Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

The Largest Class in College Physics


One of the several new buildings erected on the Dartmouth College campus at the end of the nineteenth century was Wilder Laboratory for the Department of Physics. It was built and occupied in 1898-1899 with little change in its interior or exterior in the next fifty years. In celebration of its centennial, it is fitting to review several of the events that occurred within its walls. Shortly before midcentury, the Department of Physics coped with teaching its largest introductory physics course ever.

By the declaration of war in Japan and Germany in December 1941, the United States entered World War II. Preparations already under way to aid the Allies were accelerated, and eligible young men were required to register for the draft immediately. To prepare for the field of communications, many Dartmouth College students flocked into Assistant Professor of Physics Willis M. Rayton's radio and electronics courses. Dr. Rayton was so overwhelmed that early in 1942 the department sought help for him by adding a new person to the teaching staff. Meanwhile, the College agreed to co-sponsor with the Navy an Officer Training V-12 program in which all recruits were required to take College Physics 1 and 2 as part of their basic training.

Willis Rayton and I first met as graduate students in physics at the University of Rochester in the fall of 1932. By the time he had completed his studies and research for his doctorate four years later-and I had nearly completed mine-we had become very good friends. Before we were through, we talked about our interests and our future careers. We enjoyed teaching and decided to seek positions at the college or university level. At that time, it was far easier to move from teaching into industrial research than from industrial research into teaching. There were very few private and governmental research laboratories where physicists might find jobs. We preferred a college or university in the northeast; but which one?

To make a reasonable decision we looked up such information as student/faculty ratio, number of students in the institution, library facilities, research possibilities, size of the physics faculty, and ages of faculty in the physics departments of several well-known colleges and universities in the northeast. In addition, Will Rayton, an avid skier, investigated the availability of skiing. We finally selected Dartmouth College as the most attractive because of its excellent library, its modest student/faculty ratio, the teaching facilities and research potential of Wilder Laboratory, and the advanced ages of the six members of the physics faculty.

In the fall of 1936, Will received an invitation to join the physics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he spent the next three years. I received an invitation to join the physics department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for the spring term of 1937 and remained there for the next five years.

Charles A. Proctor 1900, a native of Hanover, was a highly respected skier as well as a long-time professor of physics at Dartmouth. On meeting Willis Rayton while skiing in the late 1930s, he learned of Will's interest in short-wave radio and electronics as well as his physics background. Because Will would be an excellent replacement for Professor Gordon F. Hull 1908H, due to retire from the physics department at the end of the 1940 academic year, he was invited to join the Department of Physics at Dartmouth for the fall term of 1939. Meanwhile, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I had been teaching the electricity and magnetism course in an unconventional manner as well as assisting in laboratory and recitation classes for introductory physics. Because of this experience, Will invited me to Hanover early in 1942 for an interview by the department as a candidate for the new teaching position noted above. This proved successful, and by the end of May I became the seventh member of its teaching staff. Will and I were now at the institution of our choice.

The period May 1943 through June 1943 was a transition for Dartmouth when regular students already enrolled in courses completed their studies before moving into wartime service; when an intensive Naval Training School (Indoctrination) was held on its campus; and when the College geared up for the new Navy V-12 program, which began operation on 1 July 1943. By this time, Willis Rayton had requested a leave of absence for the duration of the war to assist the Division of War Research at the University of California in its study of underwater sound. All other members of the teaching staff remained in Hanover for the duration. Even so, there would be tremendous need for additional assistants and associates for the many recitation and laboratory sections of the required physics courses in the Navy V-12 program.

A number of academic departments on campus not involved with the V-12 program were temporarily suspended or had their classes drastically reduced in size. Faculty in those departments were offered the opportunity to help in one of the first year 'basic' V-12 courses: mathematics, physics, English, graphics, and history. Approximately twenty-five of these faculty became 'associates' to help with the laboratory sections of Physics 1 or 2. For this purpose they were given special training during the 1942 Christmas break. In addition, a few physicists from industry and from other institutions were recruited to be teaching assistants, especially for recitation sections. For the first time in its history, the physics department established the positions of secretary and apparatus technician.

Navy V-12 students in the laboratory.

During the first term of the V-12 program, from 1 July to 31 October 1943, approximately 900 enlisted students of the 1000 enrolled in Dartmouth's unit were in physics. Two hundred of them, who already had studied mechanics, heat, and sound in universities whence they came, were assigned to Physics 2 and the remaining 700 to Physics 1. By the second term, however, beginning in November 1943, there were approximately 1,500 students in physics of whom approximately 760 were in Physics 2.[1] Clearly, Wilder Laboratory could not accommodate both Physics 1 and Physics 2; therefore, Physics 1 was taught in Silsby Hall for the duration.

Professor Leslie F. Murch served as V-12 course director for physics; he focused his attention on teaching Physics 1 in Silsby Hall. The new Assistant Professor of Physics (King) had the responsibility of teaching Physics 2 in Wilder Laboratory. How we succeeded in having a full course of lecture, recitation, and laboratory experiments in Physics 2 for 760 students, the largest such group ever assembled for a College course, Introductory Physics, within the limited facilities of Wilder Laboratory during the second term of the Navy's V-12 program at Dartmouth, bears recounting.

To accommodate the several different course schedules of the young men in Physics 2 and yet give them the opportunity to attend two lectures per week in Room 104 of Wilder Laboratory with its seating capacity of no more than 196 students, I repeated the same demonstration lecture at three different hours on Monday morning, and my teaching assistant Charles P. Hadley did the same on Tuesday morning. We repeated this sequence for the second lecture of the week on Thursday and Friday mornings. With the help of qualified assistants and associates, recitations of one hour's duration and three-hour laboratory sessions of no more than fifty students met on mornings, afternoons, and evenings throughout the week. This organization proved eminently satisfactory.

Hour and final examinations were handled expeditiously. Clearly questions requiring essay answers were out of the question! We had no recourse but to resort to multiple-choice questions with five possible answers. The three hour examinations during the term were held in Room 104, with students sitting next to one another throughout the room. To discourage any copying by chance from a neighbor, two different sequences of questions were distributed to alternate students. Because all six sections of Physics 2 would be given the same examination, copies of the test were numbered and at the end were collected before the students were dismissed. No one was allowed to leave the room until all copies were returned! The final examination was given in the more spacious gymnasium where the seating could be more widely spaced and, therefore, only one sequence of questions was needed. The regimentation within the course fitted in well with the regimentation required of potential officers in the V-12 program.

Staff of physics courrses in the V-12 program. The author is second from the left in the third row.

The Navy V-12 unit at Dartmouth, the largest of the 131 units in the country, was launched on 1 July 1943 and, until 31 October 1945, sailed through seven terms of study by potential officers for the Navy and Marines with great success. Throughout this voyage, Wilder Laboratory proved to be reasonably satisfactory as a base for Physics 2. And, in the winter term of 1943-1944, it accommodated the largest class in basic physics every held there or anywhere else in the United States-perhaps in the world![2]

[1] Student enrollment in Physics 2 as of 1 January 1944 included 643 Navy personnel, 79 Marines, and 39 civilians, for a total of 761. A 'civilian' student was either too young to be drafted or had a disability that prevented him from serving in the armed forces.

[2] Further information on the V-12 program may be found in Ray Nash, Navy at Dartmouth (Hanover: Dartmouth Publications, 1946); and United States, Naval Training School (V-12), Dartmouth College, Records, 1942-1945, Dartmouth College Library, Special Collections, DA-11.

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DCLB--A99-King, 1.2 May 13, 1999 3