Physics Senior Capstone Requirements (updated July 2023)

  • Passing four gateway exams administered using Moodle during proctored sessions throughout the fall and first two-thirds of the spring semester (multiple attempts are typical) and
  • Giving a satisfactory public presentation explaining the physics of a topic not already covered in one of our courses, followed by an oral on the topic.

Gateways may be taken starting in late August and must be finished by the deadlines indicated below or you will risk not graduating. Talk topics must be submitted during the fall semester for presentations in February.

Detailed Description

The senior capstone in physics consists of two parts. To pass the senior capstone, students 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, designed to assess students’ ability to communicate physics above the introductory level.

There are four gateway exams, covering fundamental topics from our core coursework.  The gateway exams assess mastery of physics concepts by allowing students to attempt and re-attempt each of the exams until they achieve a passing score. The areas of the exams are:

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

Taken together, these exams encompass the material covered by our four-semester introductory sequence (Phys 140, 145, 240, 245) plus fundamentals from our upper-level lab courses in computation, electronics, and experimental physics (Phys 270, 380, 385). 

In their public talks, students present a 25-minute talk on a topic for which they have explored the underlying physics through literature (and sometimes laboratory) research. Each student proposes a topic to the department, based on which they are assigned a talk advisor. Senior capstone talks are typically given in the spring semester during a Saturday Physics Symposium or one of our Friday colloquium slots. Physics faculty conduct a follow-up interview with each student within about a week of their public talk, to gauge the student’s depth of understanding of the physical principles and analytic aspects of their topic.

Together, the talk and the interview afford students the opportunity to integrate and apply elements of their physics education by making an independent study of a physics topic — researching unfamiliar aspects of the topic, identifying and organizing key concepts, applying appropriate analyses based on their course work in physics, and communicating clearly and effectively the context and the explanation of their topic to others.

The department and the College consider the senior capstone a valuable learning experience and hope that students will value it as well. It has frequently been noted by Kenyon physics alumni as an important element and asset in job and grad school interviews. It is a significant undertaking, providing a significant sense of accomplishment when successfully completed.

In a few instances, students have interpreted the low failure rate of the senior capstone as an indication that passage is guaranteed. That is not the case; putting in consistent effort and consulting closely with physics faculty (especially the talk advisor) as one works through the capstone elements is the surest way to avoid retakes and failure to graduate on time.

Specifics for the Gateway Exams

Gateway exams will be completed electronically, using Moodle. Each gateway exam will consist of eight questions, with a time limit of 50 minutes. Question types include multiple choice and numerical answer (with provisions for grading the units on an answer). When a student takes a gateway exam, the software will generate an exam drawn from a large bank of questions; thus, students will be able to take each exam multiple times without significant overlap in questions. Students will be notified by the gateway administrator when they have met or exceeded the threshold score deemed by the physics faculty as passing for each exam. The number of times a student may attempt each gateway is not limited, except by the final deadlines given below. Indeed, students are not expected to pass every gateway exam on their first attempt.

By the end of the first full week of fall semester, the department chair or another designated faculty member will identify dates for offering gateway exam opportunities and share them with all eligible students (those with senior standing). Students must bring their physics-issued laptop to the exam and a writing implement to each gateway attempt. Students may also bring an ordinary calculator (phone and other internet-capable calculators are not allowed), or they may borrow one of the department’s stock to use during their gateway attempt. Equation sheets will be distributed during the test and must be returned, with any scratch paper used, upon completing the gateway attempt. Students with testing accommodation arrangements through Student Accessibility and Support Services (SASS) should notify the gateway administrator of appropriate accommodations in advance of the gateway opportunities. No accommodations will be made without appropriate documentation from SASS.

To fulfill requirements for the gateway portion of the senior capstone, students must:

  • complete the Newtonian Mechanics and Quantum & Nuclear Physics gateway exams before the end of the fall semester.
  • complete the Electromagnetism and Experimental & Computational Physics gateway exams before the end of the tenth week of the spring semester.

If a student has not passed one or more of the gateway exams by the designated deadline, that student will be deemed to have failed the first attempt at this portion of the senior capstone, per college guidelines regarding senior capstones. Students in this position will be given a last-chance opportunity to pass the remaining gateways during the first week of spring semester (for either of the fall gateways) and during the twelfth week of spring semester (for either of the spring gateways).

