Curricular Design - Physics and Astronomy - Colgate University Skip Navigation

Curricular Innovation in Physics and Astronomy

We take education in physics and astronomy to the highest level with a challenging and innovative curriculum. Our aim is to give you the best instruction and opportunities for exploration and learning as is possible.
We strive to maximize the educational and engagement value of our curriculum.

The First Year

We have structured a unique introductory sequence designed to quickly immerse students in topics of interest to contemporary physics. Additionally, the courses are team-taught using a combination of lecture, demonstration, problem solving, and lab, giving you the opportunity to learn physics in many contexts and to work in small groups.

Physics 131

Traditionally, an introduction to physics starts with 17th-century mechanics. Instead, we begin our introductory course with a question that is still relevant today: Does matter consist of particles or waves? This question leads us into many important and exciting themes of 20th-century and 21st-century physics, including relativity and quantum mechanics.

Physics 232

In our second course, we return to the study of mechanics, but with an astronomical approach: “Physics from Spaceship Earth.” Early astronomers thought that Earth was the center of the universe, but now we know we orbit a small star located near the edge of a spiral galaxy. How, then, does it make sense that the universe seems to be expanding uniformly away from us? Doesn’t this observation put us back at the center of the universe? This question motivates our study of vectors. Other astronomical topics — the rotation of galaxies and the missing "dark" matter, the search for new planets, planetary-system dynamics, rockets, and space exploration — are introduced as examples of the inspiring predictive power of mechanical laws.

The Math Modules

We have developed a series of math modules to teach the mathematics needed for the upper-level courses:
  • Physics 201: Scientific programming using Matlab
  • Physics 202: Using complex numbers to solve the oscillator differential equation
  • Physics 203: Fourier series and Fourier transform
  • Physics 204: Divergence, gradient, curl; line, surface and volume integrals; series solutions to partial differential equations

The Upper-level Sequence

Our flexible upper-level course structure departs from the traditional sequence of courses required to prepare students for graduate school in physics. All upper-level courses are taught every other year. The result is that we offer a wider variety of upper-level courses than most liberal arts colleges, and you are free to choose courses based on your interests. 

Undergraduate Research

You are encouraged to become involved in faculty research both in summer projects and during the academic year. Additionally, in the fall semester of the senior year, all students enroll in Physics 410, Advanced Topics and Experiments, in which you will complete an independent research project under the guidance of a faculty member.

As part of the course, you will give several presentations on your research and write a research paper. Faculty work closely with students to polish these presentations. Many students choose to continue their projects in the spring semester as an independent studies course. This research frequently results in publications in which undergraduates are co-authors.