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Calc-based or not? Non-Physics major

  1. Jun 2, 2007 #1
    I'm a Biology major with the intention to attend medical school. I know that Calc-based Physics is not a requirement, and my advisor said it really doesn't matter, but I still feel like the algebra-based Physics would be a cop out. I get the impression that without Calculus, it will just be blindly plugging numbers into equations rather than really gaining an understanding of the material. What are the major differences between the two Physics courses? Is the calc-based course significantly more difficult? I've heard mixed reports, and I've never taken any Physics before.

    As strange as it may seem, I'm very good at Science, but would generally call math my weakness. I received an A in the first Calculus course (and a perfect score on the final, surprisingly), but it probably took a lot more work than most people require. I think my math education in high school was fairly bad, so I had to play catch-up during the class. I don't know what I should expect from Calc-based Physics, or whether it would be a good fit. I love Science, and wonder if I'd be missing out if I skipped the Calc-based class.

    Am I way off base?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 2, 2007 #2
    You know, I was pre-med up until my second year of college. In fact I took a college algebra based physics class in high school (which is actually why I decided to major in physics), so maybe I can help you out.

    In most programs I've seen, there are generally three levels of physics. The first is a very easy physics class that has very little mathematical content. This is what many might call "physics for poets," and it's usually a one or two semester course that briefly touches on most areas of classical and modern physics. The second level is algebra-based physics, which is what pre-med people take. It's mathematically intensive, but doesn't require any calculus. It usually covers mechanics, basic fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, waves, E&M, optics, and a bit of special relativity over the course of two semesters. The third level is physics for scientists and engineers, and is calculus-based. The first semester covers mechanics, and the second semester covers E&M. There's usually a third semester for thermodynamics, fluids, optics, and wave mechanics.

    This might sound strange coming from a physicist, but I would like to suggest that you think about taking the algebra-based course for pre-med people. There are a few reasons why I say this. First, it covers more topics in less time. As a biology major, you probably don't have time to take three-semesters of physics. It would be better for you to use that extra semester to take another biology course. If you take only two semesters of calculus-based physics, then basically you'll be covering fewer topics, and in more detail than you want. The algebra-based course will by all means satisfy your interest in physics. But there's no reason for you to know how to calculate the moment of inertia of a rigid body, or use the integral form of Ampère's Law to find the magnetic field from a current distribution. It seems to me that it would be better for you to learn a lot of topics in little detail than a few topics in great detail.

    Also, don't be too quick to discount algebra-based physics. By no means is it mere plug 'n chug. I'm impressed by how many problems they're able to cover in algebra-based physics without the use of any of the tools of calculus. And besides that, the first semester of calculus-based physics doesn't always require calculus. At my school, what they meant by "calculus-based" was actually, "the problems are a lot harder." We had more challenging problems than the algebra crowd, but not once did I ever have to take a derivative or an integral. In reality, the calculus only starts to come full-force in the second semester.

    Now, if you really want to get an expert understanding of elementary classical physics, then three semesters of physics for scientists and engineers will certainly do it. Indeed, virtually all of the physics I know, I learned in those first three semesters (everything else is just specialized analytical techniques). But for your purposes, I think the algebra-based course will suffice. Anyway, I hope my rambling has been helpful.
  4. Jun 2, 2007 #3
    As someone who has taught intro Physics with and without Calculus I disagree with what arunma said. The pace of the two classes is usually very similar and typically covers all the same content. You should check on your individual school for confirmation of this.

    There are certain concepts (I believe) that are forced onto you in non-calculus based physics that are MUCH more easily learned with calculus. If you are comfortable with the math, then I always think it is easier on the student taking the calculus based course. The calculus based course is much less contrived in its presentation of certain concepts (usually).

    I would disagree with your statement that the calculus based physics is less qualitative then the non-calculus based physics. In both you need an understanding of the concepts to learn anything. I believe the only thing that truly is different in the two classes is that the Calculus based physics makes understanding CERTAIN calculations and derivations much, much easier. Does that mean it will be easier for you? Not necessarily.

    Either way- good luck.
  5. Jun 2, 2007 #4
    I was pre med and took the MCAT. My advice is to take clac 1 and calc 2 and both calc based physics classes and here is why, you will be able to cut the number of fomulas that you have to have memorized in half and you will understand each problem on a deeper level.

