What Class? Physics for Future Leaders

Who Teaches It? Professor Brian Utter, physics & astronomy

“I created this course for nonscience majors as a way to engage students in science that is relevant to their lives as active citizens and future leaders. We examine key issues facing us as a society such as: Should we deregulate the oil industry or enact policies to favor a more sustainable energy of the future? Do our choices as individual consumers matter? Is it advisable — or even possible — to plan for a colony on Mars the way JFK boldly announced that ‘we choose to go to the moon’?

“These are big questions, but for future leaders — or just engaged citizens — it’s important to be conversant about the science that impacts our world. To engage in this conversation, today’s students need to evaluate the new information they encounter and determine whether it’s sensible and reliable.

“We derive, calculate and discuss concepts that you might expect in an introductory physics course, such as forces and energy, but we also consider issues of policy and societal context. In one class, we might derive a formula for the power generated by a nuclear plant and estimate how much nuclear waste is generated at Three Mile Island, and in another debate the merits and drawbacks of nuclear power as an energy of the future.

“The class relies substantially on online resources and current news, since that’s often where we learn about new issues. The course includes a weekly lab in which students work hands-on with experiments ranging from numerical simulations to shooting off model rockets and taking measurements at the Bucknell Observatory. Field trips have included a walking tour of Bucknell’s cogeneration plant and a visit to the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor at Penn State University. The future leaders in this class learn the language they need to discuss these current science topics and gain the skills to seek and critically evaluate scientific information when the next big issue becomes apparent.”