Confused at a higher level

The view from a liberal arts college physics department (and deanery)

Advanced E+M

Posted by Arjendu on April 20, 2010

I am teaching the course we call ‘Advanced Electricity and Magnetism’ at Carleton, which most schools would recognize as ‘Griffiths’ or ‘Baby Jackson’. It’s an elective, usually populated mostly by seniors and some juniors (this year I have 6 of one, and 3 of the other), and fulfills no requirement for graduation or the major whatsoever. It’s a hard-nosed look at Electricity and Magnetism at a level well beyond the first exposure to the material, and serving as a review as well, in keeping with Carleton Physics’s weirdly valuable spiraling curriculum. If I haven’t said this on the blog, I believe that Carleton’s somewhat unusual curriculum prepares students as well as it does largely because we allow multiple opportunities for exposure to the same material — for classical mechanics, for e+m, in some ways for quantum mechanics, for relativity, etc.

Apart from my ‘research group’ meeting, this is about as close to a graduate class I am going to teach at Carleton, and I took advantage of that, some flexibility in my schedule, and the students’ requests to move it from the originally scheduled 8:30 MWF meeting time to suggest that we do it by meeting once a week 7:30PM — 10:30PM on Mondays. I’ve also assigned 2 classes each to each of the students (which works out to two students per meeting). These two students and I meet on Thu or Fri and sometimes as late as Sunday to talk over the material coming up (everyone else is supposed to read the material on their own before our Monday meeting and email questions to the entire group), and we work out what they are going to present — usually it’s some hard example problems, a sketch of the material as presented in the book, and some banging our heads against the more complicated issues.

We’ve had some interesting variations: In one case we decided to look at induced eddy currents by dropping small powerful magnets through conducting tubes (and then decided it would be fun to cool these tubes with liquid nitrogen to see how much the dropped magnets would slow down — it was a hoot); in another case, someone who had just done, as part of his comps, the tensor version of Maxwell’s equations, presented that to the class for our edification.

We’ve also read a book I recommend strongly to anyone interested in such matters, Daniel Fleisch’s “A Student Guide to Maxwell’s Equations” – an outstanding review of the material.

My usual trick of trying something new and interesting for courses when I can has paid off handsomely for this one: I think I can safely say that I am working on things a lot less than I would be in any ‘normal’ format, I see absolutely no lost opportunities in student learning as far as I can tell, and only benefits, to be honest, and the students themselves assure me repeatedly that they are having a blast.

And so it goes.

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3 Responses to “Advanced E+M”

  1. Anton said

    This was my favorite class that I took at Carleton. Bill Titus taught it as a discussion class and everyone worked together to try and dissect the arguments in Griffiths that we found subtle or difficult. I was motivated to really think about the material before class and resolve obvious inconsistencies in my understanding so I could have something useful to contribute to the discussions.

    I ended up wondering why this discussion class in physics was so much better than all the philosophy discussion classes I took by that point. I realized that this worked because everyone assumed that if something didn’t make sense at first, it was because of our own understanding and not because E&M is wrong. In contrast, in my philosophy classes, the other students were often too quick to conclude that the arguments of Aristotle or Kant were dumb when they just didn’t understand them.

  2. quantummoxie said

    Interesting. What book do you use in your non-advanced E&M class?

  3. arjendu said

    Hi Ian: We use (the now-out-of-print, but we’re still fighting it) Purcell for the sophomore version (yes, bizarrely we have no E+M in 1st year, but have it for the sophomores). And I am currently using Pollock and Stump (instead of Griffiths) for my Advanced E+M class.

    Anton: Interesting observation …

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