You would think that if you said you were taking physics, that physics alone was a specific enough subject that you would need to further define it, but you do. It turns out that there are at least seven different types of physics courses taught high school and lower division college physics. To help you better understand which physics course you might need help with, I’ve listed a few of them here, along with my expertise and thoughts on the value of each one.
In all cases, the use of “you” refers to the student. It makes for easier reading.
High School Conceptual, or Freshman, Physics
a strictly algebra-based physics course requiring no trigonometry. Often taught concurrently with Algebra, but should NOT be taken as such. Should be taken concurrently with Geometry or higher math for the best results.
non-AP High School Physics
a trigonometry-based high school physics course which has been the more traditional physics course. In high schools lacking enough students to justify an AP Physics course. Often taken as a junior or senior, and you should have had at least trigonometry and/or be concurrently enrolled in pre-calculus for the best results.
The most rigorous of the high school physics courses. AP Physics should definitely be taken concurrently with pre-calculus or AP Calculus. AP Physics prepares you to take the AP Physics exam administered in May each school year. Earning a 4 or a 5 on the AP Physics exam enables you to earn college credit for this course, too. You will have fulfilled your physical science requirement, which most universities require for graduation. The caveat to this is that, if you are going to be and engineering or physical science major, most universities require students in those subjects to still take their physics curriculum. In some cases, universities have an “Advanced Placement” physics class for engineering and physical science majors who have earned a 4 or 5 on their AP Physics exam, so they do not have to repeat material you already learned in high school. The college physics taught for engineering and physical science majors is also calculus-based, which notches up the physics fun by a level. See more on college physics below.
Rube Goldberg Project
This class may require a Rube Goldberg project for completion of the course. If it does require a Rube Goldberg project, block out at least a week to brainstorm ideas and collect items to use for it. And start early!!!! Do not wait until the week before the Rube Goldberg project is due to start working on it. Believe me when I say it takes far more time than you think.
College Conceptual Physics
College conceptual physics is usually taken for one of two purposes. It is either taken to better prepare you for later, more rigorous, college physics courses. College conceptual physics is also taken to fulfill the university’s physical sciences requirement for someone with an interest in physics, but who is not majoring in a field that will require it on a regular basis. The textbook most commonly used for this class has Hewitt as its author.
College Physics for Life Science Majors
College Physics for Life Science Majors is exactly as it sounds: this class is, typically, for physical therapy majors, nursing, biology, pre-med, engineering technology, or any of the other majors that use physics, but are not engineering or physical science. In fact, SOME engineering majors at SOME universities use this class to fulfill its physics requirement. I know of one person who earned an Industrial Engineering degree from San Diego State University who did NOT have to take the calculus-based physics typically required of engineering and physical science majors.
College Physics for Science and Engineering Majors
This is the class that seems to separate the men from the boys, so to speak. It is a calculus-based physics sequence, usually either three semesters or five quarters. Some engineering majors only require the first two semesters of this series, all semesters are required for physics, astronomy, electrical engineering, and computer science majors. This is a rigorous course that will easily require 15 hours per week of studying outside of class. There is usually at least one three hour lab that accompanies that. Students typically only earn one credit hour for the lab, but doing the lab work takes three hours, plus the write-ups. Lab reports in this class can take 5 to 6 hours per week, unless you have a formal lab due. A formal lab report must be typewritten, and include all formula derivations, data tables, a bibliography if necessary, and computer-based drawings of the apparatus and schematics. My formal lab reports typically took about 20 hours each to prepare, and there are usually two formal lab reports required per semester. The traditional textbook used in this course is either by Halliday and Resnick; Halliday, Resnick, and Walker; or, more recently, other authors have ventured into this space.
The Very, Very Good
Now that you know the realities of taking a calculus-based physics course for science and engineering majors, here is another reality: if you take this class, and, particularly, if you do well in the three semester or five quarter sequence, you will feel like you can conquer the universe. Excelling in this class gives you a confidence like nothing I have ever encountered. It gives you swagger, it gives you the moxy and epoxy of knowing that, having conquered this physics series, you can do anything. You have what it takes to succeed at anything you decide to do in life. I know. I’ve done it. And I look back at my time in these physics classes as some of the most trying, and most rewarding and gratifying, of my life.
You will also have high job prospects with very good salaries, and be able easily address any student loan debt you have accumulated. Google, Apple, Facebook and NASA may knock at your door to hire you. You will have summer internship and/or co-op job opportunities, with equally awesome wages. You will no longer be a poor college student, because you will have done well in a high demand field. I completed this three semester series with the top three A’s ever awarded by the most difficult teacher at that college for this course.
College Physics for Physics Majors
At least one university that I know of, UCSD, or University of California at San Diego, has a calculus-based physics course series that is exclusively for physics majors. This includes the sub-majors of astrophysics, medical physics, etc. I think UCSD and other universities may do this to provide a more intimate experience for physics majors, since they aren’t as common as the engineering majors. It may also be to focus more of the course content on problems exclusive to physics, instead of including both physics and engineering problems. Whatever the case, this course is very similar to the College Physics for Science and Engineering Majors course detailed above, but lacks the huge lecture hall that that class has. I was initially placed into the last class in this five quarter series at UCSD, but when I saw the material, I petitioned that I had already earned credit for it. The Dean of the Physics Department agreed, and I transferred out of this class and into Engineering Thermodynamics. I was not only an astrophysics major, but an aerospace engineering minor. Or a very special kind of crazy as some might say 🙂
In my career, I have taken or taught at least part of every course above. Physics, to me, is how the world works, and is the most fascinating subject on the planet. I would love to help you develop that love for the subject, too.