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Courses Essential background knowledge before enrolling on a physics course

  1. Jun 5, 2012 #1
    Hello, as I'm about to finish high school and I want to pursuit the field of physics (more interested in particle physics, theoretical physics etc) I would really appreciate if you could tell me what prior knowledge should I have in Mechanics, Electricity and Magnetism before I start college as a Freshman.

    I'm asking these because I've had two years of physics and chemistry as a single subject, but in my final year there will not be enough students to form a specific physics class, so I would like if you could clarify me that because I'm seriously considering changing school as I don't want to be unprepared to college, but I don't know if it's worth doing that.

    Thanks in advance.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 5, 2012 #2


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    The best would be to have taken the corresponding AP physics classes. But even so, I don't think it's bad if you go into college haven taken only normal high school physics. The more important matter is a solid grounding in calculus, algebra, and trigonometry, since these often trip students up far more than the physics.
  4. Jun 5, 2012 #3
    Can't you enroll in a local community college for an additional physics class??
  5. Jun 5, 2012 #4
    I went into college without a shred of physics under my belt. You'll be fine. Intro physics isn't about teaching you physics anyway, it's more about teaching you how to do physics in the first place by shooting you with a shotgun blast of topics and seeing the common threads of technique you can pull out of the chaos.
  6. Jun 6, 2012 #5
    Thank you very much folks, I yet have to consider because I really want to have physics classes, but now most of my worries are gone since you say that ;)
  7. Jun 6, 2012 #6
    The best thing you can do to prepare for physics is teach yourself more calculus. You're required to take courses on differential equations and vector calculus, and nobody expects you to learn these entire courses on your own. So I've narrowed it down to just two specific items that will give you an advantage in your introductory mechanics class:

    1. Study the line integral. Know what it means and how to use it. Don't bother with how to construct the line integral; you'll learn that in your math class.
    2. Study differential equations and learn how to solve, as well as the solution to, second order differential equations, not only for the homogeneous case, but also for the particular solution. This should be easy if you've already taken calculus. It's just repeated application of the product rule in different contexts, and guessing/intuition in some cases. Build up your intuition.

    In addition to the above, some time before you take introductory electricity and magnetism, take all of vector calculus. Learn about curl and divergence vector fields, and learn about surface integrals and integrating vector fields over surfaces. Learn about conversion between the differential and integral forms. In introductory electricity and magnetism, you learn about Maxwell's equations, which will be scattered here and there throughout the course. These equations all make use of a vector calculus component.
    Last edited: Jun 6, 2012
  8. Jun 6, 2012 #7
    If you have had a basic introduction to forces (drawing a force diagram, tension, etc) you should be more than prepared. In my experience tutoring first-year students that is probably the biggest stumbling point for any Intro Physics Class (calc or non-calc based). If you have had a Physics class at all in High School, you are probably more prepared than you realize.

    Most Intro Physics II classes are designed around building on these concepts and applying E&M principles to already realized force/vector-accountancy skills.

    Finally, depending on your University there may be a few 'tiers' of intro physics classes. You may want to discuss with your advisor which is best for you. I know of one university where they teach Calc-based physics in 3 different Calc-based Intro Physics I courses: 1) for people without any physics background (this class has an extra recitation hour that focuses on techniques), 2) for people with a 'basic' background (high school course), 3) accellerated/honors course.
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