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All Kids Left Behind!

  1. Sep 20, 2010 #1
    I was pleased the day I found my kid was taking physics - until I found how woefully unprepared ALL the kids were and how the entire course was dummied down to fit a mathematically immature age.

    How are they to even begin to understand kinematics, when they have NO modicum of a gleaming upon the concept of calculus. They have these kids memorizing formulas, without a clue as to their meaning, derivation...

    Argh.... I'm too upset to continue
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 20, 2010 #2


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    what age group we talking?
  4. Sep 21, 2010 #3


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    There are many basic concepts and laws that you can grasp and learn to use without calculus, it doesn't have to be a problem. Problem starts when the course is dumbed down not because kids don't know enough math, but to allow Joe Slow crawl through it, while all other kids wait bored. That's the problem.
  5. Sep 21, 2010 #4


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    The best part is? No one I know even remembers when this wasn't the case. Though as already mentioned, you don't need calculus to learn many basic things about physics. Hell, a university typically has an entire series of physics courses aimed at not-really-engineers-but-not-art-majors type students that does physics without calculus.
  6. Sep 21, 2010 #5


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    If you're talking about high school Physics, then I think that's been the case for at least 40 years and probably forever.

    If you're talking about college, well, a lot of students don't take high school Physics and aren't in majors that require more than an awareness of physics.
  7. Sep 21, 2010 #6
    Okay, well I feel better in that this isn't a unique occurance, but I still need to communicate with my kid, I'm frustrated at the lack of conceptual background. Where do I go and what do I do to find a common grounds?
  8. Sep 21, 2010 #7
    You are asking a forum how to communicate with your own offspring? Interesting.

    Pythag had the 1st and most vital question. How old is your child?
  9. Sep 21, 2010 #8
    yeah I took two physics classes in HS without a lesson of calc.
  10. Sep 21, 2010 #9
    I fail to understand the relevance of physics without calculus. Speaking as a student going through introductory physics, the link between the equations v=v0+at and x=x0+vt+1/2at^2 would not exist. Now I know it's connected by integration/differentiation, which allows me to go between a, v, and x without even a second thought. Physics is pointless without calculus, even if the equations do not specifically require calculating derivatives or integrals.
  11. Sep 21, 2010 #10
    Of course those links exists, calculus don't magically create the link. The only math prerequisite for those formulas is the area of a triangle + square and the reasoning behind it is really simple and nothing of this gets any easier just because you have studied calculus. Sure you got more mathematical tools to apply to more variations of functions but the actual physical understanding do not come any easier just because you know calculus.

    The way I derived those equations when I took early physics was by first calculating the average speed and then multiplying with the time. Not hard at all and it makes perfect sense... I think it is people like you who don't see these obvious links which should go back and think a while. Remember that most didn't derive the formulas found in calculus, so they are just tricking themselves into thinking that they "derive" physics formulas. So in fact they are still just memorizing, the only difference is that the new set of rules is more powerful.
    Last edited: Sep 21, 2010
  12. Sep 21, 2010 #11


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    It's a lesson in synthesis. We learn a handful of useful things with algebra in fundamental physics courses. Then we put them together with calculus.

    If you're just handed calculus, there's no significance filter, and applying calculus to numerous different physical situations is (at first) daunting.

    Imagine if we started learning electromagnetism just from Maxwell's equations. No, we share the chronological history with The Giants because the order of discovery has a big influence on the development of theory. Sure, there was a better way....

    There's a better way to run government too. But if we just told everybody to start acting that way, all the infrastructure built on the old ways would become unstable, and that is (by manner of a series of events) the foundation on which "the new way" stands.

    In fact, I still make more algebra mistakes than calculus mistakes in page of long derivations. Algebra is not trivial when you go beyond add/subtract/divide/multiply.
  13. Sep 21, 2010 #12


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    Stating physics is pointless without calculus is an arrogance. Browse "Introductory physics" forum - it could be named "Precalculus physics". A lot of good, interesting questions that can be solved using just a basic algebra and good understanding of basic concepts.
  14. Sep 21, 2010 #13
    I think the following is rather fitting.

    It's like trying teaching an engineering student fracture mechanics before teaching them stress and strain.
  15. Sep 21, 2010 #14
    Like I said, I'm studying intro physics right now, and no, I'm hardly bad at math. The connections are far more lucid when one understands calculus. They may exist without calculus, but if you're telling me the average modern student will understand the relationship you described, you're deluding yourself.

