Why does the space shuttle returning to Earth cause two separate sonic booms?
In 2001, the Department of Physics introduced an optional senior thesis for all Physics majors, which comprises three semesters of integrated research and instruction. The first course, Physics 496 "Introduction to Physics Research," is offered to students during the spring semester of their junior years. The students then undertake an independent research project during the summer and follow up with Physics 499 "Senior Thesis" during the fall semester of their senior years. Broad themes that are covered in the courses are "doing science," the ethical conduct of science, communicating in science, and pursuing a physics career.
Spring, Junior Year: In Physics 496, students get acquainted with how to choose a research topic. They learn how to write effective titles and abstracts and how to present scientific information visually in figures. They make a web page on a physics topic, written at the Scientific American level, to practice communicating science to non-specialists. They work in teams to prepare a journal club presentation, write a PRL-type manuscript review, and do literature reviews for their proposed summer research projects. They solve Fermi problems and present their solutions to the class informally, using a chalk board to explain their calculations. They learn a variety of technical writing skills—expressing numbers, rules for capitalization, acronyms and abbreviations, and the use of Latin terms in scientific writing. Students are introduced to scientific ethics and discuss a series of case studies, and they learn how to document their work and use scientific resources. They practice making oral presentations and write a preliminary research paper.
Summer: During the summer, students perform independent research under the guidance of Illinois faculty, for which they receive a stipend.
Fall, Senior Year: The goal of Physics 499 is to have students prepare a formal thesis on their summer research project. During the semester, they also make a scientific poster and present it to the external Physics Advisory Board, write a statement of purpose for graduate school, and prepare and review a research proposal. Students also learn about frontier physics research areas from local faculty and hear about strategies for selecting, getting into, and succeeding in a graduate physics program.
The Physics 496/499 Senior Thesis course sequence culminates in the Undergraduate Research Symposium, which is held in January each year, at which the students formally present the results of their research to members of the Physics Illinois Department.
The new course sequence not only provides a very valuable experience for our students, research has shown that the opportunity to do hands-on research is also a determining factor in attracting and keeping women and minorities in science careers. Indeed, nearly 25 percent of the students completing the sequence have been women, nearly double their representation in our overall undergraduate ranks. Thus, the new program is an important step in our broad goal of increasing the diversity of our department and our discipline.
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