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Should I major in Physics or Geology when I am terrible at math?

  1. Nov 10, 2014 #1
    Hello to all!

    First off, I would like to say that I have been reading through many of the forums and I quite enjoy reading everyone's posts and comments. I look forward to becoming a more active member on here!
    However, I would like to add my own question for academic guidance here as well. Bare with me, as I think I might need a bit of extra explanation to accurately describe what I have in my head at the moment.
    I absolutely, and unequivocally love science. Always have, ever since I was very young. Astronomy to be exact. Anything involving space, cosmology and the planets has always fascinated me.

    *As a child though, I went to a very conservative Catholic school, and female students were not encouraged to become active in science courses, and actually many courses were altered because of religious beliefs, yada yada. Thankfully, I would read at home and VERY early on grasped that there was something missing from the curriculum. ( I once made the mistake of asking about evolution in class--Boy howdy did I get a lecture that day, HAHA.) *

    Anyways, even from my earliest ages most of my science and math education was quite wobbly.
    I eventually got my mom to put me in public school, and while I enjoyed most of my classes much more, I still lagged to a great degree behind my fellow classmates in my math classes. Even through high school, I never ever did well. I actually dropped out of high school, but it was not due to my coursework, but the fact that I had missed so much school, and was in trouble with the school itself. I was ( and still am) working to take care of my mom, because she does not have a job. Working full time though really de-railed school...

    Coming to present day, I was tired of myself accepting that I would never be able to afford to go to college, or be smart enough for college. I threw myself into my studies at my local community college, and have been making straight A's, including my geology and astronomy courses that I have taken, and have not failed a class yet. But here is where my dilemma comes in. I do not know what I should do degree wise.

    My end goal ( dream wise) is to do planetary research for NASA, ideally at JPL. What I was thinking would be smart career wise is to do a double degree in Geology and Physics, and then to do a masters/Ph.D in Astronomy and/or Physics.

    I still have not taken any math classes yet, as I still need to retake my accuplacer in math. I am really scared to do it now though, as I have not had any classroom experience in arithmetic for close to eight years, and even when I did have classroom experience, I didn't do well. So while I do not struggle with scientific concepts, I do struggle MIGHTILY with math, even though I do actually enjoy the subject. Because of this, is it even smart for me to consider a degree(s) in fields that are so heavily involved in math? I keep telling myself that maybe I will be better at math since I am older now, but I am not so sure since I was consistently bad at math from grade school to high school.

    Any comments or ideas would be greatly appreciated!
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 10, 2014 #2


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    You need to be willing to start at the bottom for Mathematics, maybe at Basic Mathematics. All science and engineering educations require significant mathematical knowledge.
  4. Nov 10, 2014 #3
    Definitely, I am more gladness willing to start at kindergarten level if need be, haha. I'm quite determined. I suppose a better way to phrase my question, is if any one thinks its truly possible for someone like me to really be able to catch on fast? As if right now, I'm at Algebra 1 level (and shaky) and if I wanted to graduate on time, I need to be Calculus 1 ready at the very least in a year. I know the obvious answer is study/tutoring, but as I work all the time, it's hard for me to get that extra time to devote without irking my boss. I usually cram after work with Khan Academy, but it's excruciatingly slow, and isn't helping me much.
    So maybe does anyone have any pointers on books/ study tips regarding math?
  5. Nov 10, 2014 #4
    I also think it might be helpful for me to clarify as well, the only classes I've ever struggled in are math. I've always, and still do well in all other courses thankfully.
  6. Nov 10, 2014 #5


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    Without a good mathematics background, Geology may be possible, but Physics is impossible...
  7. Nov 10, 2014 #6


