Goals of the Department of Physics


We hope that students will

  • be inspired by the elegance and simplicity of the physical laws that govern the natural world;
  • be inspired by their own ability to understand everyday phenomena from first principles;
  • appreciate developments beyond classical physics, including the counterintuitive yet understandable and enormously successful theories of
    special relativity and quantum mechanics, and the extraordinary precision with which their predictions have been verified;
  • understand that reasoning from first principles is required to generate new discoveries.

Learning Goals

Throughout the core physics courses, students will develop their skill at

  • applying mathematics to describe motion and other aspects of the physical world;
  • solving multistep physics problems by applying fundamental principles;
  • using dimensional reasoning;
  • estimating quantities and scaling behavior;
  • using appropriate approximations;
  • communicating their understanding clearly using sketches, diagrams, English, and algebra as appropriate.

In the laboratory course, students will learn

  • to design and conduct experiments;
  • to keep careful records;
  • to compare observations to a theoretical model; and
  • to limit their conclusions to those justified by the data, taking into account systematic and random uncertainties;
  • to effectively communicate their findings in an oral report.

Goals for the Physics Major

Harvey Mudd College offers a physics major with both depth and breadth in classical and modern physics, theory and experiment, foundations and applications. The program constitutes a rigorous foundation for graduate work or employment in physics and other technical fields. We have a vigorous student-faculty research program in a wide variety of fields in experimental and theoretical physics. Our goal is to help produce exceptionally able students with a strong understanding of and deep interest in physics, and with an unusually broad background in science, mathematics, technology, humanities, and the social sciences, as provided by the Harvey Mudd College curriculum.

Upon completing our physics program, ideally a graduate should be able to:

A. Physics-Specific Knowledge

  • Demonstrate the ability to apply fundamental, crosscutting themes in physics, including conservation laws, symmetry, systems, models and their limitations, the particulate nature of matter, waves, interactions, and fields.
  • Demonstrate competency in applying basic laws of physics in classical and quantum mechanics, electricity and magnetism, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics and special relativity, and the applications of these laws in areas such as optics, condensed matter physics, and properties of materials.
  • Represent basic physics concepts in multiple ways, including mathematically (including through estimations), conceptually, verbally, pictorially, computationally, by simulation, and experimentally.
  • Solve problems that involve multiple areas of physics.
  • Solve multidisciplinary problems that link physics with other disciplines.
  • Demonstrate knowledge of how basic physics concepts are applied in modern technology and apply this knowledge to the solution of applied problems.

B. Scientific and Technical Skills

  • Solve complex, ambiguous problems in real-world contexts.
  • Independently identify and learn new material relevant to the problem at hand.
  • Show how results obtained relate to the original problem, determine follow-on investigations, and place the results in a larger perspective.
  • Demonstrate competency in basic experimental technologies. 
  • Demonstrate basic competency in using computational software and in writing and executing software programs to explore, simulate, or model physical phenomena.
  • Demonstrate data analytics competency: competency in analyzing data, including with statistical and uncertainty analysis; distinguishing between models; and presenting those results with appropriate tables and charts.

C. Communication Skills

  • Communicate with many different audiences from many different cultures and scientific backgrounds, understand each audience and its needs, and make the communication relevant and maximally impactful for that audience.
  • Obtain information and evaluate its accuracy and relevance through reading (print and online), listening, and discussing.
  • Articulate one’s own state of understanding and be persuasive in communicating the worth of one’s own ideas and those of others.
  • Communicate in writing about scientific and technical concepts concisely and completely, using grammatically-correct and logically-constructed arguments.
  • Organize and communicate ideas using words, mathematical equations, tables, graphs, pictures, animations, diagrams, and other visualization tools.

D. Professional/Workplace Skills. 

  • Demonstrate critical professional and life skills, including completing work on time, time management, responsibility, respect, perseverance, independence, integrity, and cultural and social competence.