Which High School Physics Program is Right for Me?
Physics is the most basic of all the sciences in that it deals with the principles of energy and matter. It is also the most precise and mathematical. So many students mistakenly assume the decision to take high school physics depends only on their math level and their confidence at being able to do math. However, top math students are not always top physics students and vice versa. A basic knowledge of physics is also increasingly important for music, art, and humanities students who want a deeper understanding of their subjects.
Physics and math compliment each other but are each unique in their own right. Mathematics is primarily a left brain (ref 5) activity which focuses on the mechanics of solving equations. Physics uses the left brain activity of math but adds the right brain activities of being able to visualize problems and think creatively in general concepts (ref 5). It is less concerned with the mechanics of solving equations. The standards of evidence in physics are different than in math. In math it is the mathematical proof which is usually considered truth. In physics it is the experiment which always contains some error and is subject to further investigation. This is why a top-level physicist like Einstein could be mediocre at math but excellent at physics. While high school physics students must be able to do basic algebra, they don't have to be math wizards.
The following information discusses the various types of high school physics classes available.
Conceptual physics is a recent idea which focuses on the general principles or concepts behind physics rather than the math. It can be an excellent first course in physics and does overcome the math fears some students may have. It generally requires that a student has completed Algebra I.
Honors or College Prep Physics
This is the mainstay of high school physics courses and is a survey course which hits at least lightly on the classical physics areas such as motion and forces, mechanical energy, heat, sound, light, electricity, magnetism, and optics. It generally requires that a student has completed Algebra II and is concurrently enrolled in Pre-Calculus. Most of the math, however, is from Algebra I. This course should do a good job of preparing a student for college-level physics.
Advanced Placement Physics B (algebra-based)
This is a survey course which can lead to year of college credit if the student passes the AP exam. It is generally far more mathematical and intensive than college prep physics but does not use any calculus. The primary difficulty in this course is the amount of material that a student must master. It is excellent training for future pre-medicine, computer science, architecture, chemistry, physics, and engineering students. The key drawback to this course is that receiving college credit in algebra-based physics may do little to shorten a student's stay in college. Engineering majors, for instance, require calculus-based physics. However, AP Physics B still creates an excellent foundation for helping engineering and other students succeed in their college studies. It generally requires that a student has completed Algebra II and is concurrently enrolled in Pre-Calculus.
Advanced Placement Physics C (calculus-based)
This is a calculus-based course which focuses in depth on only two areas of physics: 1) mechanics and 2) electricity and magnetism. It has both an AP exam in mechanics and an AP exam in electricity and magnetism either one of which can lead to a semester of college credit. Students who pass both tests receive a full year of calculus-based college physics credit. This can shorten even an engineering student's required time in college. The term calculus-based is something of a misnomer since the vast majority of problems in the course are solved with algebra and some trigonometry. Calculus is used mostly to enhance the understanding of how the equations are derived. It generally requires that a student has completed Pre-Calculus and is concurrently enrolled in calculus.
International Baccalaureate Physics
Students in IB physics can also gain college credit if they pass a rigorous exam. This class and exam are similar to the AP Physics B (algebra-based) program. The key difference is that IB courses are administered by the International Baccalaureate Organization based in Switzerland while AP programs are administered by
The College Board based in the United States. IB Physics is usually available only in specialized schools with an IB program. IB students in the United States often get the best of both worlds since they can usually take both AP and IB tests.