William M. MacDonald


Ph.D., Princeton University, 1955

The advent of the personal computer has changed the ground rules for teaching physics, particularly at the undergraduate level. For more than a century both the content and the organization of undergraduate physics courses have been largely dictated by the restriction to problems that can be solved exactly in terms of algebraic expressions and the more elementary functions of mathematical physics. The advent of the computer has made it possible for a student to investigate problems of real interest, such as the effect of air resistance and spin on the trajectory of a golf ball, or of the deviations from the inverse square law of gravitational attraction upon planetary motion.

Using computers to teach physics requires, however, the availability of high-quality software for lecture demonstrations and computer laboratories. This software must be extremely flexible and allow the student to investigate many aspects of a physical system, including special cases that are exactly solvable and that can be used to bridge the transition to cases solvable only numerically. The material should be easily integrable into existing courses, yet provide a gateway to the development of courses more reflective of the approach and current interests of working physicists.

Prof. MacDonald was a member of the M.U.P.P.E.T. program that developed a set of utilities and programs for teaching introductory physics. Currently, he is a co-director (with Profs. Maria Dworzecka and Robert Ehrlich of George Mason University) of the Consortium for Upper-Level Physics Software (CUPS) that is developing a series of packages consisting of a text-book and six multi-part simulations for each of the nine physics courses that are the core of the undergraduate curriculum in most parts of the world. This project has been funded in the amount of more than $900,000 by the NSF, with additional support from IBM, Apple Computer, and George Mason University. The nine packages are being tested throughout the United States and in other countries, and publishing of the series by John Wiley and Sons is beginning in 1994.

Prof. MacDonald is also responsible for developing the course Mathematica for Scientists and Engineers that aims to teach the use of this new language integrating symbolic and numerical computing with extraordinary graphics capabilities. Prof. MacDonald believes that Mathematica and its competitors will introduce fundamental changes in the way that we teach and do physics. He is interested in working with undergraduates and graduate students to develop and test new materials for physics education.

Selected Publications
  1. W. M. MacDonald, "Discretization and Truncation Errors in a Numerical Solution of Laplace's Equation," American Journal of Physics 62, 169 (1994).
  2. W. M. MacDonald, "Post-Use Review of Mathematica, A Practical Approach," American Journal of Physics 60, 1157 (1993).
  3. R. Ehrlich, M. Dworzecka, and W. MacDonald, "Text Materials to Accompany Simulations for the CUPS Project," Computers in Physics 7, 508 (1993).
  4. R. Ehrlich, M. Dworzecka, and W. MacDonald, "Software Consortium Develops Simulations for Nine Physics Courses," Computers in Physics 6, 90 (1992).
  5. W. M. MacDonald, and S. Hanzely, "The Physics of the Drive in Golf," American Journal of Physics 59, 213 (1991).