Student Research: The Senior Year Experience
Scott Shelley and Anya Stettler, Physics '07
Our goals for this course are twofold; we would like to give students a "capstone" experience in which they have an opportunity to talk with the faculty and with each other about important aspects of physics culture. We also wish to hone our students' communications skills, in particular their ability to give a scientific talk and write a solid scientific paper.
To pull together the many elements which make up the senior year in our physics major, the department requires students to participate in a seminar, Physics 399. At the approximately biweekly meetings, students and faculty gather around a table to discuss topics running the gamut from scientific ethics to how to give a scientific talk or write a scientific research paper.
Career Path discussions
As an example of the first goal, this seminar gives us a natural venue for discussing the current job climate in physics and alternative career paths. We provide students with advising about graduate programs, but we also encourage them strongly to consider alternative career paths. The latter is achieved both by providing them with an extensive list of careers pursued by alumni/ae of the College, and by a series of approximately three class visits from our graduates. Recent visits have included alumni working in engineering, high school teaching and policy analysis. Students also conduct phone interviews with alumni who are not practicing academic physicists.
We also hope the senior seminar provide students with a way to connect more informally with visiting scientists and speakers. For example, our Philips Visitors meet with students in several informal interactions in addition to delivering colloquia (which are required for senior majors.) Majors can participate in lengthy informal disucssions with eminent physicists (such as Joseph Taylor and Steve Chu) either at lunch, dinner or in a classroom setting. Several students have gotten important contacts for graduate study or job-searches from these interactions.
Senior Paper and Senior Talks
The most important part of the senior seminar remains the senior paper and the senior talks. The latter is a series of approximately half-hour presentations (twenty-five minute talks plus five minute questions-and-answer periods) conducted by the seniors for an audience of their peers and faculty. We have a preliminary session early in the year in which we instruct students on how to give a scientific talk, then each student works with an on-campus advisor on refining his or her presentation. Most students practice their presentations once or more in front of their advisors, and the majority take the planning and delivery of the talk quite seriously. The format resembles a standard research seminar, but students are requested to pitch the level so that their fellow majors can understand the entire talk. Students use transparencies or other visual aids as is appropriate. At the end of each presentation, a lively discussion often ensu es, with both faculty and students asking many questions, and the student speaker making a valiant attempt to answer them.
The senior paper is called paper rather than a thesis because not all students perform original research in physics or astronomy; the paper may be on a library-research topic approved by the department. The primary research supervisor can be located off-campus, but we require students to have an on-campus advisor for the purposes of preparing their paper and presentations. The paper conforms to the usual format for a short scientific paper, and we explicity instruct students in suggested writing styles, appropriate bibliographys and citation formats, the use of equations, and the proper inclusion of figures. The assembled final version is very similar to a manuscript properly prepared for journal submission.