April 13, 2018, BY Matt Hughes

What Class: Physics for Future Leaders
Who Teaches It: Professor Brian Utter, physics

"In this course, we analyze the science behind some of the key issues facing us as a society.  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 as a future leader — or perhaps simply as an engaged citizen — it's important to be conversant about the science that impacts our world. To engage in this conversation, today's Bucknell students — and tomorrow's leaders — need to evaluate the new information they encounter and determine whether it's sensible and reliable.

"Together we tackle alternative energy, nuclear physics, nonlinear dynamics, climate change, space travel and pseudoscience. 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 where we all generally seek information and learn about new issues. Debates and final presentations allow students to focus on topics they find compelling and share their findings with the rest of us. 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.

"I created this course as a way to engage students in science that is relevant to their lives as active citizens and future leaders. As a course for non-science majors, it draws a diverse audience leading to interesting and multifaceted discussions of physics in our lives informed by a broad range of perspectives. 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."

See what else Bucknell offers in the Department of Physics & Astronomy.

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