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Kathryn Weil ’14

Physics

Jump to section: Curriculum | Advising | Mentoring

I have been the Physics Department UDR since January of 2012. I have organized events and activities to make the physics department feel more cohesive, like a family. My goal was to have physics major and minors feel they could communicate with one another when they needed help with homework or advice with classes no matter what class year the students were in. I also wanted to make sure that the students felt comfortable talking to faculty advisers, or felt they had a way of communicating with the faculty whether directly or through my voice at the faculty meetings. Since 2012, I have been attending faculty meetings to help facilitate discussions about undergraduate education in the physics department. Many of the results from these discussions are described below, since they resulted in changes to the curriculum, new review courses, and the creation of a tutoring center for undergraduate physics majors.

Curriculum

In my first semester as a UDR I advocated for a curriculum change in PHYS 20a. After completing the course, my classmates and I felt that we had not learned the material since it was extremely rushed and very dense. The course was divided into two parts, taught from two separate textbooks, each one for about half the semester. The first half of the course was extremely math heavy, and to understand the physics one must first understand the math, and the math comprehension for most students took longer than the amount of time spent covering the material. The second half of the semester seemed to be a completely new course, which we later found out was all material that would be repeated in PHYS 31a, the next course in the physics sequence. After discussing with the faculty that the students actually did not understand the material from the first half of the class and that the second half of the semester's material was being retaught the following semester using a more mathematical background anyway, they agreed to change the curriculum. The curriculum change resulted in the elimination of a large portion of the material covered during the second half of the class, to allow more time to focus on the more dense material at the beginning of the semester to ensure that the phys-ics majors have a strong base and understanding in these key mathematical concepts. Since the changes students have not complained about the course and seem to have a good understanding of both the mathematics and physics covered in the course.

Another example involving curriculum changes occurred this past fall when I was involved in the Department discussion over whether or not to merge a graduate and undergraduate course, because of limited teaching resources. The under-graduate course in discussion was a junior level course, typically taken during a physics major’s toughest semester when they had to take two core physics courses. At first the discussion involved eliminating the undergraduate level of the course and requiring the graduate level for completion of the major. After doing a quick straw poll of the students who I knew had already taken the course, they said they would have been “psyched out” of the course before it even started had the course been numbered a graduate level course. I expressed this concern to the faculty, and together we agreed a co-teaching model would allow the undergraduates and graduates to have the same lectures with different problem sets, and keep the undergraduate numbering for the course. The “new” course shouldn’t induce undue stress for the undergraduates since the course material will remain unchanged. More importantly, however, is that there is now one more teaching slot available per year, which means that Classical Mechanics, a course previously offered only every other year, can now be taught every year. Classical Mechanics is extremely important for graduate school and in previous years would cause every other year of students to have to separate their Quantum Mechanics courses by over a year, making many students’ most challenging course even harder.

I was also involved in curriculum changes regarding AP credits in the major. In the past many students have wanted to simply skip first-year physics and start in PHYS 20a (sophomore year physics), to take credit for their AP tests which were deemed “equal” to PHYS 11a/b. However, in the past Professors had found the AP exam was not equal to the first year physics courses and students would quickly fall behind in PHYS 20a. The students desire to skip the course was justified, as it was 8 credits of course work that they could not receive from AP exams if they took PHYS 11a/b or 15a/b. In discussions with the faculty about this policy, we reached a new ruling on the AP exams, so that students can receive university credit for both the AP exam and PHYS 15a/b, however they only receive credit toward the major for PHYS 15a/b. In a 17 course major, reducing the number of courses a student has to take while at Brandeis makes it so that a student does not have to overload any semester they are Brandeis, since they will still have enough university credits to graduate on time. This has made the first year course load lighter for students, making the transition easier and yielding a higher number of majors remaining after the first year.

Throughout my two and half years as a UDR, I have been involved in faculty discussions over the number of hours stu-dents are expected to work on assignments and how many hours students actually spent working on the assignments. This past fall, for example, there was one class where the weekly homework was taking the top students in the class over 30 hours to complete. This amount of course work was found by the department to be excessive and it prompted an overall departmental review of assignments to ensure that students were not being assigned exorbitant amounts of homework in any class. This also applied to the two credit lab classes where the department determined the need to restructure lab reports since it was taking the students far longer than the faculty expected to complete the weekly lab reports. This was extremely important for undergraduates because it allowed them more free time to enjoy school, and it made becoming a physics major not so daunting since the Professors were looking out for the students when it came to the amount of work being assigned each week.

I wasn’t just concerned about the number of hours being spent on homework; I also was concerned about students’ ability to complete their homework. I felt it was important for physics majors to be able to get help on their homework for all of their physics classes, not just introductory physics. Not all upper level classes have Teaching Assistants (TA); many just have graders. This posed problems for many students for multiple reasons. First many students had class during the professor’s office hours and had trouble scheduling appointments to meet with a professor to discuss the homework problem. Secondly, students said that many of the professors were simply giving the same explanation as they did in their lecture, which did not help the student to solve their problem. In a class with a TA, there would be an option to seek the help of the TA, however in a class with no TA, the students have no additional resources past the professor teaching the course. After discussing this situation during a faculty meeting, and having the faculty support for addressing the problem, the idea of a Physics Tutoring Center was proposed. The Tutoring Center opened in September of 2013 and is now staffed 6 days a week to provide help to all students enrolled in physics courses. The Tutoring Center is staffed by graduate student TAs and by undergraduate student volunteers who tutor in the classes they have already taken. The tutoring center also reduces the loads faced by the PHYS 10 and PHYS 11 BUGS tutors who last year told professors they had trouble handling the large number of people attending their weekly sessions.