    I haven't done a physics problem yet in my class that required calculus. I didn't say it did. I did, however, say that calculus makes introductory physics concepts much easier to digest. You have the intuitive sense that is required of physics. Like the OP said, without calculus, you're just memorizing formulas. I derive them simply by understanding what an indefinite integral is.

    Well, as an engineering major who never took algebra-based physics, we'll see if you're right. My calculus-based physics course, however, is probably easier to digest than any algebra-based physics course would've been prior to calculus. In fact, I can assert this positively, as I tried my hand at physics without the proper calculus background, and failed miserably (of course, it's very possible this has something to do with the fact that I crave structure in my learning, and I tried to self-teach myself out of an algebra physics book).
  16. Sep 21, 2010 #15
    Well done for totally missing the point. This is not about the end game, it's about how people learn to get there.

    The learning process requires:
    foundation -> basics -> advanced tools.

    You can't solve an advanced problem with basic tools. But you need to master the basic tools before you can progress to more advanced concepts.
  17. Sep 21, 2010 #16
    Your point was that one must learn the basic, algebra-based tools before one learns the calculus-based tools, yes? Well, my point addressed this. It's unnecessary in my eyes. One can teach them both simultaneously. The calculus and algebra are not disconnected from another. In fact, they compliment one another. Knowing calculus before tackling the algebra-based physics makes the physics more intuitive and understandable. Just my observation of course. I would certainly be the first to admit I am the epitome of 'outlier' when it comes to learning.
  18. Sep 21, 2010 #17
    Well it was a more general point about learning, it applies to everything. I'm finding it hard to pick out an example, as when you can do calculus it makes it difficult to think of a time before you could do it.

    The only example I can think of is silly, it's how you get the area under a curve.

    In primary school, you drew it on a peice of square paper and counted the squares. (arithmatic and basic counting)
    In secondary school pre calculus, you learn the trapezium rule, and the error associated with using different sized trapeziums.
    In secondary shool when you learn calculus you simply integrate the curve.

    EDIT: I'm getting nostalgic flashbacks of my maths classes. I remember being set simulaneous equations homework, and just using matrices to solve them (AS further maths for the win). I let someone copy without thinking and us both getting bollocked because they hadn't done matrices. good times.
    Last edited: Sep 21, 2010
  19. Sep 22, 2010 #18
    The problem with this view is that physics gets even more logical and all that once you start doing it with functional analysis, differential geometry etc, rather than calculus. I'd say that it is good to build your physical intuition up from the basics rather than waiting with it till you know basic maths.

    Personally I did roughly all non calculus based physics you can do before I started high school. We did basic kinematics, electrical circuits, basic em theory such as how two charged particles effects each other, how magnetic fields effects charged particles which leads to how to make an ac engine and how coils transforms voltages, we did the atom model together with the quantization of light and light spectrum's from different gases, we did the interference experiments of waves, explained why that happens and then explained that the same thing happens with particles such as electrons, we went through special relativity by first explaining that the speed of light is constant and then derived the other relations from that, we did a very basic treatment of some thermodynamic systems and explained the general idea even though we didn't calculate anything on it except for just calculating how much energy it is required to melt/heat things up just had some heuristic description of entropy and such.

    None of that required any calculus at all and I'd argue that I had a better understanding of physics when I started high school than you do currently. By the way, can you explain in what way you are an 'outlier', because just saying 'outlier' doesn't really say anything at all except that you aren't in the mainstream. I'd argue that most who posts outside the help forums here are 'outliers'.
    Last edited: Sep 22, 2010
  20. Sep 22, 2010 #19

    Andy Resnick

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    I really appreciated your post- especially the middle paragraph. The sentence above is the critical point, and I'll note the OP never said *how old* his child is. Clearly, material presented at elementary school (ages 5-11 in the US) will be conceptually simpler than the material represented at middle school, high school, undergraduate, graduate, postdoc.... and there's no reason to demand that calculus-based physics should be taught in elementary school.
  21. Sep 22, 2010 #20
    Well, for one, I didn't go to high school. For two, I had about a 4th grade math level before entering college last fall. For three, I keep a keen eye on pedagogical techniques. I discuss it with both the educators and those being educated. But mostly, my point was simply that I am relatively unique in my learning style. I do not learn from books very well. I'm not a very visual learner either. Now, either you must accept that I have a very keen intuitive grasp on physics, or that it is entirely unnecessary to know how to do all that gobbeldygook during middle school, because I'm doing quite well in my intro physics class without it.

    Believe me, I understand your mentality. It's typical of the modern take on education. Drill it into them young, drill it into them again, drill it into them when they go to college, and maybe, just maybe, once they get a job they remember some part of chapter 2. I just think there are better ways of going about it.
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