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Physics Courses Explore Concepts for Non-STEM Majors

November 18, 2016


From music to the sciences, Texas Lutheran University’s holistic approach to education allows students to explore the interconnectedness across varying disciplines. Recognizing this as a hallmark of a liberal arts education, The Physics Department is also focusing on non-STEM majors. The Conceptual Physics (PHYS 143) and Physics of Modern World Issues (PHYS 144) courses bring what many might view as a very complicated area of science into our everyday lives.

For Assistant Physics Professor Calvin Berggren everything can be tied back to physics and that’s exactly what he teaches in Physics of Modern World Issues. Offered during the fall semester, the course explores important national or world issues related to his field of study.

“Topics can include everything from renewable energy, MRIs, and spy satellites to music, sound, and climate change,” Berggren said. “We might discuss something like how microwaves work and misconceptions of radiation or nuclear weapons testing and the capabilities of countries like North Korea. I want students to see how if you have a little bit of basic science knowledge, you can understand these world issues even more.”

Satisfying a lab and Critical Thinking credit for the university’s general education curriculum, both classes require no math or physics prerequisite. The only requirement, according to Department Chair Toni Sauncy, is that you’re curious about physics.

“Our goal is to make physics more approachable for non-STEM majors and these classes were designed specifically with them in mind,” Sauncy said. “When our physics majors take a music course, we’re not expecting them to become a performer, but rather become more informed and develop a deeper appreciation for music. This is what we want the non-STEM majors who take these courses to do. We want them to be more informed about physics and science, and use critical thinking in daily activities.”

Conceptual Physics, taught during the spring semester by Instructor Erin Scanlon, focuses on the presence of physics in everyday life. Whether it’s looking at good and bad examples of physics in movies or videoing a physics-related finding on campus, Scanlon’s goal is for students to see how science is all around them.

“I really like to tailor coursework and projects to the interests of students in the class,” Scanlon said. “One semester I had a lot of communications studies majors so we looked at the physics of the media. I wanted them to be able to look at a news article and parse out what was real science from what wasn’t. Another time I had several art majors in the class so we focused on the art of physics and how a piece of art could be explained using physics phenomena.”

Scanlon said it’s important for these courses to be relatable to the non-STEM students taking them and understand what their own scholarly interests are.

“I had a student who was really into ‘Star Wars’ so they did an art project explaining how the blasters would work and the light would bend,” Scanlon said. “Another student did a painting about quantum tunneling and how light moves through solid barriers. Another used flash cards to explain the light spectrum; so it really is all about how we as educators help students develop scientific knowledge while still challenging them to think about how physics relates to everything. This opens up physics to a whole new set of students and it’s fun. Physics really is for everyone.”