Frequently Asked Questions
1. Why is there a thistle on this page? Well, some questions CAN get rather thorny ;-). Actually the thistle is a nod to the Scottish heritage in which Covenant College finds itself. This particular variety grows locally in our own "highlands".
2. What are some strengths of your program? You can read a more complete answer to this question here. Just briefly, a great strength is that our program is at a college that takes the evangelical and Reformed Christian faith seriously. This allows us freedoms to discuss all kinds of issues concerning science and Christianity in a supportive environment. A second strength is that each of our faculty members in physics had a dozen years or more physics research experience before coming to Covenant, so we know how physics is done in the research community. This allows us to prepare our majors well for the world "out there" in physics.
3. Would attaining a BA in physics at Covenant rather than a BS at a major university be a detriment for getting into graduate school? The short answer is no. On the one hand, a far more important criterion for getting into a good graduate school is how well one does on the advanced physics GRE. Any rigorous program such as ours can prepare a student fairly well for that, although a lot also depends on the student. On the other hand, many universities look favorably on the prospective students with a BA, because often they have learned to be serious students who like to learn, and their broader backgrounds tend to help them be more flexible in graduate school. Often such students need to make up a course or two upon entering graduate school, but that is fairly common. But to answer this question more fully, there is another important side of this choice. Perhaps it is more important to think about the difference in the two degrees from the perspective of what they will do for a student. As a graduate of Covenant myself (Dr. Petcher speaking), I cannot emphasize enough that all along the way I was tremendously glad I had attended Covenant rather than a university with a more narrowly focused physics program. It made a big difference in many respects in my preparation, from having more philosophical understanding of what I was doing, to being able to better help in churches and campus ministries, to being able to better talk to fellow graduate students and fellow researchers about a whole range of subjects including the Gospel. So I recommend the BA at Covenant route wholeheartedly.
4. Can students work with faculty on physics research? The short answer is yes (if you are impatient to find out how, skip down to the italics), but before answering this question, we would like to make a disclaimer. Many undergraduate institutions advertise that students can engage in research with faculty members, but in fact, to engage in research as an undergraduate may be of limited use apart from seeing how research is done, because students at this level do not typically have sufficient background to really understand the work. (In a large university, they may just end up doing the "grunt work" for a graduate student or post-doc.) Our program is designed to provide students with knowledge of how research is done through our modern physics and advanced lab courses, dealing with material appropriate for the level. (In the latter course, students can either choose an experimental topic or a topic in computer simulations.) That having been said, some years ago Dr. Broussard received a rather large grant to bring experimental research to Covenant in thin film growth and characterization. (See Covenant news.) He purchased the equipment in fall, 2008 and set it up and tested it in that academic year. In the fall of 2009, three of our seniors worked with him on experimental thin film research for special topics credit, and for several summers since, the college has had funded positions for undergraduates to work on research projects. In the future we hope to continue to obtain funding for student summer research support, and majors continue to be able to work with the equipment through the special topics course in thin films research. (You can monitor the progress of this work on the research page.) For the more theoretically minded, Dr. Petcher offers the possibility to do an advanced lab in computer simulations. Recently, he was engaged in a simulation project with one of our majors addressing issues in evolutionary algorithms with an eye toward intelligent design questions.
5. When would I have to decide between a physics major and an engineering major? Most of the first two years are the same, with only a few minor exceptions that can be worked around. So if you are undecided, the best approach would be to pursue the engineering major in the beginning. Physics upper division courses begin in the third year, so you will have to have decided by then. We have also had students who majored in physics here at Covenant, and then went on to study engineering in graduate school. So that is another possible option.
