Physics is the study of what makes up the universe and how things work at a fundamental level.  What gives stars their color? How do we weigh the earth? How can lunar eclipses and meteor showers be predicted? What is a quantum computer and how can we build one? What is the difference between fluorescent and LED light bulbs? How is an MRI created? What is light? Or maybe you are a practical thinker, looking for solutions to problems around you.  How can we better implement clean energy solutions?  How do we make better batteries? If you question the way things are, or wonder about how we know something, you are asking questions about physics! Physics represents an inquiry, both theoretical and experimental, into the nature of the physical universe.

A physics degree from Lawrence University, with the solid foundation of a liberal arts education, opens paths to careers in physics as well as a wide variety other STEM fields.  Our students earn graduate degrees in physics and related fields, become engineers, get certified to teach, work at national labs, and on and on. Prospective engineers will find that a major in physics automatically fulfills nearly all of the requirements for Lawrence’s 3-2 engineering program!

Our department is home to advanced laboratories for teaching and research in both experimental and computational physics. Additionally, the machine shop and on-campus Makerspace support the project-orientated coursework throughout the curriculum. On the theoretical side, the major moves from a general survey  to advanced electives, including mathematical training for subjects like general relativity. The culminating Senior Experience is a student-designed theoretical, computational, or experimental research project.

Several tracks through the physics major exist. Students interested in education may pursue a Physics Teaching Track. Engineering-focused students will benefit from a dual degree in physics and the engineering area of their choosing by jointly enrolling in a 3-2 engineering partner program. Students who have strong secondary interests in biology, chemistry, or geology may construct majors involving physics and one of the other three natural sciences, using the interdisciplinary major in natural sciences, such as biophysics or physical chemistry. A minor in physics offers an opportunity for those who wish to supplement a major in another discipline with a significant exposure to physics.

Required for the major in physics

Students who major in physics will master the concepts in the fundamental subject areas of classical mechanics, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, and statistical mechanics. They will apply analytical, computational, and experimental methods to solve physics problems and will complete a scientific investigation and effectively communicate findings in oral and written form.

The major in physics requires the following:

  1. The following courses:
    1. PHYS 141: Introduction to Physics I
    2. PHYS 151: Introduction to Physics II
    3. PHYS 220: Intermediate Laboratory: Electronics
    4. PHYS 225: Computational Mechanics
    5. PHYS 230: Electricity and Magnetism
    6. PHYS 260: Modern Physics
    7. PHYS 310: Quantum Mechanics
    8. PHYS 320: Thermal Physics
    9. PHYS 330: Advanced Laboratory
  2. One additional six-unit courses chosen from PHYS 340 and above, excluding directed study, tutorial, and independent study courses taken as part of the Senior Experience or for other reasons
  3. Senior Experience in physics
  4. The following math courses:  MATH 140, 155, 200, and 250

Physics majors without advanced placement or a strong background in high school physics should start with PHYS 141. Majors who do not intend to pursue graduate study in physics may petition the department to substitute appropriate upper-level offerings in other departments for up to two of the required physics electives.

The following program is typical:

  • First Year: PHYS 141 & 151, PHYS 220; MATH 140, 155, 200
  • Second Year: PHYS 225, 230, 260; MATH 250
  • Third Year: PHYS 310, 320, 330; physics electives
  • Fourth Year: PHYS 699: Independent Study in Physics, PHYS 650: Senior Seminar in Physics; physics electives

The Second Year Entry Track allows a physics outreach class for non-majors to count in place of an introductory class or upper-level elective.

  • First Year:  PHYS 110 or PHYS 115; MATH 140, 155; UNIC 175
  • Second Year:  PHYS 141, 151, 220; MATH 200
  • Third Year: PHYS 225, 230, 260; MATH 250
  • Fourth Year: PHYS 310, 320, 330, Senior Experience

Additional courses in mathematics, chemistry, computer science, biology, and geosciences are often elected. The prospective major should consult early and regularly with the faculty in the department.

The 3/2 Engineering Track adds chemistry and computer science, as required by our partner schools, in place of some third-pass classes, and allows students to transfer back upper-level engineering courses for the upper-level physics electives.

  • First Year:  PHYS 141, 151, 220; MATH 140, 155, 200
  • Second Year:  PHYS 225, 230, 260; CHEM 115, 116; MATH 350
  • Third Year: PHYS 320, Senior Experience; CSMC 150
  • Fourth Year: Transfer Classes

The Physics Teaching Track emphasizes core areas at the second pass level, with more requirements from other sciences to enable students to receive the broad-science certification and highlight connections between sciences at the high school level. The five education classes for the teaching certification are in addition to the physics requirement; this path can be completed in 12 terms if started in the first year, or in 13 terms if started later.   The courses for this track include:

  • PHYS 110, 141, 151, 220, 225, 230, 260, 330, and Senior Experience
  • CHEM 115, 116
  • GEOS 110
  • MATH 140, 155, 200, 250
  • EDST 180, 350, 440
  • EDUC 430, 560

Required for the interdisciplinary major in natural sciences in physics and a secondary discipline

Physics students who have strong secondary interests in biology, chemistry, or geosciences may construct a major involving physics and one of these sciences using the interdisciplinary major in the natural sciences.

