Inquiry in Physics (PHYS*4300)

Code and section: PHYS*4300*01

Term: Winter 2013

Instructor: Ernie McFarland


Course Information

Purpose of the Course

PHYS*4300/NANO*4900 is an inquiry course focused on research in physics and nanoscience, designed to aid students in further honing their self-directed learning skills. In this course, students will undertake independent study of the scientific literature and learn how to communicate scientific research effectively. Students will prepare seminars on approved topics drawn from research initiatives in physics and nanoscience. The direction and scope of the course will be largely determined by the topics chosen by the students, with guidance from the faculty advisor


Faculty Advisor Office Email
E. McFarland MacN 433D

Meeting times & location

Day Time Location
Tuesdays and Thursdays 2:30 to 5:20 p.m. MacN 201
(except for Thurs. Jan. 10 — location: SCIE 1303)

Course Objectives

  1. to become familiar with the literature in a focused area of interest
  2. to further develop the necessary skills for library-based research
  3. to improve critical analysis skills through skeptical and critical reading of research or popular literature
  4. to practice and improve oral presentation skills

Course Schedule

  • Tuesday Jan. 8 – first class meeting
  • Thursday Jan. 10 – workshop with P. Pritchard (U of G library) re: researching topics
  • (location: SCIE 1303)
  • Tuesday Jan. 15 – deadline for submission of topic for first presentation to faculty advisor
    Presentation #1 – Tuesday Jan. 29, Thursday Jan. 31, Tuesday Feb. 5, and Thursday Feb. 7
  • Tuesday Feb. 12 – deadline for submission of topic for second presentation to faculty advisor
    Presentation #2 – Tuesday Feb. 26, Thursday Feb. 28, Tuesday Mar. 5, and Thursday Mar. 7
  • Tuesday Mar. 12 – deadline for submission of topic for third presentation to faculty advisor
    Presentation #3 – Tuesday Mar. 26, Thursday Mar. 28, Tuesday Apr. 2, and Thursday Apr. 4

This schedule is summarized below.

Week Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
1 Jan. 7 8 Class 9 10 Class
SCIE 1303
2 14 15 1st Topic
16 17 18
3 21 22 23 24 25
4 28 29 Talks 30 31 Talks Feb. 1
5 4 5 Talks 6 7 Talks 8
6 11 12 2nd Topic
13 14 15
Break week
18 19 20 21 22
8 25 26 Talks 27 28 Talks Mar. 1
9 4 5 Talks 6 7 Talks 8
10 11 12 3rd Topic
13 14 15
11 18 19 20 21 22
12 25 26 Talks 27 28 Talks 29
Good Fri.
13 Apr. 1 2 Talks 3 4 Talks 5


Each student will prepare and deliver three presentations during the semester. In preparation for these presentations, students will use library resources (including web-based journals, search tools, etc.) to research the topic selected based on his/her own interests. Each presentation will have approximately 35 minutes allocated, divided into 30 minutes of presentation time and 5 minutes of questions. At the end of this 35 minute period, each member of the class, as well as the faculty advisor, will complete an evaluation of the presenter for the purposes of constructive feedback.

Examples of possible presentation topics:

  • the discovery of the top quark
  • laser cooling of atoms
  • computational methods in physics research
  • dark matter and dark energy
  • current issues in physics education research
  • the physics of climate change
  • the future of nuclear energy
  • detection of gravitational waves
  • energy sources for the future
  • the search for exosolar planets
  • Mars exploration
  • research of a recent Nobel prize winner (1990 to present)
  • materials in extreme environments
  • the physics of medical imaging
  • the Higgs boson
  • does the multiverse exist?
  • discovery, properties and applications of graphene - molecular electronics - single molecule experimental techniques - nano-confinement effects on polymer molecules - nanoscale biosensors - quantum materials
  • tissue engineering and scaffolding - DNA-based nanotechnology - nanoscale biosensors - self-assembly, in a specific context - layer-by-layer deposition of self-assembled polyelectrolyte films - nano encapsulation and non-viral gene therapy
  • theories of gravity
  • physics of atmospheric optical phenomena (rainbows, sun dogs, circumzenithal arc, etc.)
  • recent developments in photovoltaic cells
  • recent advances in block hole theory and observations
  • nano-robotics
  • the physics of earthquakes and earthquake early-warning systems
  • the quest for a temperature of absolute zero
  • human radiation exposure: sources and dangers
  • etc., etc.

Note that many of these possible topics are extremely broad, and would have to be narrowed down by the student in order to prepare a 30-35 minute presentation. Furthermore, students are strongly encouraged to come up with entirely different topics based on their own interests.


Assessment Weight
Participation 10%
Presentation #1 20%
Presentation #2 30%
Presentation #3 40%

The participation mark will be determined based on the individual’s degree of involvement in asking questions and providing useful constructive feedback for the other presenters. If you miss any of the days of presentations due to illness or compassionate reasons, you need to provide the instructor with a waiver slip to avoid the loss of your participation mark.

Course Policies

Professor/Course Assessment

The Department of Physics requires student assessment of all courses taught by the Department. These assessments provide essential feedback to faculty on their teaching by identifying both strengths and possible areas of improvement. In addition, annual student assessment of teaching provides part of the information used by the Department Tenure and Promotion Committee in evaluating the faculty member's contribution in the area of teaching.

The Department's teaching evaluation questionnaire invites student response both through numerically quantifiable data, and written student comments. In conformity with University of Guelph Faculty Policy, the Department Tenure and Promotions Committee only considers comments signed by students (choosing "I agree" in question 14). Your instructor will see all signed and unsigned comments after final grades are submitted. Written student comments may also be used in support of a nomination for internal and external teaching awards.

Note: No information will be passed on to the instructor until after the final grades have been submitted.