The senior capstone in physics consists of two parts. To pass the senior capstone, you must earn a passing grade on both parts. The first part is a set of physics gateway exams, designed for students to show competency in core areas of the physics curriculum. The second is a public talk and follow- up interview that will be test your ability to communicate physics above the introductory level.

Gateway exams assess mastery of concepts by allowing students to attempt and re-attempt particular exams until they score a passing grade.  There are four gateway exams, that cover fundamental topics from our core coursework.  These areas are:

  1. Newtonian Mechanics - kinematics, dynamics, and equilibrium systems.
  2. Electricity and Magnetism - charges, electric forces and fields, magnetic forces and fields, and special relativity.
  3. Quantum and Nuclear Physics - modern physics, elementary quantum mechanics, spectroscopy, nuclear processes, and particle physics and forces.
  4. Experimental Physics - data analysis, experimental uncertainty, instrumentation, circuits, optics and methods of computational physics.

Taken together, these four areas comprehensively cover the material presented in our standardized 4-semester introductory sequence and provide the common ground for the study of more advanced topics. 

Each gateway exam will be delivered electronically.  When a student takes the exam, our software will generate an exam drawn from a large bank of questions.  Students will be able to take the exam multiple times without significant chance of content overlap.  Each gateway exam will consist of about ten questions, with a time limit of 50 minutes.  Students will have to surpass a minimum threshold to pass a given gateway exam. 

The department chair will share a google calendar with seniors identifying dates of the gateway exams.  Students should bring their physics-issued laptop to the exam, as well as a calculator (phone calculators are not allowed) and a writing implement.  Equations sheets will be distributed during the test.

In order to fulfill the requirement for the gateway portion of the senior capstone, students will need:

  1. To attempt at least two of these exams before the end of the first semester.
  2. To pass the exam in each of the four areas before April 15 of the senior year.

The department will set up times during which the chair (or a designated faculty member) will proctor gateway attempts.  These dates will begin on or around October 1st each year and will go through April 15th.  There will be no limit to the number of times a student can attempt a given gateway exam.  Indeed, we hope to normalize the expectation students will not pass every exam on the first try.

If a student has not passed all four exams before April 15, that student will have failed the first attempt on this portion.  Students in this position will be given one more opportunity to pass all remaining gateway exams shortly after April 15.

The second part begins with a 25-minute public talk to the department during our Friday colloquium slot or during a Saturday Physics Symposium. 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 final week of the fall 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 capstone. 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, talk describing their research in the Fall of their senior year: either during a colloquium slot or during a Saturday Physics Symposium. Wherever the research was done, students need to choose 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 (in the case of a colloquium talk) or later in the day (in the case of the Physics Symposium talks). During these interviews, students will be asked questions related to the analytical part of their talk.

Preparing for the Gateway Exams

While the gateway exams are not standardized tests, they are still administered electronically and are, therefore, somewhat different from the usual exams one finds in the physics department.  Therefore, it is important that students spend some time preparing both for the content of the exam and for its mode of delivery.  For each of the four Gateway exams, students will find a guide that can help to direct study as well as a sample electronic test that gives examples of the types of questions on the gateway exams.  Students should be familiar with these documents and practice taking the sample exams before attempting the gateway exams.

These instruments are 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.  

Preparing for the public talk and interview

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.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, this project 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 capstone 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 capstone 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.