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Should i take calc-based or algebra/trig based physics?

  • Thread starter mauradu
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  • #1

Main Question or Discussion Point

Hi! I'm in my mid-30s and am going back to school to become a vet. I'm really not sure which physics series to take.
Back in the day, I was very good at math (e.g. 800 on math SAT + GRE, 5 on BC calc, A or A+ in multivariate calc, ordinary + partial DiffEQ, Linear Algebra, and a bunch of theory classes). However, I was never any good at physics. In high school, I took a year of physics (algebra/trig based) and I never felt like I understood anything. I could manipulate equations, but didn't always understand the concepts so not infrequently, I set them up wrong. I scraped a B+ but felt like a deserved a D.

The school where I'm taking my vet school prereqs offers two physics sequences that would meet the requirement: one which requires trigonometry, and one which requires a single semester of calculus.

If it were 15 years ago, the choice would be easy, I'd take the calc one! However, at this point, I don't remember much calculus beyond the basics. For that matter, I don't really know any trig (that's a different story, though. I skipped trig so that I'd be able to take BC calc in 11th grade and because I hated the trig teacher. I crammed just enough to pass out of the trig test, which was not very much. Someone showed me how to use complex exponents instead of manipulating the trig itself, so I never really bothered myself with learning trig and at this point, I couldn't even tell you what sec or cot means without looking it up). With calculus, it's just been too damn long. However, if I had a choice of needing to know calculus or trig by next week, I would pick calculus. My algebra is pretty much good (there are parts I've forgotten, like conic sections, but when it comes to setting up equations, manipulating variables, etc, I'm golden).

So, I guess my question is: am I sufficiently prepared at this point to take algebra/trig based physics? Or, with a quick refresher, calculus based physics? If not, what do I need to do?

Does algebra/trig based physics require MORE trig than than calculus-based version? I can't imagine that that's the case, but if it is, I might be better off taking the calc one.

Also, how much trig do you REALLY need to know? Do you just need to be able to push the sin and cos keys on your calculator (e.g. the Bragg equation came up in the chemistry sequence I'm currently taking, and it was totally plug-n-chug) or do you need to have a deeper understanding of trig (whatever that means - I clearly don't have it!)

How much calculus do you need to know for the calc-based class? I can still do basic integrals + derivatives for easy stuff like polynomial equations, but that's about it.

The one reason I'm hesitant to take anything but the calc-based version is because someone told me a long time ago that the reason I struggled with physics is because the class didn't use calculus. I'm skeptical about this, but I haven't dismissed it entirely. I'm not sure if you can really derive all of the physics sequence with just a single semester of calc, but I'm definitely the sort of person who does better when I know where the equations are derived from (and can derive them myself) instead of just memorizing equations that seem to be pulled from thin air. In high school, I struggled with the conceptual part of physics. From what I've read on this site, it seems like the algebra course may be more conceptual (understand the concept, and here's an equation that represents it), whereas the calc version may be more mathematical (here's where the equation comes from. See all the moving parts in the mathematics, and you'll understand the concept). Is this an accurate understanding of the different ways the class is taught?

I never had a problem doing physics problems when they were part of a math class (y'know, those end-of-the-chapter "applications" questions), but I think that's due to the fact that they'd set the whole thing up for you and you never really had to understand the concepts.

I'd like to take whichever class will be easier to pull an A in. I'm still working 50+ hours a week, and I don't really have the time to spend more hours than necessary struggling every week. I just don't know which class that would be!

I'm afraid of physics. I'm dreading it more than any class I've ever taken. It's the only class where I believe that hard work may not suffice - it just may be something that I completely lack the talent to master.

To anyone who responds, thank you very much in advance for your input!

Answers and Replies

  • #2
I have studied physics both ways, and I can tell you that from my experience, it is a lot easier and more natural using calculus. With algebra alone, you are constantly faced with the need to take some sort of average or such, whereas with calculus, you simply write exactly what you mean to say. I'd say go with the calc based course and plan to work a bit.

You will need some simple trig, but that should not strain you too much. You will need that for either one, so that should not make any difference in your decision.
  • #3
If you're good at calculus, you MIGHT understand physics better if you learn it that way.
  • #4
Calc based is better. All you need to know is basic differentiation and integration - easily learned in about a week or two. Its more elegant and in depth.

Algebra based is harder, longer, and more useless.
  • #5
I'm taking the trig based introduction to physics right now, but I'm in multivariable calculus. I'm finding it a little difficult to understand the concepts when they're presented from an algebraic standpoint since I do know calculus and can see ways to find the answer to problems a lot faster.

And I wouldn't consider this course math heavy at all to be honest. A lot of the students in my class didn't know trig, and the prof was able to teach it in less than five minutes. All you really need to know is algebra, pythagorean theorem, and how to press "sin" "cos" on your calculator.

With that said, I'd probably suggest taking the calculus based class since you seem to have an interest in math and are most likely good at it. At my university, the only prereq for the first math based physics course is calc I, so I'm assuming all you need to know is differentiation and basic integration. I've decided to retake the class this coming fall myself, but this time I'm doing the calculus based one.
  • #6
If you happen to be very, very good at memorizing equations and don't particularly care where they come from, take the algebra-based physics. Otherwise, take the calculus-based course.
  • #7
To become a vet, I assume you have to take the MCAT. What does the MCAT literature recommend?
  • #8
Hi everyone! Thanks so much for the responses. I'm definitely now strongly leaning towards the calculus-based version. I'm very relieved that I don't need to go back and take trig (old and decrepit as I am, I can still find the sin and cos keys on a calculator without TOO much difficulty).
Does anyone know of a website that would make a decent calc refresher?

Cantab: Vet school actually requires the GRE, not the MCAT. They used to have a VCAT, which was pretty much comparable to the MCAT, but given the small number of vet school applicants, it wasn't profitable enough for ETS to keep making it, Since there's no subject-matter testing on the GRE (they only require the general test, which is very similar to the SAT verbal + math), there's no need to worry about knowing enough physics to pass the standardized test. It's just a prereq for admission.
Unfortunately, the prerequisites for vet school admission aren't as standardized as for med schools. Obviously, the first thing I did was make sure that the vet schools don't require the calc-based class. The dozen or so vet schools I'm considering will accept any physics sequence that lasts 2 or more semesters as long it includes a lab. The algebra-based class is perfectly acceptable (as it is for med students. I doubt whether there would even be an algebra-based sequence if there weren't a zillion pre-meds who needed it).
  • #9
The best i've seen is tutorial.math.lamar.edu

Have Fun!
  • #10
thank you physicsnoob!
That's an excellent site (much better than the ones that came up on google when I was searching for a good refresher).
  • #11
Is there an equally good physics resource anyone knows about (clear, concise, reasonably complete lecture notes). I'd like to get some sort of idea what I should expect in the course.
Thx! -Maura
  • #12
I think an AP review book should do. Oh and search up khanacademy on YouTube. You might like it. Useful for both calculus and physics.

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