Activities and Organizations

Weekly Seminars

The department hosts weekly seminars on topics related to physics and astronomy. Unless otherwise noted, talks take place on Tuesdays at Noon in Science-1023 during the academic year. All members of the Grinnell College campus community are invited to the seminars. 

Open Houses at the Observatory

Open houses occasionally are held at the Grant O. Gale Observatory so members of the campus community, the general public, or special groups can view celestial objects through the 24" telescope. There is no set schedule for these events, but they are announced in the local media. Arrangements for group visits can be made by contacting Robert Cadmus (641-269-3016).



The Student Educational Policy Committee, or SEPC, is a student-faculty liaison group which provides faculty with student input on professors, candidates, curriculum, and other departmental issues. It also organizes social events within the department.

Academic Opportunities

3-2 Engineering Program

Students planning advanced study in engineering may complete a full B.A. course at Grinnell before graduate school, or they can follow a 3-2 program in Engineering. The 3-2 program allows students to spend three years at Grinnell and two years in one of the engineering programs with which Grinnell cooperates: Columbia University, California Institute of Technology, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Washington University. (Special arrangements can sometimes be made with other institutions.) Under normal progress the student receives a B.A. degree from Grinnell at the end of the fourth year and a B.E. degree from the cooperating institution at the end of the fifth year.

In either case, the prospective engineer studies the natural sciences as an integral part of a liberal education. Students are required to establish at Grinnell a strong foundation in mathematics, physics, and chemistry. A broad base of knowledge in the humanities and social sciences also is strongly recommended. The required science courses are those taken by any student with a serious interest in science, so a definite commitment to engineering is not necessary until enrollment at the engineering school.

Contact 3-2 program Paul Tjossem for more information. You can also sign up for the 3-2 program email list.

Requirements for transfer to Columbia University, Washington University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, or California Institute of Technology

Typical Requirements of all four schools (please check affiliate's individual requirements):
  • Mathematics through differential equations: Math 220
  • Two semesters of physics: Physics 131-132
  • One semesters of chemistry: Chemistry 129 or 210
  • 3.3 GPA - Higher GPA is required for some programs and some schools
Special Requirements: Columbia University ("Combined Plan")
Washington University ("Dual Degree") 
California Institute of Technology ("3-2")
  • Two additional courses in physics (Modern Physics, Electromagnetic Theory, Mechanics, and Wave Phenomena). (Cal Tech gives a two-year introductory physics course, and the stipulated Grinnell courses cover more than Cal Tech's courses, but they are necessary to ensure that students transferring will have had at least the background of Cal Tech students.)
  • A year of Chemistry
  • Twenty-four semester hours of humanities and social studies. At least six of these hours must be in humanities (art, history, languages, literature, music, philosophy) and at least six hours must be in social studies (anthropology, economics, political science, psychology)
  • California Institute of Technology 3-2 website
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute ("Transfer Admission")
  • One additional semester of physics
  • Four courses in humanities and social studies
  • Persons interested in chemical engineering should have a year of organic chemistry
  • Those interested in environmental or biomedical engineering should have some biology
  • A major at Grinnell must be completed, but credit to complete it can be transferred back from the engineering school. Usually a Grinnell major in chemistry, computer science, mathematics, or physics is required 
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Transfer Admission website

Please note that Grinnell College financial aid does not extend to the student's time at the engineering school. Check with the engineering school for their current financial aid policy.

Academic Year Student Projects

Academic year student projects may or may not be associated with faculty research projects, but even if they are entirely the student's work and may not have the potential for new publishable results, they are still valuable experiences. Such work helps students learn what doing research is like and gives them experience in working independently. Any sort of research or research-like experience makes a student a more attractive candidate for graduate school or other opportunities and gives the faculty supervisor raw material from which to fashion a helpful letter of recommendation.

Projects in Astronomy

The greatest strength of Grinnell's astronomy program is the opportunity it provides for students working individually or in small groups to undertake a wide range of interesting astronomical investigations. Whether a project is done in conjunction with a regular physics course, as a separately designed individual independent study course, or as an informal activity, every effort is made to strike the right balance between student independence and student-faculty collaboration.

Examples of projects that students have done include:

  • Determination of the age of the universe using galaxy redshift and distance data taken at Grinnell's observatory
  • Studies of the excitation of atoms in planetary nebulae
  • Measurement of the rotation curve of a galaxy showing the presence of "dark matter"
  • Determination of the orbit of a binary star by observation of the shifts in its spectrum
  • Measurement of the optical light curve of the Crab Pulsar
  • Measurement of the age and distance of star clusters
  • Spectroscopic investigations of the reflectivities of planetary surfaces and atmospheres
  • Investigation of the increase in the opacity of the earth's atmosphere as a result of the Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption using stellar brightness measurements

On-Campus Summer Research

Each summer, some members of the Grinnell Physics Department hire students to work with them on research. The usual arrangement is for ten weeks, but other possibilities exist. Except in exceptional circumstances, the students are paid for this work; housing is not provided but is readily available. The summer positions can be for credit, either Mentored Advanced Project (MAP, 499) or Directed Summer Research (299 or 399), or not for credit.

The kinds of positions vary from year to year but are generally described in a Physics Department seminar in late February or early March. The next step is for students to talk with faculty members with whom they might like to work. 

Academic Year Research Participation

Occasionally, members of the Physics Department will hire students to help with research for a few hours per week during the academic year. These are straightforward jobs offering no academic credit and can range from routine data analysis to relatively sophisticated research-related activity. When such jobs are available they will be publicized within the College, although students are always encouraged to let faculty know if they are interested in doing some work.

Awards, Grants, Scholarships, and Fellowships

Information for many scholarships can be found on GrinnellShare (login required), including Gates Cambridge, Marshall, Mitchell, and Rhodes Scholarships. 

Internship Financial Support from the Department of Physics

The Physics Department has funds to support a few internships that need not be carried out on campus. This is in addition to the funding that supports normal summer research with faculty members. An obvious use of these funds is to support a student who has identified an off-campus summer research opportunity that does not provide a stipend. In a given year, some or all of the money may be restricted to supporting declared physics majors. It is the Department's understanding that because this funding comes entirely from the college, work supported in this way is like a campus job and there are no additional complications for international students.

Applications for support of summer work should be made to the department chair via e-mail no later than the same deadline date as standard on-campus summer research. The application should consist of a message that contains the following information:

  • Your name, class year, major, e-mail address, campus PO box number, and campus phone number
  • One or more possible internship positions for which the supervisors have agreed to participate
  • Reasons for your interest in these positions - either individually or collectively
  • Experience that makes you qualified for these positions
  • Name of a Grinnell faculty member who has agreed to supervise the internship
  • Whether you wish to get credit for the internship
  • Two Grinnell College references and the context in which you know them

The Department will review the applications and notify applicants of the results before spring break.