The requirements for the interdisciplinary major with physics as the primary discipline are:

  1. PHYS 141: Introduction to Physics I and PHYS 151: Introduction to Physics II
  2. Any two of the following, chosen to include the secondary discipline:
    • BIOL 130: Cellular Form and Function, BIOL 135: Ecology, Evolution and Society, and BIOL 150: Organismal Form and Function
    • CHEM 115: Principles of Chemistry: Structure and Reactivity and CHEM 116: Principles of Chemistry: Energetics and Dynamics, or equivalent
    • GEOS 110: Introduction to the Geosciences and GEOS 210: History of the Earth and Life
  3. At least 10 six-unit courses in the sciences (biology, chemistry, geosciences, physics) numbered 200 or above, with at least five in physics and at least three in the secondary discipline. The five courses in physics must include the following:
    1. PHYS 220: Intermediate Laboratory:  Electronics
    2. PHYS 225: Computational Mechanics,
    3. PHYS 230: Electricity and Magnetism,
    4. PHYS 260: Modern Physics, and
    5. PHYS 310: Quantum Mechanics
  4. Senior Experience in physics

Senior Experience in physics

The Senior Experience in the department of physics consists of an independent investigation tailored to the individual student’s goals in physics. The process consists of a formal project proposal to the department followed by one or two six-unit independent study courses under faculty supervision and culminating in a capstone thesis paper.

All fourth year students (and 3-2 engineering students in their third year) will participate in a two-unit senior seminar, PHYS 650, in which they present their work orally. Students with double majors or degrees may propose initiatives that span multiple departments but both departments must approve such proposals before the project goes forward.

Required for the minor in physics

  1. PHYS 141: Introduction to Physics I and PHYS 151:  Introduction to Physics II
  2. PHYS 220:  Intermediate Laboratory:  Electronics
  3. PHYS 225: Computational Mechanics
  4. PHYS 260: Modern Physics
  5. Two additional six-unit courses in physics, at least one of which must be chosen from physics courses numbered 220 and above, excluding independent studies and capstone courses, and no more than one of which can be chosen from PHYS 107–115 and PHYS 215
  6. MATH 140, 155, and 200

A student pursuing a minor in physics must consult with a member of the department early and often to plan and monitor progress in the minor.

Teacher certification in physics or broad-field science

Students can seek teacher certification to teach physics at the secondary level. Certification requires a major in physics with courses in other science subjects, and students may petition to substitute physics courses numbered below 199 for the two required physics electives. Students also have the option of seeking broad-field science certification by completing a minimum of two courses in each of two other science disciplines and at least one course in each of the remaining sciences. Students who plan to seek teacher certification should review the requirements in the Education section of the catalog and meet with the director of teacher education, preferably before the end of the second year.  See course recommendations/requirements for the Physics Teaching Track above.


Course numbering

Courses of general interest requiring minimal or no prerequisite are numbered 107-115. The introductory courses, 141, 151, and 220, develop applied calculus and algebra skills across the sequence. PHYS 141 introduces elementary ideas in calculus together with concepts in physics. The calculus introduced in PHYS 141 will not replace any mathematics prerequisites in courses numbered 220 and higher. Intermediate courses are numbered between 200 and 300 and typically have as prerequisites MATH 140, 155, and/or 250. Advanced courses, many of which list one or more intermediate courses as prerequisites, are intended for third and fourth year students and are numbered above 300. Tutorial studies in physics and independent study in physics also are offered.

Recommended courses outside the department

Courses in mathematics, chemistry, and computer science are frequently elected to support a major in physics, but courses in geosciences, biology, economics, philosophy, anthropology, and other areas have occasionally been chosen by physics majors whose post-graduation objectives have an interdisciplinary dimension. With departmental approval, up to two upper-level courses in other departments may be substituted for required physics electives.

Opportunities for non-majors

The physics curriculum offers non-majors the opportunity to take one or more terms of physics as part of their liberal arts education. Although every course is open to all suitably prepared students, PHYS 107, 110, 112, 115, 141, 151, 215, and 220 have traditionally attracted non-majors.

The laboratory science general education requirement

The following courses in the physics department satisfy the university’s degree requirement of one laboratory course in natural science: PHYS 107, 110, 141, 151, 220, 260, 330, 340.

Advanced placement

Students with strong backgrounds should seek advanced placement and credit, normally by submitting scores on the Physics Advanced Placement Examinations.  The following exams and scores have the listed placement recommendations.

AP PHYSICS 1 … no placement beyond PHYS 141

AP PHYSICS 2 with exam score of 4 or 5:  waive PHYS 141

AP PHYSICS C: Mechanics with exam score of 4 or 5:  waive PHYS 141

AP PHYSICS C: Electricity and Magnetism with score of 4 or 5:  waive PHYS 141 and PHYS 151

Advanced placement without credit is awarded to students who submit satisfactory evidence that they both understand most of PHYS 141 or 151 and are able to remedy weaknesses on their own initiative.

Graduate school

Majors preparing for graduate school in physics will probably take more courses in physics than the required minimum. PHYS 425, 430, 440, and 460 are recommended for such students. Other departmental offerings (PHYS 340, 500-570) are appropriate for students with particular interests in the topics of those courses. All students contemplating graduate studies in physics should seek opportunities at Lawrence or elsewhere for full-time research during the summer after the junior year (or earlier). Students contemplating graduate studies in physics should discuss their plans early and often with members of the department.

Off-campus study

With careful advance planning, physics majors at Lawrence can arrange to be off campus for a term—typically the Winter or Spring Term of the third year or the Fall Term of the fourth year—without jeopardizing progress in the major. Thus, physics majors can participate in off-campus programs, even if those programs contain no scientific components. The Lawrence London Centre, among others, has been a popular destination for physics majors.