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Studying first year physics

4 September 2020
New ways of studying physics at Sydney
The School of Physics is introducing a range of innovations into their physics teaching after a successful pilot trial.

We spoke to Professor Tara Murphy about the recent innovations undertaken to revamp first year study of physics.

What's new about first year physics?

We have created a new completely version of Physics 1001, which ran for the first time in the August intensive semester.

In the new version of this unit you’ll learn how physics can be used to tackle Grand Challenge problems, like how to send a fleet of tiny nanocraft to Alpha Centauri, or how to create the coldest labs on Earth so we can build quantum computers.

In our pilot we trialled a range of innovations, some of which will be incorporated into our mainstream physics teaching, including a flipped/blended approach, combined lectures and workshops, classes with dedicated tutors, and the use of a common discussion forum across all components of the course.

Our new Physics 1001 can run completely online, or in face-to-face mode, or a combination of both, so regardless of what happens in Semester 1, 2021 we’ll have a great course for you to learn physics. 

Why have changes been made?

Physics first year has not changed substantially in a long time, and the cohort has changed. We wanted to create a better-integrated course, which established a stronger sense of community, and incorporated lessons learned from developing and running a number of successful online courses.

Our aim was to bring the diverse range of reasons people are excited about physics to the forefront. We were also funded by the Faculty as part of a wider pilot program!

What can physics tell us about the making of The Shining?

What can students look forward to by enrolling in physics in their first year?

An exciting blended-learning experience which demonstrates the power and relevance of physics, conveys a strong sense of place (Physics at Sydney), and provides strong support through all stages of learning.

We’ll use physics to explain how honeybees fly, the use of steadicams in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”, and the power of nature’s engines - volcanos.

We motivate each topic by a big idea, which should surprise you. When you dive deeper and combine conceptual understanding with problem solving techniques, you have a powerful toolkit for analysing situations in terms of physical principles.

If a student hasn’t done physics at HSC level, can they still study physics?

Yes! We have physics courses designed for everyone. If you haven’t studied physics before you can enrol in PHYS1002 Physics 1 (Fundamentals).

Most people find physics challenging, but we will focus on building your physics intuition with a problem-solving approach. You'll learn how to break down problems and analyse them quantitatively. And in the labs you'll gain hands on experience, performing experiments, collecting data and interpreting your results.

If you already have a strong physics background you can enrol in PHYS1901 Physics 1 (Advanced).

Once you've mastered the core material, we encourage you to explore further, conduct your own experiments, and challenge yourself, to gain a deeper understanding.

What are the pathways after first year?

The physics major requires two units at second-year level, and four units at third year. It is an excellent fit to a variety of other majors, and in the new degrees at Sydney you can combine it with any other major.

In the Bachelor of Advanced Studies students complete a fourth year, which can be an embedded Honours (a pathway to research) or a year studying Advanced Coursework and group projects, designed to enhance skills and knowledge for a range of future careers or further study.

What is the value of doing physics?

Physics lets us explain the universe, from the behavior of individual atoms, to the evolution of stars and galaxies.

It provides explanations for everyday phenomena we observe in the world around us. How can bees fly? How does a refrigerator work? How do violins make music?

Those explanations are incredibly powerful. They enable design and prediction. All modern technologies rely on basic physics principles and physics is at the forefront of new ones like quantum computing.

Physics gives us a deeper understanding behind some of the biggest challenges we face today, including medical treatments and climate change.

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