droppedImageSoft matter theory Principal Investigator Tim Atherton is strongly committed to the best possible practices in physics pedagogy and integrating his research and educational activities. For excellence in these efforts, he was recently awarded the Cottrell Scholarship from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. He has recently taught the following courses in the Physics and Astronomy department at Tufts:—

Physics 0016 Special Topics: Computational Physics (Spring 2015 and 2017)

A brand new course that Tim has developed using principles from Physics Education Research. Computational methods are of ever increasing importance in Physics, playing a key role in many frontiers from galaxy formation at the largest length scales to making accurate simulations of complex materials and modeling the subatomic realm. Students in this class learn to formulate physics problems in a manner suitable for computation, select or devise an appropriate algorithm, implement maintainable programs and visualize and interpret the results from both a numerical and physics perspective. They learn these skills through a novel project based approach by solving a variety of problems connected to other physics classes and research. You can read more about how this class was designed and how well it worked in our publication in the American Journal of Physics.

Physics 0012 General Physics II (Fall 2014, 2015, 2016)

This class is about how the phenomena of electricity, magnetism are united in the theory of electromagnetism described by Maxwell’s equations. Tim employs a unique “cyclic approach” to the course, whereby we go through the material three times, first conceptually, then with the math, then focussing on applications. This structure maximized student learning, and makes the beautiful connections and unity between elements of the course clear.

Physics 0013 Modern Physics (Fall 2011 and 2012)

This class introduces two of the theories that revolutionized 20th century physics, namely Special Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Because these theories have been extensively validated experimentally, they underpin most of contemporary physics: this course is therefore one of the foundations of the physics major.

Physics 0146 Electromagnetic Theory II (Spring 2012, 2013 and 2016)

The second part of the graduate electromagnetism curriculum, this class develops the ideas introduced in Physics 0145 to  explain dynamic phenomena in electromagnetism, such as light waves and how they propagate. Significant emphasis is placed in interpreting the physical content of the mathematical theory, which has changed considerably from its first publication in 1864. The relationship of Electromagnetic theory to areas of contemporary interest, such as superconductors, the Ahranov-Bohm effect, topological insulators, photonic crystals, metamaterials and cloaking devices is also discussed.

Innovation in Physics Education

Tim cares about maintaining the high quality of his classes, and welcomes feedback from students on how to improve them both through formal and informal mechanisms. Using principles from Physics Education Research in his classes, he’s implemented the following innovative elements:

Project based learning:  Atherton’s Computational Physics class is entirely project-based, which means very little lecturing and extensive group work. The course is designed to more accurately mimic professional practice in the research environment, both in academia and industry, and hopefully better prepares students to succeed in these environments. Faculty interested in creating a similar class can read more in our paper in the American Journal of Physics.

Integrating Mathematica into the Physics Classroom: I get students to learn to program in Mathematica, a package for mathematics that convenient combines analytical calculations, numerics and easy visualization. Examples of how I use it to teach Quantum Mechanics visually, to engage students with exciting anaglyphs for use with 3D glasses  and help other faculty use it in their classes are on the group blog. We also contribute to the Wolfram Demonstrations Project.

Digital Storytelling: Students in my introductory classes create group video projects explaining science concepts from the course to the general public. See some of the results from Fall 2016Fall 2015Fall 2012 and Fall 2011.

Collaborative approach to Graduate classes: In Spring 2013, I tried a new approach to graduate education on Electromagnetic Theory. Instead of just doing calculations, we actually did experiments—these efforts culminated in a research paper published in the American Journal of Physics.