Goals of the Physics Major (USLI)

Overview of UC Berkeley Undergraduate Student Learning Initiative (USLI)

The Undergraduate Student Learning Initiative (USLI) is a campus-wide initiative to support departments in establishing educational goals and evaluation procedures for all undergraduate programs. As a result of the initiative, faculty and students will have a shared understanding of the purpose of the major and what graduating seniors are expected to know or to be able to do at the end of their course of study. The initiative is in keeping with the fundamental principle at Berkeley that the evaluation of student achievement should be locally defined, discipline specific, and faculty driven.

Department Mission Statement

The goal of the Physics major is to provide the student with a broad understanding of the physical principles of the universe, to help them develop critical thinking and quantitative reasoning skills, to empower them to think creatively and critically about scientific problems and experiments, and to provide training for students planning careers in physics and in the physical sciences broadly defined, including those whose interests lie in research, K-12 or college teaching, industrial jobs, or other sectors of our society.

Description of the Undergraduate Major

The Physics Department is ranked as one of the top physics departments in the world. Our undergraduate program aims to provide a broad and solid background in fundamental physics: the study of the universe, from the very large (star formation, cosmic microwave background radiation) to the very small (nanotechnology, atomic cooling and trapping, string theory), and everything in between (biophysics, and the physics of solid state devices, just to name a few). 

We aim to help our majors develop strong mathematical and analytical skills, good laboratory skills, effective written and oral communication skills, and of course a solid understanding of the fundamental laws that govern the universe.

A student graduating from Berkeley with a major in physics will understand classical and modern physics (as outlined in the course requirements below) and will also acquire the skills to apply principles to new and unfamiliar problems.  Their understanding should include the ability to analyze physical problems (often posed as “word problems”), be able to derive, and prove equations that describe the physics of the universe, understand the meaning and limitations of these equations, and have both physical and numerical insight into physical problems (e.g. be able to make order-of-magnitude estimates, analyze physical situations by application of general principles as well as by textbook type calculations).  They will also have developed basic laboratory, library, and computational skills, be familiar with important historical experiments and what physics they revealed, and be able to make both written and oral presentations on physics problems posed to them.   The program is also designed to empower students to develop and construct their own experimental projects.  

Required Courses for the Major

Lower-Division Course Requirements (required of all majors):

The course requirements for the Physics major four required levels or tiers. 

Tier 1: Aim is to introduce students to fundamental math and physics concepts needed for upper division work:

Course Number Course Title Semester Units
Physics 5A Introductory Mechanics and Relativity F,S 3
Physics 5B Introductory Electromagnetism, Waves, and Optics F,S 3
Physics 5BL-5CL Introduction to Experimental Physics I & II F,S 2,2
Physics 5C Introductory Thermodynamics and Quantum Mechanics F,S 3
Physics 7A-7C Physics for Scientists and Engineers F,S 4,4
Physics 89 Introduction to Mathematical Physics F,S 4
Math 1A-1B Calculus F,S 4,4
Math 53** Multivariable Calculus F,S 4

**Note: Math N53 is not accepted by Physics to satisfy Math 53.

The lower division prerequisites to the major consists of five lower division courses, chosen to introduce students to fundamental math and physics concepts needed for upper division work:

  • Physics 5A-5C or 7A-7C, and Physics 89

  • Math 1A-1B, and Math 53* *Note: Math N53 is not accepted by Physics to satisfy Math 53.

The 5-series is the honors version of the 7-series and is only recommended for students who have already completed Calculus II. Both series adequately prepare students for upper division courses.

 Tier 2: Aim is to teach our students the fundamental knowledge of quantum mechanics, classical mechanics, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, optics, and special relativity. These courses also teach problem solving skills, including the ability to set up problems and make numerical estimates. 

Course Number Course Title Semester Units
105 Analytic Mechanics F,S 4
137A-137B Quantum Mechanics F,S 4,4
110A Electromagnetism and Optics F,S 4
Statistical and Thermal Physics F,S 4

Tier 3: Aim is to give an introduction to fields of modern Physics and to modern experimental techniques and provide a “capstone” to the program.

One or more of the following courses (referred to as “electives”) is required.

Course Number Course Title Semester Unit
110B Electromagnetism and Optics F,S 4
129 Particle Physics F 4
130 Quantum and Nonlinear Optics S 3
138 Modern Atomic Physics S 3
139 Special and General Relativity S 3
141A (and/or B) Solid State Physics F,S (141A) and S (141B) 4,4
142 Introduction to Plasma Physics S 4
151 Elective Physics: Special Topics F,S (when offered) 3
C161 Relativistic Astrophysics and Cosmology S 4
177 Principles of Molecular Biophysics S 3
188 Bayesian Data Analysis and Machine Learning for Physical Sciences F 4
C191 Quantum Information Science and Technology F,S (when offered) 3

Elective courses draw on the knowledge gained in the core curriculum, typically requiring knowledge drawn from all the upper division core courses to understand advanced topics in modern physics.  These courses also provide students with what is usually their first glimpse into possible career research directions.  The courses usually require written assignments and examinations.  Grades in these assignments and exams provide the primary means of evaluating performance at this level.