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    Assessing a person over the internet is unreliable. Your being shaky at Algebra 1 could mean that you are not really qualified for it yet, but we cannot really conclude this too easily over the internet. When one has a basic understanding of whole numbers, fractions, decimals, and some Number Sense, even if some of these are not thoroughly understood, one may still be able to learn "Algebra 1". A sequence of a few more courses will be needed on your way toward Calculus 1. The sequence of courses to get there will require 2 years, and trying to rush the process will likely not work. As long as you are in Algebra 1 now, and if you are learning, honestly learning, then you might consider continuing onto Algebra 2, because this will be a natural continuation from Algebra 1.
  8. Nov 10, 2014 #7
    Thank you, I'm hoping I'm just under selling myself, and I'm not a terrible as I think. But yes, I'm truly pushing myself. The class I'm scheduled to be in that I'm prepping for seems to be mostly Alegebra 1 work, with a combination of Algebra 2. (The class is simply called "college algebra", it's supposed to merge the two classes) I've been comparing the class textbook to the woorkbooks I've bought myself, and that's where I'm at least getting that opinion. After that I'm wanting to take trigonometry. After I take those, should I be prepared enough (given that I've actually grasped the previous material) for Calc 1, or would you recommend additional courses before hand?
  9. Nov 10, 2014 #8


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    What exactly do you mean?

    What is the name of your current course in which you are enrolled and attending?
  10. Nov 10, 2014 #9
    Ah, I just re-read through my previous posts, I see wasn't exactly clear. I'm not in a class math wise at the moment. I'm preparing for my accuplacer test, that will determine what level I am ready to begin in mathematics. Me saying that I'm Algebra 1 ready is just from my own self testing. I've bought the Algebra 1 for dummies workbook and text and have been working through it for self improvement and study. I also looked at the textbook that will be used for the college algebra class that I can hopefully start in the spring. That class is described by the college as combining both Alg. 1&2, but by the looks of the text, and students I've talked too, it seems mostly to encompass Alg 1. This "College Algebra" class is the first tier of credit math classes, anything underneath it is considered developmental, so I'm hoping to study hard enough for the accuplacer that I can get right into this class, instead of taking d-mat classes.
  11. Nov 15, 2014 #10
    //watching this thread since I'm currently in a similar situation
  12. Nov 15, 2014 #11
    This thread caught my attention because I was a geophysics undergrad. While I was dismal at math courses, (calc 1, 2, 3, and differential equations), the applied math came much more naturally so I did fine in both the geological sciences and physics courses (even the advanced ones). Remember that understanding the math is much more important than being able to correctly solve an equation - it is a completely different way of thinking than non-sciences.

    As for the algebra, after you get the concepts down (variables are just placeholders for real numbers) it begins to make sense. The biggest mistake that I made was to not practice the concepts - doing problems over and over and over again until I completely understood the concept. I should have treated it more like an art - only mastered with practice.

    Hope this helps in some capacity. Feel free to reach out if you want more info on either the geology or geophysics part of your question. There are enough other physicists in here to cover that portion!
  13. Nov 15, 2014 #12
    I actually started at the very lowest math course at my local community college, and now I am working on my masters in physics. It can be done. Just takes a lot of time and work. I was also terrible at math in high school, but I hit my stride in college and rose to the top of the pack.

  14. Nov 15, 2014 #13
    Correct me if I am wrong in reading what you are saying here but are you recommending doing problems repeatedly until you understand the concept or the opposite? That there is no real point in doing the problems until the basic theorems/concepts are understood? If it is the later I would agree wholeheartedly. Doing problems repeatedly without knowing the underlying concepts is merely memorization making one able to solve those particular type of problems. It in no way builds a foundation for moving on to the next level.

    Indeed I would venture to say that once the basic premises and concepts are well understood the problems themselves become laughably simple and fairly boring. Then it is time to move on to the next challenge. It is a great journey.

    It does not matter which path you chose whether Astrophysics, Geology or Quantum Physics you will need higher levels of math and once you master one level the next is relatively easy.

    One last thing, in the immortal words of that great physicist, Sheldon Cooper, "Geology is not a real science" just before the geology paint ball team lit him up.
  15. Nov 15, 2014 #14
    Jadair1, doing the problems before you have a complete understanding is actually very helpful for you to achieve that complete understanding. You can feel like you understand something, and when the test comes with the real problems is where the rubber meets the road. Sometimes, feeling like you understand it is nothing more than feeling. The proof is in the pudding. Sometimes we can also not give ourselves credit for how much we already know about the material from the lecture before doing the problem set. Try it first. Reading textbooks can at times be a very inefficient way to learn. Often the experts know so much about their topic that they don't have the ability to explain it clearly in text to a lay audience. Recently, there have been some breakthroughs in this regards. There are some excellently written textbooks out there. David Griffith comes to mind.

