Syllabus for PHS 560: Matter and Light (3 semester hours)

Arizona State University in Tempe

Learning Goals

This course has three primary goals:

1.     To develop classical and quantum models of the interaction of matter and light, and explore how they can be used to understand a variety of phenomena.

2.     To stimulate development of materials and approaches that help high school and two-year-college teachers in their efforts to bring these topics into their classrooms.

3.     To experience the beauty of physics and mathematics.


Basic philosophy

The fundamental physics experience is not the memorization of facts such as the number of quarks in a proton, but the consistent modeling of reality based on a few basic laws. Unfortunately, serious modeling at the frontiers of physics requires a level of mathematical and physical sophistication that even graduate students of physics find extremely hard to achieve. Consequently, teachers at the university or high school level must switch at some point from a modeling to a descriptive approach.  The pressure to do so is probably stronger at the high school level, where students presumably prefer to discuss neutrinos and black holes rather than Atwood machines or free fall.

The frontier between the modeling and the descriptive approach is not fixed, but can be shifted in favor of the modeling approach with the help of pedagogical innovations. This course attempts to stimulate such innovations in the field of light and matter interactions.

The classical models are developed at what the instructors consider to be the minimum level required for complete quantitative modeling.  The quantum models are developed at a level appropriate for some quantitative and some qualitative modeling.  In both cases, this is often at a higher level than that of a standard high school class. Therefore, the challenge for participant teachers is to ascertain to what extent the materials can be further developed and adapted so that serious modeling on light and matter can take place in their classrooms.


The 5-week summer course begins by reviewing and/or introducing—during the first week—basic mathematical and physical concepts, such as the use of derivatives, the physics of the harmonic oscillator, and complex numbers. Two weeks are devoted to exploring light and matter interactions from the perspective of the classical theory of electromagnetic fields and simple models of matter. Next the limitations and contradictions of the classical approach are discussed; and the subject is presented from the perspective of quantum mechanics for the last two weeks.  Possible topics for application of quantum models include LEDs and transistors, lasers, superconductors, and astronomy.


Algebra-level knowledge of Newtonian mechanics, electricity and magnetism is assumed. Some calculus (primarily derivatives and partial derivatives) and vectors is used.  These are developed in class, but students benefit greatly if they have a chance to review them on their own ahead of time.

Instructional approach

There is little lecturing in the traditional sense. At the beginning of each session the students receive a handout with a guided list of activities. Depending on the activities, students perform experiments, run computer simulations, or work in groups at a whiteboard.  Often students are divided into groups to work on different problems and report their results later to the entire class.

If the particular session requires working as separate groups, the entire class sit together to draw conclusions at the end of the session.

Where appropriate, at the end of a session the group discusses possible uses of the topic in high school and two-year-college contexts.



     The course was developed in 2000-2002 by Jose Menendez, an ASU physics professor, with Larry Dukerich, a high school physics teacher, and Richard Clawson, a doctoral student in physics, with vision and contributions by Professor David Hestenes, founder of the ASU MNS degree program for physics teachers.