UK Nonlinear News , May 1997.

Teaching `Nonlinear Phenomena and Chaos'

By Mike Wilson

In the autumn of 1995 the Physics Department at Royal Holloway College University of London decided to launch a third year optional course entitled Nonlinear Phenomena and Chaos. The aim of the course is to provide an introduction to some of the fundamental ideas underlying the description of non-linear and chaotic systems in physics. Furthermore, an assortment of concepts and techniques which can be used to describe the essential features of non-linear systems is developed. I was given a completely free reign to design the course, constrained only by the fact that the audience would comprise third year physics students.

Many departments now provide details on their courses on the WWW and this course is no different; the aims and objectives of the course, an overview of the lecture content and a discussion of textbooks are available ; a more detail syllabus is also provided. The basic information contained on these pages above is no different to that which is traditionally provided to students on paper. Providing the same information in a different format does not make the best use of the WWW and during the two years that the course has run additional material has been added to the course home page.

The home pages contain an ascii version of the course notes, including examples and exercises, for every lecture; because of the ascii format complicated mathematical expressions and figures are missing from these notes. In the ideal world the students would use these to read ahead of the lecture course, so that that they can see how the material in the current lecture is going to be developed; students would also find it easier to follow a lecture if they have read the notes in advance! Some students may find it useful to read the notes for lectures they were `unable' to attend...

Providing an ascii copy of the lecture notes may involve a considerable amount of work; particularly if this is a course you have taught for several years. However, if you teaching a course for the first time and write your notes in LaTeX then you can use the latex2html program to convert them into HTML; you may need to do some `fine-tuning', but the bulk of the process is done for you. In addition the latex2html program will write the necessary HTML code to include postscript figures; it will also convert mathematical expressions set as equations to postscript and include those. It is possible to provide a complete set of lecture notes to students via WWW. Note that students are unlikely to be able to afford to print out these notes on a postscript printer.

In addition to compulsory course work, the work sheets for which are available via the home page, the course includes self-study assignments, which are designed to assist in the student's understanding of the course. These assignments, which are again provided via the home page, involve the use of various pieces of software, some available locally, such as the Chaos Demonstrations package, some written specifically for the course, maple worksheets, and some available over the WWW, such as a 1-D cellular automata program. There are links to all of these resources on the home page.

To save students spending time in the library I have also included the past-exam questions and provided rough outline solutions.

A feature started this year which most students regarded as quite useful was the circulation of a weekly newsletter, emailed to all members of the class and then archived on our fileserver. These newsletters are available to non-local users via the course home page. The newsletters informed the students of changes to the homepage, provided comments on course work, little historical remarks on nonlinear research...

Finally, I have included links to a few sites of interest (including UK Nonlinear News!); an attempt to motivate the students to `read-around' the subject and expand their horizons.

I am interested in sharing experiences with, or simply hearing from others who have also had the similar task of designing and giving a course at this introductory but not entirely trivial level. I have not included any Java applications because I am such a novice a web-ology that aspiring to such nicities is way down my job priorities list; are there any good existing non-linear Java applications, preferable based on physics, that could be included?

Mike Wilson ( m.wilson@vms.rhbnc.ac.uk.)


UK Nonlinear News is interested in hearing from people on the advantages/disadvantages of providing course material via the WWW.

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