    One of the biggest difficulties that I had as a Junior and Senior was the incomprehensibility of the textbooks at that level. I took self study after college to realize that understanding an obtuse textbook was not really that important to actually doing physics. I find that after reading the textbook and not worrying that I get everything, then do the problems -- at that point I go back and re-read the text, and find that doing the problems helps the concepts click in. I might read the textbook passage five times for it to finally click, but never in one sitting. Don't sit there and grind your wheels! Just move on and enjoy the ride.

    Another tip: Just before the test re-do all of the problems again. It will only take you a very short time to do them, but you will be ready to spew forth on the exam with no mental blocks and score higher than all of your classmates. Sometimes profs also pick problems from the set, or even problems that were not assigned as part of the homework (but are in the book) to be on the exam. If you have the time, do those as well. Rework examples that the prof has done on the board or is shown in the textbook. If you do all this, you will SMASH that exam. It is always a matter of time spent -- not so much about IQ.

    Chris Maness
  16. Nov 15, 2014 #15


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    It's unlikely you will be able to succeed in physics without very strong math skills. That said, are your problems with math due to a lack of proper education, or a lack of some intrinsic ability? You can probably compensate for the former, but the latter is going to cause difficulty at every step.
  17. Nov 18, 2014 #16

    Mark Harder

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    Your school didn't teach evolution??? My understanding is that the Catholic Church had no problem with science, including biology (& there can't be a science of biology without evolution). It's too bad your school was so backward. I'm sorry, there's no other way to put it. I wouldn't necessarily be discouraged by your poor performance in that school. Besides, as we mature and come to understand exactly why we need that math in our real life, we often discover abilities we never knew we had before. You need to assess your math abilities anew.

    Nevertheless, I detect a hint that you may be rushing things. Your goals are lofty and you will need to learn much math. Often people who aspire to ambitious goals become totally discouraged when something tells them they need more work, and they give up. Don't let that happen. Treat that "accuplace" test (I don't know what that is.) as a form of feedback; that is, as a way to find out what, if anything, you still have to learn. Then set about learning it.

    Something to be aware of. I tutor college students in chemistry, and I've observed that it's real common for students in applied classes like chem. to think they can't do "the math" required. Actually what they mean is that they have trouble "modeling" the problems they need to solve. By 'modeling' I mean looking at the problem and breaking it down into smaller steps, finding the order in which they must be solved, then choosing the right mathematical relationships to apply, and the way to manipulate these relationships (eg. equations) to arrive at the answer. It's the latter parts that require mathematical knowledge - how to solve equations, for example. The stuff you need to think about before doing the actual math is often the hard part, not the math. See if I'm right. Modeling comes with practice. It's like learning a language, even your own. You know what you want to say. Then you have to find a way to use the language to say it clearly.

    Another thing: When you read subjects that need math, work the examples as you go along, EVEN IF THEY ARE WORKED OUT IN THE BOOK! Think of problems you want to solve, or do exercises in the book because they interest you (Big thing. You've told us there are math things that interest you! That's a long way beyond students who do the least possible work because they have to, and that's all they need to get a grade.) I've observed that I often read a text's examples without really understanding them. Repeating the author's work and comparing your solutions to hers is a big help, believe me.
  18. Nov 22, 2014 #17
    First, I'd like to thank all of you for your replies! I didn't realize I had turned off the alerts for this forum; had no idea so many people had chimed in!

    I'd like to leave a more detailed response, but I'm actually on my cell phone right now, and I want to be able to type a well written reply to all the helpful comments on my computer.

    But I definitely will be taking everyone's advice, it's very good. I actually have been starting that already.

