Education Invited Talk

Spencer Wheaton
(University of Capetown, South Africa)

Infusing Computational Physics throughout the Undergraduate Curriculum

Computational physics is now widely viewed as an essential ingredient in most undergraduate physics curricula. The challenge, however, is to seamlessly integrate authentic computational activities into the programme. In this talk, I will review the approaches taken at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, where we have developed instructional materials that address the particular needs of our students (for example, many of our first year students have no previous experience with computers, let alone programming, and are not concurrently registered for a course in computer science). Although VPython is the preferred language at first year (driven largely by the choice of textbook), students are allowed to code in their preferred language in senior years. The laboratory component of our courses provides a natural context for most of these activities. In addition, an army of Lego Mindstorms robots is used to introduce students to the graphical programming language LabVIEW. At the third year level, students use locally-developed simulations and guided-inquiry worksheets in lectures to explore the concepts of thermal and statistical mechanics. This topic provides an excellent opportunity to introduce students to basic Monte Carlo methods. At the fourth year (Honours level), a series of simulations and worksheets has been developed that allow students to investigate more sophisticated computational physics techniques (e.g. sampling of arbitrary probability distributions, Monte Carlo integration methods etc.). In this way, students are able to appreciate the important concepts underlying these techniques before tackling the challenge of implementing their own computational codes.