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My dilemma

  1. Aug 30, 2005 #1
    Hello everyone. As you can see, I'm new to these boards (first post). I'm also new to the field of physics, and I've just begun my endeavor as a physics major. My second year of college just started today, and I find myself face-to-face with a nasty dilemma.

    I spent my freshmen year doing liberal education classes and debating on what I should major in. Towards the end of the year, I decided to try my hand in physics. My original intention was to try my hand in a Physics 1101 (I think, but I don't know for sure, that this would be equivalent to physics 101 in other places of the country; here in Minnesota they use four digits to indicate the level of the class) class, or to put it more descriptively, an algebra-based physics class. The only college math class I had taken was Beginning College Algebra I, and although I aced the class, my knowledge in Algebra is limited to this low level. So, along with this I signed up for a pre-calculus class. Much to my dismay, I found the Physics 1101 class to be full (interestingly enough, considering how next year's batch of freshmen had yet to sign up). So I approached one of the physics professors to ask him if he could get me a spot in the class. Rather than giving me a position in that class, he recommended that I skip the algebra-based physics and the pre-calculus class, and jump right into the calculus physics, and along with it a calculus class.

    Although I was surprised and skeptical, at the time I didn't think to obtain some input from any of the math professors on this. Needless to say, I took his advise, and signed up for Physics I (2101) and Calculus I (Math 2471; I'm not sure if these numbers mean anything to anyone, but I'm putting them there anyway). These two classes, according to both the physics and the math departments in my school, go hand in hand, and the best way to learn either subject is to take both of them at the same time. The other problem with going with the lower level classes was that, since they do not offer Physics I the second semester, the only class I would be able to take and have a good reason to during the spring semester was Calculus I, since I was pretty much done with all of my liberal education. I'd really end up just taking the whole semester off, because going to school would be a waste of money.

    And so, summer passed, and a new year of school has begun today. My first class today was the calculus class. At the end of the class, the professor wanted to talk to me about my math background. So, I had quite a discussion with him. According to him and another math professor (and as I had assumed before), the calculus class would prove to be extremely difficult with my limited background in algebra and my lack of any in-school experience in trigonometry. It actually wasn't so much the calculus I class they were worried about, but rather I would be crippled in the later math classes required for the physics major, which include calc II and differential equations.

    Later today, I went to talk to the physics professor again and ask what he thought of this. What I got was complete disagreement. He said that I could acquire the algebra and trigonometry skills from the physics I class. He also hated the idea of not having a calculus class prior to his physics class (and, from what I've learned about physics, I certainly must agree).

    Two different departments, the math department and the physics department, are giving me conflicting advice and recommendations, and I really have no way of knowing who to listen to. The only other fairly qualified source of input I have obtained so far was my brother, a former math major (now an english major) who has had a fair amount of experience in calculus, who told me to go with what the physics professor said to do. Nonetheless, I really don't have enough information to tackle this dilemma of mine, seeing as how, either way, I don't know what I'm getting into.

    Ultimately, I have three choices: I could do what the physics professor told me to do and keep the calculus I class, I could do what the math professors advised me to do and exchange it for a pre-calculus class and struggle to death in the physics, or I could go with my own intuition and play it safe: completely revamp my schedule, drop both the calc I and the physics I, take pre-calc, try to get a spot in the algebra-based physics class. Then I would take spring semester off since, as I said before, the only class worth taking is calculus I, so the latter is undesirable in that I don't want to spend the next 500 years in undergraduate college.

    I don't know how much schools in other states differ in their physics curricula, and what aspects of mathematics can be found in which classes, but hopefully I can still get some input here on this decision.

    What do you think?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 30, 2005 #2


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    the truth is you would benefit from calculus before physics but if you work extremely hard you can manage both at the same time. it is soprt of like taking out a fixed rate mortgage - it gets easier as time goes along.
  4. Aug 30, 2005 #3
    Well, the real question is, can I pull it off without having pre-calculus?
  5. Aug 30, 2005 #4
    It depends on how strong you are in math. I took calculus without ever having taken trig or precalcalculus. But I studied a lot on my own. The teachers can only give you general advice. I have had teachers recommend that I do not take certain classes and I breezed by with an easy A in spite of what they said.

    Your physics teachers somewhat bold advice suggests to me that he/she senses some ability in you. Who knows you better, the physics teacher or the math teacher?

    Do you have placement testing at your school? If so take the test that gets you straight into calculus. That's what I did and I almost got a perfect score, so it boosted my confidence as well.
  6. Aug 30, 2005 #5

    I was just reading your message again and this phrase struck me: "in-school experience in trigonometry". Do you mean to imply that you have out-of-school experience in trigonometry? If so, there is a chance that you taught yourself better than an "in-school" class would. If your math teacher is discouraging you only because you did not learn "in-school," then ignore him/her. I learned trig and pre-calc on my own a heck of a lot better than most students who learned "in-class".
  7. Aug 30, 2005 #6
    Not much. Knowing that trig would be important for calculus, I went over the basic trig functions and some of their applications in the summer. I probably should have learned a little more about them though.
  8. Aug 31, 2005 #7
    A couple of points:

    1) I took Calculus without taking pre-calculus. However, I felt very, very comfortable with algebra.

    2) I took Calc-Based Physics AFTER I took Calculus, and to be honest you don't use THAT much calculus in the first Physics class. You might do some simple derivatives and integrals, which you should have done by then in your Calc class, or worst case scenario, you can teach yourself.

    I will say this: I do NOT recommend taking EITHER physics or calculus if you are not VERY comfortable with algebra. I'm very serious about this one.
  9. Aug 31, 2005 #8


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    So am I. If you're not comfortable with algebra, it's going to be even worse because the kind of algebra people usually do in high-school algebra classes is different from the kind of algebra you need to do in physics, at least around here.

    Most of the students that we get here have done algebra mainly in situations where there's one variable and a bunch of numerical constants. They can do problems like: solve [itex](3x - 2)/5 = 4[/itex] to get a number for [itex]x[/itex].

    But give them a problem like: solve [itex](ax - b)/c = d[/itex] to get a formula for [itex]x[/itex] in terms of the other quantities, and they have a lot of difficulty with it, because they're not used to purely symbolic algebra. That's the kind of algebra you need to be comfortable with.
    Last edited: Aug 31, 2005
  10. Aug 31, 2005 #9


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    I perfectly understand your situation for I am embroiled in an identical one. I will not write details (personal reasons) but what I can tell you is that doing the pre-calculus course is indeed the safest route. Not having sufficient knowledge in trigonometry will only complicate things further, believe me, it's not all about reviewing and learning trigonometry but also mastering it. I also understand how it feels to have clashing views between the Science and the Maths department. Do you feel mentally prepared to catch up? Are you being realistic with what you want? These questions should be asked independently from anyone because it is you that will strive, not your teachers or friends. In one hand people who state that you can achieve it are being honest and optimistic, like you should be, but on the other hand, if you take the hardest route you might culminate in dropping the entire class for the simple fact of being too hard. Even though you might say to yourself; that could never happen, that in actual fact might end up happening.
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