    Ok, before my auto correct starts writing terrible things- until tonight, haha!
  19. Dec 26, 2015 #18
    I recognize that this post is over a year old, and you may have already chosen a path, but hear me out. I was in a similar situation. I got my GED in HS and left for the military to go serve in Iraq. The last level of formal education I had was HS Geometry. After 9 years of service, I decided that I wanted to get back into school, and like you I was always interested in all things cosmological. My school put me into the remedial math sections to get me caught up. While this is always an option, it costs money and time that could be used for your major directly. However, there is a beautiful thing with technology these days that allows you the luxury of learning difficult things without classroom structure. I went onto YouTube and Google and taught myself the basics of calculus. After learning basics derivitives and what they are used for, I managed to get my school to let me skip into pre-calculus. Remember, my last formal education in math was HS Geometry, more than a decade prior to taking this course. I studied hard, and used the internet to fill in the gaps when I ran into one. Factoring and Expanding? YouTube. Working with roots? YouTube. Between awesome professors and personal work ethic, I got the A. The story continued when I transferred into a 4 year university. I declared a physics major with an astronomy minor, and the school informed me that I had taken the wrong pre-calculus course. I did the one without Trigonometry. I didn't even know Trig was a thing. So, I did what I did before. I taught myself Trig using my old school's online math courses through one of their professors (watching the videos was free), and my new school allowed me to skip into the math courses I needed. I have passed all with A's so far, and actually am adding a math minor to my Physics degree. The point of this is, it CAN be done if you struggle in math. The bottom line is that if you love something, do it. Go for it. Imagine giving up before trying and in 20 years looking back and thinking "man, I've wasted 20 years doing something that I never wanted to do". Don't let your life be a regret. I am living proof that you can suck in math, and still, through practice and hard work, become good at it. It's a learned skill, and just like with other things, if you practice it enough and ask enough questions, it will eventually come to you. I hope this isn't getting to you too late. I hope this helped at all.
    Last edited: Dec 26, 2015
  20. Dec 26, 2015 #19
    I have a problem with your post, it is not an attack of you, but rather students beliefs regarding online videos.

    Online videos can make for good supplements, I personally stopped using them while taking calculus 1. No video could save me from the questions the professor asked on the test. Video lectures can never replace the information gained from reading and working a textbook. This is a fact. Videos teach a superficial understanding of the material and only show how to compute basic plug/chugg problems. It is best that students learn how to learn from a textbook early and not when it is necessity.

    I personally seen 70 students drop linear algebra before the Midterm when I took it. These 70 students had never once read their mathematical textbooks. As a result, they failed. These students were not idiots, rather they never learned how to think about mathematics. Instead the students had learned to memorize procedures to solve math. After the Calculus and ODE course, I don't think one can pass further math courses by watching only videos.

    I had 3 friends that both transferred to Berkely and took the same classes. Only one of them survived, because they had learned how to read a textbook. The other two eventually failed their courses and lost their respective scholarships.

    Passing a class with an A, does not mean a person fully understood the course.
  21. Dec 26, 2015 #20
    Oh, I'm not saying that the videos replace the course in any way. I'm saying it was a good place to start to gain an understanding of the mechanics/concepts of the course work. You OBVIOUSLY need the course and a knowledgable professor to help teach you how to APPLY the mechanics and concepts. My A's come as a result of me understanding the concepts fully and being able to demonstrate this. I also have been recieving A's in my Physics/Astronomy courses which is very much the application of said methods and understanding how to work with them.

    Everyone learns a bit differently, but what worked for me (and not necessarily others) was teaching myself using my professors past coursework to guide my searches, videos of physics and mathematical lectures posted online, and staying up those extra hours practicing the hard problems out of the back of the book. What I mainly used YouTube and such for was to find videos on things that I missed (such as factoring/expanding, working with roots, etc.).

