The senior exercise in physics consists of two parts. To pass the senior exercise, you must earn a passing grade on both parts. The first is a standardized test of your knowledge of physics. The test was developed by the Educational Testing Service and is called the Major Field Test in Physics. The second is a public talk and follow-up interview that will be test your ability to communicate physics above the introductory level.
The Major Field Test is a two hour, multiple choice, exam. There are 70 questions in all. A description of the test and some sample questions are available in Adobe Acrobat format from ETS. To pass this portion of the senior exercise, you must score above the national average of students taking this exam.
The Major Field Test in Physics is scheduled for the afternoon of Sunday, February 14, 2016.
The second part begins with a 25 minute public talk to the department during our Friday colloquium slot. The talk will be on a topic chosen by the student in consultation with faculty members in the department. Students must chose a topic before the end of the third week of the Spring semester and submit their choice of topic in writing to the department chair. The department will meet soon after the deadline for topic submission and will assign each student an advisor. The student must confer with their advisor as they prepare their talk.
There is an alternate way to satisfy the oral component of the senior exercise. Students who have done research in physics, either at Kenyon or elsewhere, the summer following their junior year, may be invited to give a regular, 50 minute, or a shortened, 25 minute, departmental colloquium describing their research in the Fall of their senior year. Wherever the research was done, students need to chose a Kenyon faculty advisor to help them in preparing their talks. To allow time for this help to take place, no talk will be scheduled prior to the third week of the semester and students must give a practice talk to their advisor no later than 48 hours before the colloquium.
Each student must present a unique topic in a given year. The selection of topics is on a first-come, first-served basis.
Follow-up interviews for each talk will be scheduled during the week following the talk. During these interviews, students will be asked questions related to the analytical part of their talk.
Few students will do well on the exam if they do not study for the test specifically. Taking a multiple choice exam is a different process than most of the ways you are examined in your classes at Kenyon. To prepare for the standardized test, form a study group and use review materials developed for the GRE Subject Test in Physics and the SAT II Physics test (since no materials seem to be available specifically for the MFT exam and students' experience is that the ETS test is somewhat less challenging than the Physics GRE but considerably more challenging than the SAT II Physics test). One senior recommended the 3rd edition of "GRE - Practicing to Take the Physics Test" published by the ETS. I (TSS) found a copy of Kaplan's "SAT II - Physics" 2002-2003 on a remainder shelf at a bookstore. While I have not compared it to other examples of the genre, it seems well done to me. Another senior, felt that the SAT II prep materials were not useful because they were too easy compared to the MFT test. Students have found Amazon.com useful in locating books like these.
As a multiple-choice exam, this instrument is able to test certain types of knowledge and skills, including familiarity with content and the relationships between various quantities and their mathematical dependencies. Because of this, you might expect to get by with many fewer full calculations than you would perform on other types of tests, especially if you consciously and consistently try to apply the following types of reasoning:
- looking at extreme cases - what happens when a variable goes to zero or infinity?
- applying powerful ideas such as conservation laws or symmetry
- examining the dimensions (units) to help figure out a relationship
- thinking about proportionalities - kinetic energy goes like v 2, while momentum goes like v
- making order of magnitude estimates, avoiding the time needed to calculate exactly
- knowing the typical size of some physical quantities and effects - for light, thermal energy at room temperature, ionization energy for atomic hydrogen, etc.
These techniques can help you zero in on the correct answer, without writing out a detailed solution, helping you to eliminate wrong answers quickly and giving you a basis for choosing a best answer from those remaining.
We welcome your suggestions to future students about how to prepare for the exam.
To prepare your oral presentation on a paper you've selected as a starting point, first read the paper and try to understand and identify what the paper has to say, at root. Every paper has a purpose, and your first job is to identify the problem that your paper is trying to solve and communicate. Then, you need to connect that point to concepts and resources outside the paper itself - look for additional references (articles, textbooks, etc.) which help you explain the physical concepts employed in the paper, the context in which the paper should be understood, and the connection of the paper to material you have learned in one or more of your physics courses. In particular, we expect each presentation to include at least one substantial chunk of analytical physics - a derivation, integration, calculation, model, or other application of appropriately rigorous mathematical and physical analysis to the problem at hand.
Once you have identified and digested these additional resources, use them and the original paper to prepare a 25 minute oral presentation in which you explain in your own words the physics which you identified as being the point or the heart of the paper. Your presentation may be in one of a number of formats -- chalkboard lecture, overhead transparencies, PowerPoint, or HTML (or a combination of formats). The department strongly encourages you to avoid substituting glitz for content, however. We will be judging the strength of the physical insight and the clarity of the physical and mathematical explication you bring to bear on your topic, not your facility with computer graphics and animation!
It is vital that you work closely with your faculty advisor as you prepare your talk. They can help you sort out the criteria by which your talk will be judged. Be sure to tell your advisor if achieving distinction is one of your goals.
Whatever the format, you should practice your presentation out loud for a small audience (your advisor, a friend, anyone) at least twice, in full before you give it for the departmental colloquium. It should fill the 25 minute time-slot (it will create a poor impression if you do not prepare enough material, and we will simply cut you off if you prepare too much material to cover in that time). Only by practicing your finished presentation will you know for sure how long it will take. You should also be prepared to take questions from the audience at the end of your presentation.
You will also be expected to complete an interview in the week following your talk. This interview will give you a chance to convey your understanding about the analytical part of your talk and the physics that underlies it. During your interview you should not need to prepare supplemental slides and/or visual aids, but you will likely be asked to derive and/or communicate your analytic work through extemporaneous discussion and chalk.
Ultimately, this exercise affords you the opportunity to integrate and apply some of the elements of your physics education by making an independent study of a physical topic—researching unfamiliar aspects of the topic; identifying and organizing key concepts; applying appropriate physical analyses, based on your course work in physics; and communicating clearly and effectively the context and the physical explanation of your topic to others.
The department and the College consider the senior exercise a valuable learning experience and hope that you will value it as well. In a very few cases, students have interpreted the low failure rate of the senior exercise as an indication that passage is guaranteed. That is not the case and avoiding retakes and failure to graduate on time can be best avoided by putting in a consistent effort and consulting closely with one's advisor over the course of the senior year.