They have all put a lot of effort into it [and] I think they care about making a good presentation …  so it’s been pretty successful, I think,” Colladay said. “The talks overall have been quite good [and] it’s been a useful experience for everybody.”

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