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 Kenyon 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 on Moodle a guide that can help to direct their study as well as a sample electronic test consisting of a limited set of questions culled from the database of gateway questions for that exam. Students should familiarize themselves with these documents and practice taking the sample exam before attempting the corresponding gateway exam.

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 velocity squared, while momentum goes like velocity
  • making order of magnitude estimates, thereby saving time taken to calculate exactly
  • knowing the typical size of some physical quantities and effects — e.g., wavelength of visible 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 and help you to eliminate wrong answers quickly, giving you a basis for choosing a best answer from those remaining.

Specifics for the Public Talk and Interview

Typically, senior capstone talks (except for honors and research talks; see below) will be presented during the first half of the spring semester. Each student must present on a unique topic in a given year. The selection of topics is on a first-come, first-served basis. Students must propose a topic in writing to the department chair no later than the last day of classes in the fall semester. Department faculty will confer shortly after this deadline to assign each student a talk advisor. Students must confer with their talk advisor as they prepare their talk. Students are expected to give a practice talk to their advisor no later than 48 hours before their scheduled presentation time. Approval to present at the scheduled colloquium or symposium is contingent upon the talk advisor’s confirmation that appropriate consultation and preparation has occurred. 

Students who are pursuing honors research with a faculty member during their senior year are required to present a 50-minute honors proposal talk at a physics colloquium early in the fall semester. Successful completion of that talk and the interview following it will fulfill the oral portion of the senior capstone requirement for those students. Requirements for consulting with their talk advisor (= their honors advisor) are the same as those specified above.

Students who have completed a summer-long research project in physics either at Kenyon or elsewhere during the summer immediately prior to their senior year may be invited to give a regular (50 minute) or shortened (25 minute) talk describing the physics underlying their research project. Such talks will be scheduled during the fall semester of the senior year. Each student invited to give a fall talk will be assigned a Kenyon faculty member as their talk advisor. Requirements for consulting with their talk advisor are the same as those specified above. To allow time for this consultation to take place, no research project talk (except for honors talks) will be scheduled prior to the third week of the fall semester.

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 a Physics Symposium talk). These interviews will be about 20 minutes long (30 minutes, for honors candidates). During these interviews, physics faculty will ask the student questions related to their talk, particularly focusing on the foundational physical aspects of their topic and the analytical element presented in their talk.

Preparing for the Public Talk and Interview

Senior capstone talks in physics should have a scholarly source (journal article or similarly authoritative source) as their basis. To prepare your presentation, start by reading your source article carefully, picking through it to understand what it has to say, at root. Identify the main thrust of the argument laid out in the article and restate it as clearly and concisely as you can. Next, examine the evidence (especially any graphs, diagrams, tables, or figures) being used to support that argument. Then, you need to connect that argument 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, each presentation should 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, PowerPoint, Keynote, or perhaps 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 understand 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 at the departmental colloquium or symposium. 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.

The follow-up interview will give you a chance to convey deeper understanding of the analytical part of your talk and the physics that underlies it in response to questions from faculty members. The questions will be motivated by your talk topic and content. You should not need to prepare supplemental slides or other visual aids; you will be asked to bring your presentation slides to the interview in case there are questions for which viewing the slides would be beneficial. You will also very likely be asked to use the chalkboard in answering some questions — perhaps by sketching a graph, examining a mathematical expression from your talk, or thinking through how some units or an equation related to your topic works. Knowing what underlies your topic and giving thought to how to explain it will be the best preparation for this part of the capstone.

Final Remarks

The purpose of the senior capstone requirement at Kenyon is for each graduating senior to complete a significant body of work in which they apply the knowledge and skills gained in their major course of study. It provides an opportunity to synthesize and consolidate ideas, to practice skills, and to construct personal relevance and ownership from your studies as you transition to the next stage of your career and life. It should be an exercise that stretches you, in a good way — helping you make connections and realizations you could not make in individual courses. We believe that our senior capstone helps our majors accomplish these goals, and we look forward to celebrating with you all once you have achieved them!