Students can request a course from another department be used as an elective; this requires approval of the Head Undergraduate Advisor. In these courses, students apply and extend knowledge from the core courses to modern physics topics.

Tier 4: Aim is to give students the opportunity to apply the knowledge they gained in the core courses to understand real and important physical phenomena.  It also teaches students experimental techniques necessary for research in both industrial and academic positions.

Course Number Course Title Semester Unit
111A-B* The Advanced Laboratory Physics F,S


*Students who wish to complete more units of 111B (only) beyond the 3 required can add more and up to a total of 9 units all together.

Student Learning Outcomes

Theoretical (T):

  1. Students will have the working knowledge of a broad set of topics concerning the fundamentals in the basic areas of physics (quantum mechanics, classical mechanics, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, optics, and special relativity).
  2. Students will be able to dissect a complex problem into smaller pieces and find an appropriate method of solving each piece.

Analytical (A):

  1. Students will apply advanced mathematical methods and numerical techniques to find solutions to real-world physical phenomena and solve problems relevant to their future carriers. Students will solve problems competently by identifying the essential parts of a problem and formulating a strategy for solving the problem.  Estimate the numerical solution to a problem. Apply appropriate techniques to arrive at a solution, test the correctness of the solution, and interpret the results.
  2. Students will be able to interpret scientific data, charts and graphs and draw conclusions based on their observations.

Experimental (E):

  1. Students will conduct experiments demonstrating their knowledge of the scientific method and processes. Students will demonstrate an understanding of the analytical methods required to interpret and analyze results and draw conclusions as supported by their data.
  2. Students will design, construct, troubleshoot and complete a science-based independent project
  3. Students will demonstrate proficiency in the acquisition of data using a variety of laboratory instruments and in the analysis and interpretation of such data.
  4. Students will gain knowledge and understanding of how modern electronic instrumentation works, and how both classical and modern experiments are used to reveal the underlying physical principles of the universe and its constituents.
  5. Students will understand and follow the proper procedures and regulations for safely working in a lab.

Computational (CP):

  1. Students will become capable using computational techniques and code to solve physical problems.
  2. Students will be able to compare different computational techniques and to decide which technique will be the most efficient technique to be used to solve a particular problem.
  3. Students will be able to use technology to locate, access, evaluate, and use information, and appropriately cite resources from digital/electronic media.
  4. Students will understand the core IT concepts in a range of current and emerging technologies and learn to apply appropriate technologies to a range of tasks.

 Communications (CC):

  1. Students will be able to read scientific papers and journals and learn how to interpret presented results.
  2. Students, working in groups or individually, will be able to explain physics problems and their solutions in both words and appropriately specific equations to both experts and non-experts.
  3. Students will be able to communicate the concepts and results of their laboratory experiments through effective writing and oral communication skills.
  4. Students will demonstrate the ability to communicate, create, and collaborate effectively using state-of-the-art information technologies in multiple modalities.
  5. Students will be able to use appropriate presentational technology to enhance messages and convey greater depths of information, knowledge and feeling in an oral presentation.

In Summary:

  • Students will be able to think creatively about scientific problems and their solutions, to design and carry out experiments, perform computational modeling, and to constructively question results they are presented with, whether these results are in a classroom, scientific article, scientific talk or elsewhere.

View these learning outcomes mapped to required courses for the major

Assessment Measures

Due to the highly structured program, performance in each core and elective course provides an ongoing measure of the students’ progress during most of the major. 

In addition to course evaluations, the Physics Department annually provides Exit Surveys to all of our graduating seniors. This survey information helps us evaluate how students feel about the program and learn about their plans after graduation.

The Department also periodically (every 5-10 years) conducts more extensive surveys of our majors. In addition, academic advising by faculty advisors is available for all undergraduate majors. Students are required to meet with their academic faculty advisor every term to discuss their program and progress in the major.  There is a faculty Head Undergraduate Advisor as well as the staff member head of our Undergraduate Student Affairs who meets with the faculty advisors and students to gather input.

 To evaluate the outcomes of these assessment tools, there are two standing departmental committees that monitor the program and consider the need for changes in courses or in the major. One committee is responsible for the lower division courses and the other for the upper division program.  Feedback from the above evaluations/ interviews provides useful input in considering modifications of the major requirements.