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Playing Math-catch-up

  1. Jun 8, 2009 #1
    Hello all on Physics Forums! I have a slight/fairly big/freakin' huge problem. I was accepted to UW-Madison. However, I wish to major in physics/engineering/haven't really decided yet. That being the case, I was told by my physics teacher that I was lacking in several math basics. So I went to Madison a little nervous, but determined to do well on the placement exams. :approve:When lo and behold! I place into Math 112, College Algebra.:redface: My counselor said that, yes, I would be facing extra competition from people who placed higher than me, into Calc and higher, for example.

    My question(s) is, how much will this hold me back? I am determined to do well, and if I didn't place that well on the exams, I'll gladly go back and re-learn the stuff. But how much of an effect will this have on my chances of becoming an engineer, or Physicist? Will I learn the math better this time around, in a different setting? Any advice for someone studying college maths? :uhh:

    Anyway, thanks for putting up with my ranting post. I'm just kind of, how do I say, nervous/distraught by this. Thanks!:biggrin:
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 9, 2009 #2


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    I've done about a year and half of math at uni level so far which includes calculus, applied math, stats, multivariable calculus, linear algebra, and discrete math.

    Now naturally of course algebra comes before calculus. If you do solidly in algebra there is no reason why you can't perform solidly in a calculus course. Calculus' main focus is the study of change. You'll gather different perspectives when you study it but its main focus is the science of change.

    It might be beneficial for you to do algebra as you might get a deeper understanding of the math required. You might not but the more math you do the deeper you can go into really understanding what is being represented by the equations.

    Now engineering and physics are not math. Math is simply the language of generalization and abstraction, or more correctly, the science of representation. But it needs to be put in context. For example you might have a wave equation and the wave might refer to the particle position or perhaps a medium in which things propogate in.

    If you want to be an engineer you will want to generalize in a different way to what mathematicians do. It's on the same level but the context is different. Instead of trying to generalize the representation by creating a language that represents more and more things that encapsulate current high level representations as a subset, we try to generalize sets of applied problems. In a nutshell this means that instead of working on
    abstract math problems that seem to have little or no purpose, we focus instead on practical problems that have a direct physical meaning.

    It can be hard to do this for some people that are good at math because they tend to generalize or abstract too far for what is required. My advice is try both out. Learn to generalize and abstract as far as your mind can possibly go and then reinforce these skills in the context of learning physics or engineering.

    It can help exercising your abstraction area of the mind in the following way: Lets say you have the differrence between algebra based physics and calculus based physics. In calculus based physics you will more than likely appreciate how powerful calculus is and how elegantly it describes our world. Now of course it doesn't describe it in absolute detail, but it describes it well enough for you to build a dam wall, or an computer chip, or something else.

    Remember to ask questions when you're not sure. There might be a stigma especially in the sciences where you might think everyone has to know the answer. This is not true. You have the best opportunity to learn mathematics from the ground up starting with algebra and I think there will be no problem whatsoever learning the higher level mathematical foundations in a deep manner.

    I wish you all the best.
  4. Jun 9, 2009 #3
    Playing catch up will not hurt you in anyway.... it will only make you stronger. I took calc in high school and did not do math again until I was 24. Its doable. The only negative I see is that it will take you longer and cost more money to finish a B.S. in physics or any engineering discipline.

    For most physics degrees (im pretty most schools are the same) in your first semester you will be expected to be taking Calc I. You have to take that before you can even take a physics I. College algebra is two semesters below Calc I (Fall.. College algebra then spring..pre calc), so you would have to spend an extra year at school. If you are in no hurry this is not a problem, but if youre riding a limited money ship this could sink you... especially at 20000 a year living on campus. But hey if you have the money and the time you are on easy street even if you have to take a couple of math classes to get up to par.

    In my opinion if you dont have the money to spend go to a local community college and sign up for college algebra in a summer session. Im pretty sure summer I has started across the country but you could roll into summer II still. Then take pre calc at UW in the fall. But still depending on your university you still may end up a year behind...

    As far as picking a major thats not a big deal. If you take physics I and II and ask why? then study physics. If you dread class and hope it to be over the minute you walk through the door....I would say go engineering.

    If none of this is problem..have fun.
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