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Preparing for college in high school.

  1. Dec 13, 2012 #1
    Currently I am a freshman in high school in the United States. I have been interested in physics for a while and have been studying on my own. Last summer I studied calculus using Calculus by James Stewart, which covered differentiation, integration, multivariable, and vector calculus. I have also studied physics from several books in the Dover series. In school I am currently taking physics and AP physics AB.

    I was wondering about which courses would prepare me the most for college? I won't be able to take any more physics courses directly from my school after this year, so I wanted to know what other non-physics classes were good for preparing myself for college physics. I know that math is very important, and computer science and chemistry would also probably benefit me. Are their any less obvious classes that could help me?

    I was also wondering if work outside of school could help. Like I mentioned above I have been studying on my own and I am not really sure how this would affect my college experience. I am guessing that unless I have proof from an actual school that I know the information colleges will not care about my self studying. Am I correct in making this assumption? Even if it does not have a direct effect on my entrance into college would it have any significant advantages for my classes in college? What resources should I study from?

    I have also been thinking of doing a physics project for about a year now. So far I have not settled on any large project, but have been doing small things with the Arduino and other simple home experiments. The idea of building a cyclotron interested me for a while (and still does), but I realize that this is unlikely (because of the high vacuum, high voltage, other necessary materials, and a lack of knowledge and guidance) and even if I did I would still need to think of an experiment to do with it. The people that I have talked to about building one have actually suggest that I build a solid state laser instead. I realize that these also require a high vacuum, high voltage, oscilloscope, etc., but they have said that this would be easier and a good project to do. Are either of these good projects? What are some other good projects that I could do? I plan on entering it in a science fair, and hopefully earning a scholarship at one. Is their any other benefit to doing a project in high school? Would it look good on a college application?

    Thanks for reading, I would greatly appreciate any advice.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 13, 2012 #2


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    Sounds like you're doing awsome stuff for a high school freshman -- wish I could get a pile of students like you at the community college where I teach !!

    Chemistry uses physics as a foundation, not the other way around, so there is no advantage in studying chem unless you enjoy it for its own sake. When it comes to C.S., you have to distinguish C.S. from programming. C.S. is the theory behind computation. Programming is a practical craft. C.S. is cool in its own right, but not needed for physics, and very few physicists have much knowledge of C.S. Programming is a useful practical skill for many physicists, but many physicists don't know it or need it. Similarly, being able to use a mill and a lathe is a useful practical skill for many physicists, but many physicists don't know it or need it.

    Judging from your self-description, I think you should stop stressing out about getting into a good college. You know you're going to a good college. Think of yourself more like an olympic athlete. You want to push the limits of human ability because it gives you joy. If you maintain that attitude, the scholastic success will come naturally.

    Re experimental projects, it sounds like you are doing a good job of realistically assessing the level of difficulty, cost, etc., of various projects. That's good. Do you have a good relationship with your AP physics teacher, and is your teacher someone with the level of knowledge, motivation, and creativity to be a good adviser in this sort of thing? If so, I would ask him/her for ideas. If not, then this puts you at a huge disadvantage, but we can talk about that and discuss ideas.
  4. Dec 14, 2012 #3
    I do agree with the academics as athletics analogy; it is a good point to make. I was recently tutoring a high school student in physics, and I couldn't help thinking that her abilities and potential outstripped mine by a wide margin, her future so bright, and yet she continues to worry about her performance.

    My 1st advice is the same I give to all my students when beginning a course with me: Don't trust the advice of old people! Old people will want to tell you "all about it", "how they did it", and how "you should do (or not do) what they did." But so many variables are involved, and times change so rapidly, what we have learned will probably not be useful or relevant to your life. They will say things like, "work smarter not harder". But is that really advice or just common sense? I never want to be responsible for your life choices, so realize that my opinions have been shaped by my own unique life experiences.

    Anyway, let me give you some advice (ha ha). I think it is important for HS students to look well-rounded to the best colleges/universities (I assume you have your eyes set on one of the "famous" schools). In this case, yes, the 4.0 and excellent transcript are important. But everyone at those schools will have excellent academics. You need to work on your "extras", the things that make you stand out. Do you play an instrument (and go to competitions)? Do you write fiction/nonfiction (and try to get your work into the newspaper or whatever)? I didn't do it, but I wish I had know to, to give myself an academic "fingerprint" that would have set me apart (from the other applicants). In terms of science research, I do have a buddy who built a <CENSORED> in high school, and the experience helped him in college placement (and even in getting into the lab he wanted in grad school if you can believe that). But those are very dangerous, so you had better have some help/supervision.

