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Do engineers learn lots of physics?

  1. Nov 16, 2014 #1
    I'm very new to this forum some apologize for any informalities. Im a senior in high school who will be headed off to college next year, presumably to study mechanical engineering. I have a very deep passion for learning physics, however I also like the practical problem solving that engineering presents. Will my physics education be severely short changed by not majoring in physics itself and instead going the engineering route? Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 16, 2014 #2


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    At my university, they only do one semester of physics in their first year. So no, not a lot.

    This varies from university to university, so check out the syllabus of the college you're applying to.

    Some universities also offer double degrees, so perhaps that is a good option for you?
  4. Nov 16, 2014 #3


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    Depends on what you mean by "a lot" and if you mean actual physics courses, because probably half of the courses you take will utilize applied physics.
  5. Nov 16, 2014 #4
    lt depend a lot on what you mean by "learn physics." Engineers do in fact learn a lot of physics, although they may not take a lot of physics courses. Let me give you some examples:

    1. Much of what is taught in the engineering course titled "Mechanics of Materials" is a direct outgrowth of 19th century physicist work in Theory of Elasticity. Today, most physicists shun elasticity, but it is still entirely legitimate physics.

    2. As an ME, you will be most unlikely to learn much about atomic physics, astro-physics, quantum mechanics, etc. You will learn far more about the use of classical physics than most physicists ever do, particularly statics and dynamics, vibrations, acoustics.

    3. As an ME, you will study classical thermo far more thoroughly than most physicists do, but will be much less likely to do much with staticical thermo. You will also study fluid dynamics far more than the typical physics student.

    So, in short, yes, engineers do learn a whole lot of physics, but most of it not in the physics department. Physics departments tend to focus on the things that are of current research interest in physics, while engineering focuses on things that are of use in the development and design of new systems.
  6. Nov 17, 2014 #5
    I'm an electrical engineering major, and I only have to take two actual physics courses at my university. It's the same for mechanical engineers here. Of course, check the curriculum of whatever institution you plan on attending, as different courses may be required at different schools.

    Now, the nature of engineering is that it's the application of physics, chemistry, etc. So physics does come into play in many of my classes (for instance, an entire course on engineering electromagnets). The extent to which you will study physics is based on your institution and major, though, so only you will know for sure how much exposure to physics you'll get.

    I will warn you that, chances are, you will not really delve into modern physics with your major. In most cases, classical physics works fine for engineers' purposes. If you feel you can handle the extra workload, you can always consider minoring in physics (which is what I'm doing). This won't necessarily be hugely relevent to your field of specialty (though oftentimes it can be), but it can be enriching personally. You just have to make sure you keep your enthusiasm for studying physics when you don't have to while projects and lab reports pile up on you. If you keep your enthusiasm then, then I guarantee it will have been an enriching experience.
  7. Nov 17, 2014 #6
    Depends what you mean by learning physics. If you want to learn the deep inner workings of nature, generally you'd want to major in physics. In general engineers learn how to use physics, not why/how physics works. Most curriculum for engineering requires only first year physics. Engineering is also a lot of design, so lots of design courses. However, if you'd like something that is somewhere in between look up Engineering Physics. Most universities offer this degree, and it seems they teach you more physics.
  8. Nov 23, 2014 #7
    I think there is generally a hard requirement of one or two semesters of basic physics (kinematics and electromagnetism) and after that it's engineering physics classes related directly to your discipline (ie fluid dynamics for MEs, electric fields for EEs, etc).

    My own school used to make us take up to modern physics (basic relativity and quantum mechanics) and one junior-level physics course. Since then they changed the curriculum a little and now you can take up to two advanced physics courses as your engineering electives. Solid-state physics, advanced thermodynamics, and advanced mechanics are somewhat popular choices for those who go that route.
  9. Nov 23, 2014 #8


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    'Physics' encompasses the study of many different things. You haven't specified clearly the particular aspects of physics in which you are most interested in studying.

    As an engineering undergrad, you will take several courses which involve physical principles, such as courses in statics and dynamics, and basic physics courses covering heat, light, and sound, for instance. You will also probably get some introductory courses in electricity and basic electric circuits. Later on, you might take other engineering courses in electrical theory and electrical machines, studying AC circuits, etc.

    If you have already selected a college to attend, you can check the course syllabus online for the ME curriculum. You should be able to find which physics courses are required and determine if you can take additional courses from the physics department as electives.
  10. Nov 23, 2014 #9
    Engineering is largely based on physics, so yes, we learn lots of physics.
  11. Nov 23, 2014 #10


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    Engineering is essentially applied physics. At my university, Mechanical majors take 2 semesters of general physics. They then are required to take many other classes that are not necessarily physics classes, but physics is largely used for the material. These classes include statics, thermodynamics, mechanics of materials, and strengths of materials. Long story short, YES you will take lots of physics as an engineer.
  12. Nov 23, 2014 #11


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    How much physics you must take and are able to take as electives depends strongly on the department/university you are at. I majored in electrical engineering; all engineers at my school had to take 3 semesters of physics, and had enough electives to take 2 or 3 more semesters if desired. Add in the fact that some of the engineering courses are applied physics and you could get a modest background in physics. Some schools have highly structured majors that have fewer required physics classes and fewer electives, while other schools make an engineering/physics double major quite "easy". So look at the web sites of schools you are interested in and see what options they have.

  13. Nov 25, 2014 #12
    it depends on the university.

    I'm an EE student. Starting from the bottom, I took Physics 1 (= mechanics and basic thermodynamics), Physics 2 (= electromagnetics and optics), electromagnetic fields (which was part physics and part engineering, stuff such as waveguides, which is still physics somewhat but then you begin to stick to the model to design stuff), electron devices (again, I saw physics such as boltzmann theory, band gaps etc. but immediately applied to the devices).
    Had I wanted to, I could also have taken a course in thermodynamics/thermofluid dynamics/heat transfer, a big course in solid state physics (quantum physics stuff) instead of EM fields, and this year another big course on electron devices (which would surely entail learning more new physics).
    As you can see, plenty of opportunities, if electron devices are your thing.

    In mech you will not see modern physics I think. But you will dwelve a lot into whatever physics they use.
  14. Nov 29, 2014 #13
  15. Nov 29, 2014 #14
    What what?
    What are you asking?
  16. Nov 29, 2014 #15
    Dont you see the quote?
    On what basis you made that claim?
    "Today, most physicists shun elasticity"
  17. Nov 29, 2014 #16
    I can make that claim on the basis that in well over 50 years of hanging around academia and industry, I have never yet met a physicist who did not look down his long nose and snif when elasticity was mentioned.
  18. Nov 29, 2014 #17
    Hey i'm not doubting i just want to know why, what's the reason?
  19. Nov 29, 2014 #18
    Why? Because elasticity is not a "hot trend" in physics these days, and has not been for around 100 years.

    Physicists get all excited about buzz words like "nuclear," "quantum," "sub-atomic," "relativistic," etc. They do not like anything that is big enough to see or slow enough to catch. Again, you might ask "Why?"

    The only answer is because anything else smacks of being useful.
  20. Nov 29, 2014 #19
    hahha yea i guess it just leaves the engineers to study these areas.
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