Physics instruction at Cal Poly - Learn by Doing
Learn by Doing is a guiding principle that permeates the physics curriculum. A major emphasis on laboratory investigations, especially at the upper division, complements students' theoretical and computational grounding. At the lower division level, several sections of courses are taught in a studio environment using materials developed on the basis of research on the learning and teaching of physics.
Physics instruction at Cal Poly is conducted in a variety of formats by skilled professionals who focus on building an inclusive and welcoming learning community so that all students achieve proficiency.
Who are our instructors?
The physics department at Cal Poly is composed of approximately 35 tenure-track faculty members and 15 full-time lecturers with doctoral degrees in physics or physics education research, as well as part-time instructors, Teachers-in-Residence, Learning Assistants, tutors, graders, and technical staff, all of whom are here to serve primarily the instructional needs of our students.
Tenure-track faculty members carry out instruction, service, and scholarly activity as part of their regular expected duties.
Full-time lecturers are hired on short-term contracts (one-year minimum, three-year maximum) primarily to carry out instruction at the introductory level, but opportunities for professional growth and enrichments are available to them. Further information about our lecturers and their role in our department can be found here.
Part-time instructors teach anywhere from one class to a full load in a given quarter, depending on need and availability.
Teachers-in-Residence are instructors who serve in specialized roles within our department to help instruct courses and provide advising and resources for students in educational career tracks.
Learning Assistants (LA) are undergraduate students who work with Faculty Instructors in the classroom to facilitate problem solving, discussions, and activities in introductory and GE courses. These are students who have already taken the course and are interested in helping other students learn. LAs are able to explore teaching as a possible career path through direct classroom experience. Unlike Teaching Assistants or Lab Assistants at many other universities, LAs receive ongoing pedagogical preparation in the form of a seminar, in addition to preparation in the subject matter. For more information on our LA program, click here.
Tutors are advanced undergraduates who work part-time in the Physics Learning Center to provide free help to students in introductory courses. These paid, part-time positions are filled by students who have passed the course and who qualify for paid employment with the State of California. Physics Learning Center hours are updated each quarter and posted here for easy access.
Graders are undergraduates who assist instructors with assessment of student written work. These paid, part-time positions are filled by students who have passed the course and who qualify for paid employment with the State of California.
Who are our students?
The physics department at Cal Poly serves a wide constituency of students across the University through course offerings in general education, physical science, introductory physics, and upper level lecture and laboratory courses.
General Education classes primarily serve students in non-STEM majors to satisfy their Area B requirement. The student body in these classes is varied: one can find first-time freshmen all the way to senior students from a wide variety of colleges and majors.
Physical Science courses are primarily taken by first and second year students majoring in Liberal Studies, who will become multiple subject elementary school teachers. These courses also satisfy Area B general education requirements.
Introductory Physics courses comprise the largest share of physics courses (by enrollment) offered in our department. These are taken by majors for all STEM disciplines across the University as part of their preparation for advanced classes within their major fields of study. Although physics majors represent a small fraction of the population within these classes we make every effort to schedule our majors into a small number of sections so that they can meet and interact with other students within the major from the start of their matriculation.
Upper level advanced classes in the physics department are primarily taken by physics majors to satisfy their core curriculum, but students from the College of Engineering often take them as well to satisfy technical elective requirements in their majors.
There are typically 200 enrolled physics majors in the department along with 30 students from diverse majors who choose to complete a minor in physics, astronomy, or geology in our department. Most (95%) strive to earn the B.S. degree, with the rest aiming for a B.A. in physics. The B.A. provides opportunities for students with broader interests to tailor their studies to suit their career goals. For more information about the B.A. program, see here. About 33% of our majors go directly to a graduate program, 33% to industry, and 16% to teaching. In fact, Cal Poly Physics is one of the largest producers of well-prepared high school physics teachers in the nation.
How is physics instruction conducted?
General Education Courses for Area B
PHYS 104, ASTR 101-102, etc.
Led by a Faculty Instructor in traditional lecture format in class sizes typically of 48, 70, or 120 students, meeting for one hour three or four times per week. Larger sections may have Learning Assistants who work with the Faculty Instructor to facilitate in-class problem solving, activities, and discussions.
Introductory Physical Science Courses for Liberal Studies
Led by a Faculty Instructor in a studio classroom with maximum enrollment of 36 students. Class meetings are two hours, three times per week, involving in-class lab activities, group, and class problem-solving and discussions. These classes model for prospective elementary teachers the authentic practices of scientists and promote the development of a coherent conceptual understanding.
Introductory Physics Courses for Life Sciences
Led by a Faculty Instructor in traditional lecture format in class sizes typically of 48 students. Lecture meetings are one hour, three or four times per week, with a laboratory session of three hours once per week. During laboratory meetings, the Faculty Instructor leads 24 students in groups of three through one hours of problem-solving "recitation" followed by two hours of laboratory experiments exploring concepts related to lecture content.
Introductory Physics Courses for Scientists and Engineers
PHYS 141, 132, 133
Led by a Faculty Instructor in a variety of formats that serve multiple learning styles. The traditional lecture format includes class sizes typically of 48 students meeting for one hour, three or four times per week and a laboratory session of three hours once per week. During laboratory meetings, the Faculty Instructor leads 24 students in groups of three through one hour of problem-solving "recitation" followed by two hours of laboratory experiments exploring concepts related to lecture content. The studio format has a maximum enrollment of 36 students. Class meetings are two hours, three times per week, involving integrated in-class laboratory activities, group problem-solving, and class discussions. All studio sessions currently utilize Learning Assistants who work with the Faculty Instructor to facilitate the learning of students working in small groups on problem-solving, activities, and discussions.
Upper Level Major Courses - Lecture
PHYS 301-303, 322, 405-406, 408-409, etc.
Led by a Faculty Instructor in traditional lecture format in class sizes of up to 48 students, meeting for one hour three or four times per week.
Upper Level Major Courses - Laboratory
PHYS 206, 340-342, etc.
Led by a Faculty Instructor in fully outfitted laboratory classrooms of 8 or 16 students, working in pairs on experiments in modern physics. The number of three-hour weekly meetings varies by course.
The completion of a senior project is a requirement for both the BA and the BS degrees in physics. These courses are individual research projects carried out one-on-one or in small groups with a single Faculty Instructor. Weekly class meetings between students and instructor are arranged individually.
PHYS 200, 400, etc
These courses are faculty-led, student-driven explorations of individual interest that can be more in-depth investigations of topics explored in traditional courses or research carried out one-on-one or in small groups with a single Faculty Instructor. Weekly class meetings between students and instructor are arranged individually.