    I am NOT a fast test taker unless I know the subject matter very very well. I had taken calc physics 1 and algebra physics 2, I had not taken calc 2. I was able to blaze through the mechanical questions in nothing flat and didn't even have to think about remembering any formulas. This was a good thing, because I needed every extra second for the stuff covered in physics 2.

    The thing to understand is, there isn't much difference in the material covered in calc based and algebra based physics. The difference is, when you are done with calc based physics, you know the initial formulas that are used, you know how to get from the (often very simple) initial formulas to the ending formulas, and you can do this quickly if you have worked hard and paid attention in class. I'm not sure how the test is scored now, but back when I took it, getting 14 or 15 in physical sciences was considred great. I'd be willing to bet that if you compared the people that got 14-16 and the people that got 11-13, you could almost divide it right down the middle between those that had taken calc based physics and those that took algebra based physics.
    Last edited: Jun 2, 2007
  6. Jun 3, 2007 #5
    Norman, it may be that the department where I did my undergrad has a different course structure than the place where you teach. At a community college I used to attend back in high school, the calculus and algebra based classes taught the same material, as you said. But at my old university, the two classes were in fact very different. Maybe I should have mentioned that not all departments are the same.
  7. Jun 3, 2007 #6
    Yeah- I was not saying you were wrong- just that it is not always the case. All of the places I have attended/taught were the way that I stated originally. But every school is different and you never know until you find out specifically for the school you attend.
  8. Jun 7, 2007 #7
    I complete agree with this. Arunma is right in the sense that very little calculus is used in solving about 75% of problems you will face in your introductory calc-based physics class, but that isn't really the issue. The point in taking a calc based class is that you're understanding what is happening on a deeper level. Since all these equations that you learn in from introductory physics are based on observation of physical phenomena, its important to have an intuitive understanding of what everything actually means, which can only be fully appreciated in their derivations which cannot avoid the use of calculus.

    Having this understanding is very helpful because like kdinser said for something like the MCAT, you don't need to mindless memorize formulas if you have an intuitive grasp on the subject. Granted, if you're fine with memorization, the for your purpose, algebra based physics works fine. Most biologists, geneticists, doctors, etc, will have no need for it anyway.
  9. Jun 7, 2007 #8
    One point to also consider is not just the CONTENT of the class, but also WHO IS TEACHING it. While there are methods of teaching physics so that more students understand the content, I don't think anyone will call me crazy when I say that some people teach better than others. Maybe some faculty in the department at your school are more willing to try new research-based teaching techniques, or maybe some are more willing to put more time into preparing for their lectures or helping students outside of class hours.

    I know one faculty member at my school who teaches algebra-based physics for pre-med and pre-vet students... this collegue has downloaded and read many MCAT materials, etc. just so when she does examples in class she knows how to teach students important techniques for doing well on the entry-tests for their professional programs. She doesn't "teach to the tests", but she knows more about the test then any other faculty member and that influences her teaching.

    I would ask students that you repect academically (not ones who "take the easy way out") who know the department what they think of the faculty members who will be teaching both intro classes in the coming semesters. Unless you learn easily from reading the texts, you could learn more from a good teacher in an algebra-based course than from a poor teacher in a calc-based course. You could also find a good teacher in a calc-based course can teach material better than a poor teacher in an algebra-based course.... and you could learn more that way. An important thing my collegue has mentioned is that if you learn how to THINK physics... it wouldn't matter what form (algebra or calc) you knew.... you could elimate many choices on the MCAT, etc. as being unreasonable, and therefore perform well.

    In general, in choosing my own college courses, I tried to take courses from professors that were "hard but good" -- and I never regretted that choice, be it a class in my major (physics), a related field (yikes - Organic Chem!) or a completely unrelated field (like sociology).

    Good luck choosing!
  10. Oct 9, 2007 #9
    Physics girls is spot on. If Feynman mark II is teaching the algebra based course and Joe Blow the calculus based course then your choice is easy! But Feynman would surely teach the calculus based course -- heck he gives you calculus in a couple of lectures in the Feynman Lectures on Physics! Another thing to check is the recommended textbooks and how close the lecturer keeps to them. A bad sign is if the lecturer is noted for sucking and he gives no recommended textbook (or a large list of obscure ones with no 'best recommendation'). Then there is no hope - you don't understand the lectures and there's no other source. Such a situation destroyed my career in astrophysics. If the lecturers and textbooks are of similar reputation then go for the easiest option!
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