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Applied Physics adds undergraduate degree

Beginning this fall undergraduates will have a new option, a minor in applied physics.

The minor will be the applied physics department's first official foray into undergraduate education. Since its founding in 1968, it has been a wholly graduate department, offering only master of science and doctoral degrees. Each year it confers about 15 masters and 20 doctoral degrees and, until now, it has had the distinction of being the only department in the School of Humanities and Sciences without an undergraduate degree program.

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In most universities, applied physics is either in the school of engineering or substitutes for it. At Stanford, however, the applied physics department is part of the School of Humanities and Sciences, where it complements the more theoretical approach of the physics department and serves as a natural bridge to the School of Engineering.

The relationship to engineering is illustrated by the history of applied physics on campus. In the 1930s campus physicists and electrical engineers collaborated to develop microwave technology. Originally, this effort was centered in the Microwave Laboratory. The effort provided the basis for airborne radar and led to the construction of the nation's first large linear electron accelerator in 1952, which made the two-mile Stanford Linear Accelerator possible. The Microwave Lab became part of the W.W. Hansen Laboratories. In 1962, a separate division of Applied Physics was established that flourished and became the current Applied Physics Department six years later.

"The importance of applied physics lies in the motivation of its practitioners," says department chair Aharon Kapitulnik. "In physics, researchers are motivated purely by curiosity. In applied physics, they are motivated by relevance to society."

While rooted in the basic concepts of physical sciences, applied science "is concerned with the utilization of scientific principles in practical devices and systems, and in the application of physics in other areas of science," reads the department's graduate recruitment brochure.

A number of faculty members in the department had long felt that it should have an undergraduate degree program and a number of them have been teaching undergraduate courses through other departments, says Kapitulnik. Increased campus-wide emphasis on improving undergraduate education strengthened this viewpoint within the department. The recent overhaul of minor degrees, allowing them to be listed on student's diplomas, provided the department with a way to contribute to undergraduate education in an official and more coherent fashion.

"We want undergraduate students to realize that there is an applied physics department," Kapitulnik says. "Our new program will be of particular interest to engineering students because having physics on their transcripts is very valuable." The department has specifically designed the applied physics minor to make it appealing to heavily programmed engineering students.

The new degree consists of three required courses that cover quantum mechanics and statistical physics. Students also must take three breadth courses from a list of nine that includes such subjects as optical physics, lasers, solid state physics, materials science, and particle accelerator physics and design. More breadth courses in areas related to applied computational physics, biophysics and "soft" materials are planned.

"Although some of the courses cover the same subject matter as those offered by the physics department, they are taught in a totally different way. There is much less emphasis on theory and much greater emphasis on applications," Kapitulnik says.

Department members say they hope that this approach also will attract students who are interested in science but feel that engineering courses are too technical and physics courses are too formal. "The program is an exciting opportunity for students from the social sciences, economics, philosophy and other less science oriented departments who wish to broaden their background in science directly related to the technology revolution that characterizes our society," Kapitulnik says.

Development of the minor degree program, which was approved officially on April 20 by the Humanities and Sciences Dean's Advisory Committee on the Curriculum, began a year and a half ago when Kapitulnik took over as department chair. The department's ultimate goal is to develop a small, high-quality undergraduate program. To move in this direction, department leaders are exploring the establishment of co-majors with several other departments.


By David F. Salisbury

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