College Physics: The Early Years
My college experience with physics varied greatly among different teachers and courses. To generalize my physics education as any single quality level (good, bad, ugly) would mask a great deal of variance in the individual classes. All the professors I had for class were very intelligent, and their knowledge of physics was vastly beyond my own. But while some professors were very well-prepared and engaged in teaching, others were severely negligent in their preparation for class or attention to teaching a course.
My first semester’s physics class (the generically-titled University Physics I) was challenging, but manageable. The professor was actually hired to be at BGSU for his focus on teaching physics (since BGSU has a lot of education majors), so his attention to teaching the course was usually very good. Unfortunately, his good intentions and competence were often overshadowed by his soft-spoken voice. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the work and challenge, and came away from the class with a lot of insights into basic physics and enthusiasm for future physics courses.
My second semester was spent with almost all my attention to IMPACT (the Learning Community I was a part of; more on this later), and I neglected to take the next physics course in the lineup. At the time, I didn’t know I even had a physics advisor, or even that I should have talked to someone in the physics department before signing up for classes. I had thought that I could just take it the following semester, and not have any problems. Unbeknownst to me, however, that class was a prerequisite to ALL subsequent physics classes. So that summer, I had to take the class in its shortened and non-calculus-based form (College Physics II, not University Physics II) in order to continue my physics degree.
The third semester (Fall of 2004) was when I took Modern Physics and learned just how poor of a teaching job a professor could do. The professor (who shall remain nameless), was apparently under the impression that to teach a class, one must simply copy words from a textbook onto the blackboard, have students write them down, derive some equations throughout the semester and give 10 problems on an exam at the end of the course as the entire grade. Oh, did I mention that those problems were done in class? And did I mention that we were allowed to bring notes to the exam? And did I mention that one of the 10 questions on the final exam that determined one’s grade for the semester was to name the four members of the band Deep Purple? And did I mention that we were told to look those name up before the exam day? Yeah, I think you get the point. It was an absurdly easy course that provided no challenge whatsoever and, more critically, skipped over a lot of important skills and information that would have provided building blocks for future courses . . . had we learned anything useful.
My fourth semester was the exact opposite. It was a very difficult course for me. The instructor for Waves Mechanics was very prepared and knowledgeable, but didn’t offer much help to those students who were struggling. I happened to be one of those students. Upon requests for help on problem sets or during lab, he would usually give a suggestion and send you back on your way. Attempts to get groups of other students in the class together for study sessions were largely fruitless; it was each man for himself (it was an all-male class). This class represented my first real struggle with a physics class that, despite my best efforts, was seemingly beyond my abilities. I ended up getting B in the class, which didn’t do wonders for my GPA, but it was a rude awakening to the real difficulty of physics for me.
At points during that fourth semester, I seriously began to question whether physics was the right career choice for me. Unlike my previous issue with a physics course (back in high school), this one wasn’t attributable to a lack of effort or concentration. I really did try to do my best in the course, but my will to succeed was quickly waning. Fortunately, (or perhaps unfortunately), I was also taking an Intro to Astronomy course with Dr. Layden that same semester. It would prove to shift my focus from the difficult physics coursework I was struggling with to the refreshingly less-mathematically-complex world of introductory astronomy. However, as I will muse in my next post in this series, the distraction of astronomy may have prolonged the inevitable conclusion: physics just isn’t right for me.
Until next time, bonnes pensées.