April 19, 2004

(Physics) Graduate Students and Technology

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at April 19, 2004 3:06 PM

There are a number of interesting posts on Crooked Timber today, notably this one on Graduate Students and Technology, which raises the question: "How much technical knowledge/ability should we require our graduate students to have[?]" The author, a philosopher, suggests:

Here’s some suggestions for skills graduate students should have.
  • How to use Powerpoint in lectures
  • How to manage a large course website, including interactive features
  • How to setup maintain a large database for administrative tasks

This has spawned a debate in the CT comments on the value of Powerpoint. In this regard physics is a bit different from philosophy, insofar as the large volume of mathematics in most physics courses makes a blackboard much more suitable than a slideshow. (There are exceptions, such as a course I took as an undergrad in Low-Noise Electronic Measurement with lots of plots and block diagrams. Some professors insist, with disastrous consequences, on using Powerpoint even for courses like Classical Electrodynamics. Other Berkeley physics students may know of whom I speak.) On the other hand, Powerpoint is an essential skill for presenting research at conferences/seminars/colloquia and is nearly universal (the second most popular tool is viewgraphs on an overhead projector, which is basically just a lower-tech equivalent of Powerpoint). I've observed quite a few physicists who could use some better training on how to prepare a Powerpoint talk, which is different in some subtle ways from preparing a class lecture in Powerpoint.

As for maintaining large administrative databases, I believe this is usually something physicists leave to their secretaries, but I gather secretarial resources are rather less abundant in philosophy departments.

In experimental physics there are a number of technical skills which are important for graduate students to learn, but the importance of knowing them decreases thereafter in one's academic career (since one has one's own graduate students to do these things):

  • The principles of operation of certain general classes of instruments
  • When faced with a specific unfamiliar instrument, the ability to master its interface without having to pore over the manual.
  • Automation of measurements using computer control (in my case, with LabVIEW)
  • Computer-assisted data manipulation (in my case, with Mathematica)

Ideally the student is prepared to acquire these skills with certain undergraduate courses; the advanced physics lab for the first two and a couple good computer programming courses for the second. In retrospect, it's very odd that as a physics major at Caltech I had no requirements in computer science.


I have to comment on the last sentence... I think this is symptomatic of the (former) CS1/2/3 problem at Caltech. Each department had their own programming course at one point, which was then taken over by CS1/2/3. However, that course changed from a programming course to an introductory CS course. This was fairly apparent even during our years, the later of which was when it no longer was even suitable as a programming course. Now, of course, it has become the introductory course, and CS 12 is the programming laboratory which the physics students would benefit from. I don't think it's required though, but it's certainly a useful set of tools.

Oh... and wireless networking is great ^^ I'm sitting in the back of a talk on "Oriented Immobilization of Single DNA Molecules as a Tool for Surface Structuring on the Nanometer Scale". Unfortunately, I wish I were outside skiing, but at least here I can websurf during talks which don't interest me. :)

Posted by: Zifnab | April 23, 2004 10:56 AM

Clarification: I don't think it's required by the phys department, but it would be a good addition. :)

Posted by: Zifnab | April 23, 2004 10:57 AM
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