    To be honest, I'm not so sure which is better, self-driven research as you describe, or university research which can result in a powerful letter of recommendation from a university prof. Learning to program Arduinos would certainly make you immediately useful a few of the labs in our physics department, EVEN THOUGH you are in high school. So I would say that unless you can think of something REALLY cool to do on your own, it might be good to just get started with university research now. (Knowing how to program also really helps, so try to enhance that skill set.) By the way, that girl I tutor who wants to go to Yale, she begins research work with a professor (in the field of study she is interested in) this xmas break. She is only a junior so this will give her time (especially with the summer) to get some real research done which will go on her college applications. She is your competition.

    If you go the university route, you will have better luck helping out an experimentalist rather than a theoretician. And the more applied the group, the more likely they will be able to use you. Teach yourself some more about the arduino and take it with you, show them all the things you can do with your arduino, they will be impressed (think of this as having "proof" of you usefulness). Don't hesitate to point out the fact that you *taught yourself* how to use it. We had one high school girl come through our lab and she did programming work for us. She was the daughter of the administrative assistant from another department, and her mom contacted one of our administrative assistants, who went on to contact our adviser. You would probably see more high school students doing research at the university (after all, it is free labor) except they don't know to ask or that this is even an option for them. It NEVER hurts to ask.

    Anyway, good luck and stay safe!
  5. Dec 14, 2012 #4


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    javaNut has a lot of good advice. I would just caution you that IMO it's not realistic to imagine getting a university research job while you're still in high school. It doesn't matter whether you *would* be more valuable to them than one of their own students. They simply aren't likely to consider you. They'll see even their own undergrads as liabilities in the lab, not assets. They offer them research out of a sense of duty, not because they think they'll really be useful. Generally people aren't really an asset in a research lab until they're in their third year of grad school. Up until then they're a net drain on the lab's resources. It's not that a student with less training can't do research, but s/he typically can't contribute meaningfully to the *kind* of research that is typically being done at a university.

    My general suggestion would be that you try to find some real science you can do, basically on your own, but preferably with some help from your high school teacher. Real science means an experiment where you get results that were previously unknown. Programming an arduino isn't science; it's a distraction from science. As an example of the kind of thing that might be accessible to you, it might be possible to do something original at the interface between physics and the life sciences.

    Here is a (theoretical) paper that is an example of the kind of thing that could, in principle, have been done independently by a high school student: Reardon, Optimal Pacing for Running 400 m and 800 m Track Races, http://arxiv.org/abs/1204.0313

    An area I'm interested in myself is the physics of knots: http://www.lightandmatter.com/article/knots.html

    There was a long-running column in Scientific American called The Amateur Scientist. It seems to be difficult to get back issues these days, but at various times there have been anthologies for sale in digital or print form. I think some of the old ones are public domain and freely available online. Anyway, those might spark some ideas.
    Last edited: Dec 14, 2012
  6. Dec 14, 2012 #5


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    To put it more precisely, working with undergraduates in the lab is more a part of a professor's teaching duties than it is part of his research duties. His students have access to those research opportunities because they pay part of his salary through their tuition fees.
  7. Dec 14, 2012 #6
    The NSF used to have the Young Scholars Program for this very purpose, getting talented high school students into university research labs (cancelled for political reasons). So I am not crazy to suggest it. And remember, I have one 15 year old tutee beginning university research this month (about to turn 16), and my own lab had one 17 year old doing research last summer (before she left for Princeton). This is not impossible (not easy, but not impossible), especially if s/he keeps at it right now.

    I just googled "national science fair competitions" and found some decent looking links. S/he can probably get good ideas from there. Unfortunately, I would be surprised if any decent project does not take money or equipment (and probably some expert supervision). So some creative problem solving may be in order (I knew some high school students who raised thousands of dollars on their own to start a FIRST robotics club at their high school).

    An example of an outstanding high school researcher: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19291258

    Cheap equipment I noticed on ebay: http://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?LH_B...e&rt=nc&_pppn=r1&_mPrRngCbx=1&_udlo&_udhi=100

    An example of an outstanding high school project: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.04/robot.html

    The FIRST robotics club is a pretty awesome thing to be involved in (and has some structure so you are not completely by yourself). See if there is a club nearby to you that you can join, it is ABSOLUTELY worth it: http://www.usfirst.org/roboticsprograms/frc

    I agree that tech isn't science, but it is used for science and science experiments (same for programming). Having useful skill sets can really set you apart and give you opportunities.

