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Physics in College

  1. Jan 28, 2009 #1
    Hey people. This may seem naive, but I have a few questions to ask about Physics education in college. I live in a part of the US that doesn't exactly have excellent resources to lend to education, so I received a pretty substandard education from grades 3-8. I did learn to read really well, and an very thankful for that, but math was complete crap. I pretty much relied on my grandmother to teach me algebra. So when I went to High School, I was (am) in the top say, 10% of my class. When I took regular HS physics in junior year, a lot of it was troublesome, but I got by. Now I'm in AP Physics and the teacher is pretty inaccessible, (that's a big reason why I've been posting Homework questions in the forum here! :redface:)

    But anyway, I'm so lost in this class that I've pretty much given up on the AP test. I want at the moment to go into a career in physics, as it really does interest me (I stayed up late reading "The Fabric of the Cosmos!). But right now, I've decided that the best thing to do is to try to learn as much as I can with what little resources I have at the moment, and not really worry about scoring well on the AP test.

    I was recently admitted to the University of Wisconsin, and I am wondering what opportunities would I have in college to catch up with others who are interested in physics. It is really demoralizing when my teacher tells us that a problem on the AP test needs to be done in 70 sec. or less, and the entire class can't do one in a whole period (50 mins). For me especially, since I'm struggling with very basic concepts (like solving parabolic velocity problems by splitting up vectors into components), and the class is supposed to be studying harmonic frequencies.

    Sorry for being SO long winded, I thought the more info I gave, the better someone would be able to answer my question. How accessible are professors in college, (esp math and physics one), how much extra help will they give you, what kind of study groups are there, etc. Basically, what resources are there for me to use to improve my understanding of physics?

    Thanks a WHOLE lot!:smile:
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 28, 2009 #2
    From what you said, you sound motivated and interested in the subject. If you retain a strong work ethic(which is hard to obtain) you will be better off than most freshmen. As far as your mathematical background goes, join the club! I dropped out of high school in ninth grade and started from square one with math at a community college, and currently a math major doing well in Multi-variable Calculus and Linear Algebra! I've taught myself everything, believe me it's hard work, but it can be done.

    Now that said, there are more qualified people here to answer your questions but here are the views from this sophomore math major.

    What opportunities will I have in college to catch up with others who are interested in physics?
    None really. Any extra acquired knowledge about the subject will be gained through self study and out of the student's own curiousity. Any other freshmen Physics majors will most likely fit this description, just curious and motivated kids. That being said, going in as a freshman, any Physics department won't expect any definitive physics education from HS. To go with that, even if you don't get AP credit for Physics, you'll get a more thorough and proper introduction to Physics in college, with more qualified professors. Not to mention, you wouldn't go in blind to the subject, as you have seen some of it before, giving you an advantage. HS AP teachers are some times unqualified to teach AP classes, leaving you with less understanding. The AP courses are a double-edged sword. On one hand, if you get the AP Credit, you'll gain college credit and get some freshmen courses out of the way and save time, but on the other, you might miss out on some material being taught properly. Either way, you've gone this far, study hard and try your best on the AP exams.

    How accessible are professors in college, (esp math and physics one), how much extra help will they give you, etc?
    It varies by professor. Most professors have office hours, make use of them. Certainly, no professor will hold your hand, but when you ask questions about homework, seriously attempt the material and have your work to show, then they will be able to more easily find your gap in logic and are more likely to help you. Then, take the opportunity to chat with your professor about the subject material and any other related areas that spark your interest. You will find some to be glad to talk to curious students, and others not so much.

    What kind of study groups are there?
    You're best bet will be to find other bright students in your classes that you gel with and set up dates to work on the material together. This will only strengthen your abilities. You can work off each other and fill in the gaps that the other person doesn't understand. Trust me, the best tutoring will come from your peers, and the best learning will come from you tutoring your peers.

    Basically, what resources are there for me to use to improve my understanding of physics?
    The internet, physics forum, and you're university library! Comprehension only comes from hard work unless your a lucky few. Providing you have the math abilities, read the science book discussion category here and find some Physics textbooks to pick up. Then just dig in!

    Anyways, that's my long winded response! As far as preparing yourself for Physics mathematically, all you'll need is a firm understanding of trigonometry(right angle trig especially), some basic geometry(similar triangles, etc.), and solid elementary algebra skills. For this i've seen some people recommend Basic Mathematics by Serge Lang. Also, check out Paul's Math Notes for good notes on Algebra, Calc I-III, Linear Algebra, and Differential Equations.

    Good luck!
    Last edited: Jan 28, 2009
  4. Jan 29, 2009 #3
    Don't worry about the AP class... if it's an algebra-based AP course, you won't want college credit for it anyways (if you decide to be a chemistry, physics, or engineering major, you'll likely need the calculus-based sequence).

    When I went to HS, AP physics wasn't one of the offerings (tho' I did take regular algebra-based physics), and via some bad advice or pure stupidity, I didn't even start my physics major until the second term of undergrad. I think this actually worked to my benefit... I was then a term ahead in math than in physics, and therefore well prepared for my physics courses because the math part of the course was easy. Late on, I easily caught up (by skipping some non-required intermediate "holder" courses and diving straight into the harder physics courses (like physics-major mechanics, EM, and Quantum) right after the intro-sequence (and all at once!)... in fact, I took all the upper-levels in my field and related fields (like Chem and Math).

    AP is over-rated. In the old days (20 yrs ago?) you were advised to only take the AP exams in classes that were in subject you didn't want to major in (in my case history and English)... to get general education credits and have more time in your schedule for courses that did relate to your study-plan. Nowadays, you often see students that take AP courses, yet are unprepared if they try to use that credit to place ahead... in fact, it's a common reason why people drop out of the field and switch majors.

    I'll also reiterate what Linear Space said "... you'll get a more thorough and proper introduction to Physics in college, with more qualified professors." In fact (after years in the field) I know there's at least two subtle concepts that are really taught wrong in standard undergraduate texts.. and I call these to the attention of my students in my Physics III course... and I KNOW the AP test commonly has one of these on the exam addressed incorrectly. Note: too often when you're considered even a good AP teacher, it's because your students do well on the exam. Unless the course is well designed, it tailors to the test (never really a good idea). I do know some colleges (including my undergrad) don't give credit for AP science courses unless you also document your lab-work in my HS AP course, and sometimes even take their own placement exam.

    In summary, don't worry about the AP test. The record of the AP course on your transcript should be enough to boost your record slightly in terms of getting scholarships (via most admissions processes). Hopefully it just won't kill your GPA.
  5. Jan 29, 2009 #4
    Hey thanks guys. This really helps put my mind to rest. It's comforting to know that better physics is taught in college, and no hs physics is assumed. I'll also look into those math books.

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