Computational skills encompass computational physics skills (e.g., translating models into code, choosing scales and units, choosing appropriate algorithms and tools, extracting physical insight, understanding the limitations of computers and computer models), the use of a variety of computational tools (e.g., spreadsheets, structured programming languages, computer-based symbolic manipulations, modeling packages), and technical computing skills (e.g., analysis, visualization, and presentation of data). Computational skills can be introduced at numerous points throughout the curriculum through individual and group activities, and can become more sophisticated as students progress through their education.
Computational tools and techniques are used ubiquitously in physics, are integral to how physics is currently practiced, and provide excellent preparation for careers. Knowledge and skills in programming, simulations, and modeling are needed by physics graduates in a variety of careers. Adding these skills to the curriculum addresses a common weakness that many physics graduates report in their undergraduate programs, improves and accelerates students’ ability to engage in research and solve research-like problems, and may assist in the recruiting of students. Computational skills allow students to answer questions not solvable through analytic techniques, including practical and applied problems, and are transferable across disciplines. The use of computational tools can deepen students’ understanding of fundamental concepts and principles.
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There is an extensive peer-reviewed literature in computational physics education, much of which is highlighted in a special issue of the American Journal of Physics (Reference 1). Reference 2 documents current practices in computational physics, and Reference 3 and references therein provide evidence for the need for computational skills development in physics programs.
- W. Christian and B. Ambrose (editors), Theme Double Issue on Incorporating Computation into the Physics Curriculum, American Journal of Physics, 76(4&5) (2008).
- M. D. Caballero and L. Merner, “Prevalence and nature of computational instruction in undergraduate physics programs across the United States,” Physical Review Physics Education Research, 14(2), 020129 (2018).
- P. Heron, L. McNeil, et al. (editors) “Phys21: Preparing Physics Students for 21st-Century Careers,” American Physical Society (2016).
- AAPT Undergraduate Curriculum Task Force, “AAPT Recommendations for Computational Physics in the Undergraduate Physics Curriculum,” American Association of Physics Teachers (2016): a report providing recommendations for how to include computation in the physics curriculum
- “Advancing Interdisciplinary Integration of Computational Thinking in Science, Conference Report,” American Association of Physics Teachers (2020): a report that provides recommendations on integrating computational thinking in science courses, including supporting pedagogical computational knowledge for instructors
- Partnership for Integration of Computation into Undergraduate Physics (PICUP): a community of instructors sharing resources including peer-reviewed instructional materials, faculty development workshops, and support for instructors working to include computation in their courses and programs at all levels
- AIP Statistical Research Center: a group that regularly collects and analyzes data on education, careers, and diversity in physics, astronomy and other physical sciences. Several reports have findings support the integration of computational skills in the curriculum, e.g., Field of Employment for New Physics Bachelors and Skills Used Regularly: New Physics Bachelors Employed in STEM Fields.