    (And sorry, I did not realize you were so young at first; I probably would have skipped the old-people-advice thing for now. Nevertheless, if you keep at it, you will go very far and it will be quite a lot of fun along the way!)
    Last edited: Dec 14, 2012
  8. Dec 14, 2012 #7


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    Be sure to hone writing and speaking skills. Being able to communicate your research in clear ways to others will be very valuable once you start actually researching.

    Focus on problem solving. Join your schools science olympiad and math league teams. Learn probabikity and combinatorics, both are very fun, challenging and they have low barriers to entry.

    Read broadly in the sciences. Read about biology, chemistry, technology, and earth sciences. You are young, now is the perfect time to build a wide foundation as well as deep.

    Stay healthy and active. Exercise regularly, play some sports, eat and sleep well. Dont get into bad habits. Your brain is apart of your body.

    Be aware of what you can do to achieve your goals in the future but dont stress yourself too much. Instead, choose to revel in the wonders of the universe.
  9. Dec 15, 2012 #8
    Thank you for all of the help so far. I really appreciate any advice.

    I actually have been in contact with a professor at a university. I go to a relatively small school that has a good gifted and talented program, so when I expressed an interest in working ahead in physics and possibly doing a project they contacted a couple nearby universities to see if any one would be able to offer some advice. We have exchanged several emails and I have visited the university once to see some research that his students were doing over the summer. He lent me a HeNe laser just in case I thought of something to do with it. Unfortunately I have not been able to thing of anything to do with it. Does anyone know of something that I could do with it? I don't have many materials so I have pretty much hit a dead end so far. He was also the one who introduced me to the Arduino and suggested building building a laser or Van DeGraff generator/accelerator. He originally tried to discourage me from making a cyclotron, but seams to be warming up to the idea. He also introduced me to another professor at his university who is thinking of making a betatron to demonstrate relativity. I don't know how he would feel about me doing research with him, but based on jcrowell and jtbell's opinions I am guessing that he would be against this.

    At my school I am currently on the math team and will be joining the forensics team. I have participated in the science olympiad before, but, unfortunately, my school no longer does it. Are their any other clubs that I should participate in?

    Aside from the project, what should I be studying? Because my school does not offer any more advanced physics courses any further studying that I do will be outside of school. I have pretty much been jumping all over to different physics topics and have not really settled on any order of studying. What should I be studying right now?

    I really appreciate all of the help, any more advice is greatly appreciated.
  10. Dec 15, 2012 #9


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    I don't think you should take our generalized opinions that seriously, since you're there and we're not. You have your foot in the door at that university, have made contact, and seem to have made a good impression. I would pursue that.

    For this type of project, machine shop skills would probably be very helpful. Does your school have a shop class where you could learn to use a mill? There is an internet-based "maker" culture that you can find out about by googling. You might find that those folks can help you learn skills you'll need for some of the ambitious building projects you've been thinking about. E.g., I heard about one of these folks who recently decided he wanted to build his own vacuum tube, just to prove that it could be done by an individual. The betatron and cyclotron ideas would involve a lot of RF electronics, which you could learn about by getting into ham radio.

    As you've already mentioned, these accelerator projects will need detectors in order to carry out any experiments with them. I recently did something along these lines on a shoestring budget (i.e., using my own money) by buying a couple of NaI (sodium iodide) detectors on ebay for detecting gamma rays. A student built a simple little filter box that we needed in order to connect them to an oscilloscope and a high voltage power supply. We've got the setup to the point where we can sandwich a positron source between the detectors, plug them into the scope, and demonstrate the fact that the two annihilation gamma rays come off back to back. I use it now as a classroom demonstration of E=mc2. (Weak radioactive sources like this can simply be bought by mail order. There is no special licensing required. For disposal, they can be thrown in the trash.)

    Re the laser, you could try observing diffraction patterns with it, as in this student lab that I teach: http://www.lightandmatter.com/lab_206.pdf Make sure and read the laser safety checklist in the back. A possible project that would be educational and help other people would be to make some high-quality photos of diffraction patterns that would be suitable for putting on Wikipedia and Wikimedia commons. There are already quite a few photos there, but you could see if there's a niche that hasn't been filled. A lot of what's in the WP article on diffraction is simulations rather than real images. Even if all you accomplish is something simple like measuring the diameter of your own hair, that allows you to go back to the prof who loaned you the laser, thank him, describe your successful project, and show him that the time he puts in with you is worthwhile.
    Last edited: Dec 15, 2012
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