6. I have AP credit for AP Physics C. Can I be exempt from PHY 231? We do not allow students who plan to major in physics, engineering, or chemistry to place out of PHY 231 for two reasons. The first reason is that we require calculus as pre-requisite rather than co-requisite, which allows our course to be a little more calculus dependent than the AP course can. (Many universities have a calculus based course with calculus as a co-requisite for which AP credit would be appropriate, but our approach is the one followed by Georgia Tech, with whom we have our engineering dual degree program.) The second reason is that the course serves as a multifaceted preparation for other aspects of our program. For example, here are three ways that is so. First, in our labs we are a little more rigorous than the typical AP course in terms of error assessment, in preparation for more advanced lab work. Second our first year physics course serves as the "writing" course for our major to satisfy that aspect of the core curriculum. To that end, we teach our students how scientific work is presented in writing, and how to typeset their lab reports using the (free) program called LaTeX. This program is the best available for typesetting mathematics, and is thus appropriate for a physics or engineering major to know. Third we also require some additional reading in the course and some discussion to begin to lay a foundation for the part of our curriculum that deals with science and the Christian faith. So the big picture is that this course is rather tightly integrated into our overall curriculum as a foundational course with several purposes, so it is needed as preparation for going on in the major. For those majoring in biology, the biology department will determine if you need to retake physics or not when the time comes.
7. I have AP credit for AB (or BC) calculus. What course should I take? We have had several students in the past with BC calculus credit who went straight into Calculus III their freshmen year with excellent results. However, for students with AB credit, those who skipped Calculus I to enroll in Calculus II have often struggled. Therefore if you have AB credit, we suggest that you consider taking Calculus I anyway, or at least sitting in so that you know what to expect in Calculus II. If you have BC credit, unless you have doubts about your background, go ahead and enroll in Calculus III.
8. Can I take first semester physics at my local college, transfer it in for PHY 231, and start out in PHY 232 at Covenant? For most of the answer to this question, see the answer to question 6 above. In addition, however, even if your local college does have a course that has a calculus prerequsite, most such courses cover in two semesters the subject matter that we cover in three. That allows us to go at a slower pace, partly to provide a more in depth coverage and partly to spend the time to lay a solid conceptual foundation. In addition, we require calculus 3 as a corequsite to PHY 232, requiring the students to be taking three dimensional calculus in the semester when it is useful for studying electricity and magnetism. Many two semester calculus based physics courses do not require calculus 3 as a corequisite for physics 2. In summary, it is best for our program if you take the whole sequence of general physics courses here at Covenant.
9. Does the physics department require a particular type of calculator or computer? The short answer is no, we do not require a particular type of either one, but students will probably want a scientifc calculator of some kind, and if they intend to buy a new computer, we suggest a Mac (see below). Concerning calculators, most students do come in with a graphing calculator of some sort, which can be useful but is not absolutely required for our program. As to computers, almost all students nowadays have their own computer, usually a laptop, which can be useful for taking lab data on the spot, but it is still not entirely necessary to have your own. The college maintains a computer lab and some computers in the dormitories with some standard software (though most college software is now web based via google, canvas, and banner), and the physics department has a few computers that have a some more specific programs. As to a recommendation for your own personal computer, the world of physics, as with some other sciences, has generally gravitated toward the unix operating system. In the past, this meant that scientists would use something like a Sun workstation, or a Digital Equipment workstation, or more lately, would run linux on a PC. However, since Apple adopted Mac OS X, an operating system based on a version of unix, the Mac has become an excellent, and perhaps the best, scientific platform. In view of this, all members of the physics department use Macs for our own desktop computers, although we do have a couple PCs in the department to help with any cross platform issues. So if you are buying a new computer for school, we would recommend a Mac of some sort. If you already have a PC (as many of our students do), or just prefer Windows or linux for some other reason, that is OK too. We do not require anything that can't be done on either platform. As to data taking in the lab, the most convenient thing to do is to use a spreadsheet, because it can do calculations on the spot. We have found all three standard spreadsheets, Google's Sheets, Apple's Numbers, and Microsoft's Excel to be adequate for this task. So there is quite some flexibility nowadays where computers are concerned.
Please send questions to Dr. Petcher
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