    All of the calculus and physics I have learned has been a result of taking the courses, and the videos provided in these courses were developed by the professors for the course and were meant to introduce topics and teach the basic methods. All of the actual hard learning came from doing the messy examples they provided in class. The videos got me started and helped me fill in gaps that were missing. That's all. The point of the post was to say "hey, I used to not be able to add fractions. I'm 1 year from graduating with a physics degree, so it's possible".
    Last edited: Dec 26, 2015
  22. Dec 26, 2015 #21
    Also, it is worth noting that today, many videos can help teach ALMOST as good as a textbook (provided it is guided by a professor or coursework, and for the simpler courses). I'll never say that reading a textbook is not worth it or hurts or should be abandoned. The textbook is a great source of practice. Lots of practice with different problems forges a successful student in math. Calculus II for me was taught with online vidoes the professor developed and in class work where the professor would simply put up examples, and the class would work through them (the professor stepping in to help guide and show you why you were doing what you were doing). I not once read a paragraph from the text, and passed each test (with incredibly difficult questions) with A's, and scored A's and B's (one C here and there) on the many homework assignments. This professor was notorious for having a test with only 6 questions, and you needing the full hour to finish. Proof that with today's innovations and ever improving methods, using videos CAN be almost effective as a textbook, provided it is used correctly by both the professor and the student, and with simpler course material. With math, it is NECESSARY that you have an active professor that explains to you WHY you are doing said operations and how they work, and then practice, practice, practice. If the practice comes from textbook questions or online questions, it doesn't matter.

    I feel that a lot of students will watch videos of people solving problems and then they think "Oh, that was easy, I can do that" and then they never practice because they saw it done. This is the WRONG way of doing it. Instead, when I watched the videos to help me understand math concepts, I would pause the video, work the problem myself, then watch the person in the video do it. If what I did matched what he did (most of the time it didn't until I began understanding the concept), then great. I moved on. What was wonderful about this was having something there to show me how to do it right after I messed up. I do agree that a lot of problems online are "rigged" to be easy (completing the square gives a clean result, fractions magically don't exist, etc...). This is where the actual class comes into play, and where the videos cannot replace a course taken in house. You NEED the messy problems and odd situations to truly test your understanding of the concepts and what is happening in the mechanics.
    Last edited: Dec 26, 2015
  23. Dec 26, 2015 #22
    This is the same attitude I talked about in my post. Humans have a brain use it! It is laughable to say video lectures are as good a textbook, not true. I am sure the classes you have taken to this point, were plug and chug in nature. There is a difference between computing the correct answer and understanding the process as to why we get from point a to point b. As I mentioned previously, receiving an A does not show mastery over the material. Gl finding a video lectures when you take more proof oriented classes. I think is pointless I proceed with this conversation.
  24. Dec 26, 2015 #23
    Again, stressing that videos cannot replace taking the course. You need to be challenged by the tougher concepts not offered by the rigged nature of video problems. I'm not advocating that videos are overall better than textbooks. Obviously with the harder courses you NEED the text and an understanding of the core concepts. You seem to think that I'm saying that online videos can replace traditional classes and text. It cannot. What the videos did for me was help me fill in basic things I missed having left HS early. The tougher math and physics cannot be taught by videos alone. I agree with you. For her, I was saying that you can use videos to help get started and help with the easier math concepts that you may have missed. Not at all saying YouTube can teach you orbital mechanics. It's not you only watch videos or only use textbooks. Use both accordingly. That's the wonder of technology these days...
  25. Dec 26, 2015 #24
    I suggest you re-read your post. Maybe what you mean something else, but type something contrary to what you want to get across?

    ie., I not once read a paragraph from the text, and passed each test (with incredibly difficult questions) with A's, and scored A's and B's (one C here and there) on the many homework assignments.

    many videos can help teach ALMOST as good as a textbook (provided it is guided by a professor or coursework, and for the simpler courses)

    If what I did matched what he did (most of the time it didn't until I began understanding the concept), then great. I moved on. What was wonderful about this was having something there to show me how to do it right after I messed up.

    This last statement is what bugs me about college students. Getting things wrong is part of the learning experience. Wondering why you got something wrong is conductive to the learning experience. I suggest you read Polya's : How to Solve it.
  26. Dec 26, 2015 #25


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    The part that is understandable there is that someone should try solving problems before looking at answers or solutions to those problems, because the learning process happens when you try much more than when you look at the work after someone has already done it for you.
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