This past year I took the GRE subject test in Physics (PGRE) along with a few of my other classmates. For many graduate schools in physics, the PGRE score is one of the factors used in the initial sort of applications, so a good score is vital for getting into certain programs. After taking our first few practice exams, and getting scores we were unhappy with, we realized just how much studying we needed to and how much material we had never seen before. At this point I had been advocating to the faculty for help, but by the time we had a faculty meeting to discuss this issue, it was 2 weeks before the test and only 1 tutoring session could be formed. However, the faculty agreed to participate in a Review Course for the PGRE in the Spring Term. I developed the formal course that started on February 2 and will run until March 30, which includes 3 proctored exams, and six 3-hour faculty review sessions run by a total of 9 professors each giving between 1 and 3 hours of review. For the course, review books were made, rooms were booked and the building was unlocked on the weekends to allow the students to get to review. The class has been a success, with more than 20 students signing up for the course, including 3 from Wellesley University. We are hoping to develop a course that would alternate between the two schools, one school in the spring and one in the fall if the demand remains after the spring course.

Advising

Each semester before registration, the UDRs have held an "Undergraduate Advising" event. At this event we present to the students the courses being offered in the upcoming semester or year (depending upon what is known at the time of the meeting), so that we can help the students plan their courses. It is at this meeting that we also many times find that there are conflicts between math and physics courses that students want to take, and I work with the faculty to remedy the conflict in any way possible. This event also helps to bring the majors and minors closer together, since many times we will have discussions not only about important courses a major/minor should be taking, but also about the type of research that undergraduates are preforming in various labs. Since many of the seniors do a “Senior Honors Thesis,” and it is highly encouraged by the department to be involved in research, this event provides a relaxed environment for students to talk about their research and teach others about what they are learning.

One additional event I have planned for this semester is a “Graduate School Advising” event. Despite its title this event is aimed at all physics majors including the underclassman because the event showcases where a Brandeis physics major can go to earn a PhD. Since I have been at Brandeis, I have only found out about where people were getting their PhDs via word of mouth, there was no record for students to look at in order to determine appropriate schools to apply to. This past year three out the twelve physics majors applied to over 20 PhD programs and received acceptances from many top tier schools. These three applicants have agreed to create a document containing their grades, test scores, research experience, and acceptances and rejections from school so that the class applying next year has an idea about where Brandeis students have been accepted and what grades and scores were needed to be admitted. A secondary goal of this event is to try to share advice about applying to graduate school, such as visiting different schools ahead of the application process in order to narrow down the type of school you would want to attend for 5+ years. As an added benefit to the students, a faculty member who sits on the Brandeis Physics Graduate School admission committee has volunteered to speak about what admissions committees are looking for in applications to help the younger students under-stand what is expected in a strong application.

Mentoring

Since I became a UDR I have attended all of the Admitted Students Day events on behalf of the Physics Department to recruit more physics majors to Brandeis, and the number of physics majors have been increasing. I have also attended the Academic Fairs during Orientation to help guide students toward the correct classes for their first semester at Brandeis. There are three different introductory physics courses, two different lab courses, and four possible math options all for first semester (assuming the student has taken some form of calculus). For the physics courses there was no diagnostic exam until this past August, so deciding which course to take was confusing. After watching the confusion of students, and going through it myself, I discussed with the faculty the need for creating a placement test to help eliminate the confusion surrounding introductory physics. The new test was implemented last summer. This past fall, we saw students better placed in classes and having more success in their classes, and more students wanting to continue as physics majors.

One of my main goals since becoming a UDR was to increase the number of female physics majors. The two years ahead of me had 2 female physics majors in each class out of a class of about 10. However in my year, I am the only female physics major in a class of 12 majors. It has been my goal to increase the number of female students majoring in physics by providing an environment where they can feel comfortable and not feel like a minority. The weekend before I returned to Brandeis in January 2012, I attended the “Undergraduate Women in Physics Conference,” where I noticed for the first time how the lack of female physics majors was affecting me. After this meeting, I wanted to make sure that female physics majors in the years behind me had a role model and a person to talk to, so that they didn’t feel discouraged or alone when they were one of only one or two majors. This past year there were two of us at the 2014 “Undergraduate Women in Physics Conference,” where we learned more about the ways in which women can advocate for themselves in physics and create receptive environments for women in physics. I am really encouraged by the trend I am seeing in the number of female physics majors at Brandeis; there are at least 6 in the class behind me and 5 in the current sophomore class.

I found the UDR experience to be extremely rewarding and insightful. In addition to helping other students, I have learned how to communicate with faculty, and have also gained a new perspective on the educational and administrative issues that arose throughout my time serving as a UDR. My experiences as a UDR have formed a foundation that I will be able to build upon as a Ph.D. candidate at Dartmouth College. It has been a privilege and an honor to have been the Brandeis Physics Department UDR.