Two Perspectives on AP Physics C

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Authored by

  • Angela Benjamin
    Woodrow Wilson Senior High School
    Washington, District of Columbia
  • Martin Kirby
    William S. Hart High School
    Newhall, California

AP Physics C: Mechanics is a calculus-based physics course that covers kinematics, dynamics, energy, momentum, rotation, gravitation and oscillation. This course is the first of a two-course sequence that is equivalent to the introductory physics sequence taken by science and engineering students at most colleges and universities.

AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism builds on the C: Mechanics with the addition of forces exerted on charged particles, electric and magnetic fields, electric circuits and their components, and the nature of electromagnetic radiation. This course is equivalent to the second semester of the introductory physics sequence typically offered at colleges and universities. This course applies both differential and integral calculus.

The majority of schools offer Physics C Mechanics as a two-semester course to students whose prior physics experience is usually a basic high school physics class. Some schools offer Physics C Mechanics as a one-semester course, and usually do so in combination with a second semester of Physics C Electricity and Magnetism; in this case the students have usually been successful in a previous challenging physics course, such as AP Physics B. Most students who take Physics C Mechanics are high school seniors.

A textbook, of course, is essential. However, the teacher should be the primary source of understanding, and the textbook secondary. The chosen texts are usually the same as those chosen for corresponding college calculus-based physics courses, and are the source of most homework questions. A well-chosen AP physics review book purchased at the start of the course can also be very useful for the student.

Planning is crucial. A well-organized course with a well timed logical progression of ideas is often difficult for a new AP Physics C teacher to create. The task will be easier and more successful if one can get the help of an experienced AP Physics teacher who understands the special needs of your school and situation.

The percentage of the Exam corresponding to each topic is included in the Course Description for AP Physics published by the College Board. All the objectives for the course and helpful hints on pacing, homework, and labs are included in the AP Physics Teacher's Guide, also published by the College Board. These and many other helpful publications and information can be found here at AP Central.

Martin Kirby

William S. Hart High School, Newhall, California

Students take my class because of its reputation for rigor, that it is an excellent preparation for any college major that requires analysis, and that the class will be of great benefit to those who are thinking of majoring in physics or engineering. No matter what their score is on the Exam, the course will provide them with an advantage in admissions decisions and success during the first difficult year of their undergraduate degree.

Mechanics uses basic calculus to analyze physics concepts such as rates of change. However, it is the physics rather than the math that the majority of students find challenging. I find that most of my students have few problems with the calculus itself, but find difficulty in seeing opportunities for its application. Although most AP Physics C courses require concurrent enrollment in calculus as a minimum prerequisite for acceptance, it is not uncommon to accept motivated students who can teach themselves the basics of differentiation and integration.

One criticism of teaching Physics C Mechanics as a two-semester class to students who have no prior physics is that the students are only exposed to a narrow slice of physics, and so leave high school without a good general view of how physics describes the world around them. However, some teachers believe that what is lost in breadth is gained in depth, and in the development of the student's deeper analytical skills. The lack of breadth allows the students the time to perform more experiments and so grasp concepts more fully, especially if the experiments are 'open ended'.

All of my 'C' students have taken AP physics 'B' as a first physics course, and take both the Mechanics and E & M AP tests at the end of the year. I initially thought that teaching the class would be a little tedious and confining, and that the students would resist the inherent rigor and analysis. I was wrong on all counts. The students are often in awe of the work they've done, and the personal discoveries that they have made and so am I. It's my favorite class, and theirs too.

Angela Benjamin

Woodrow Wilson Senior High School, Washington, District of Columbia

Physics C students are adventurous. They choose the difficult path when an easier one is available. Many need support to stay on this challenging path, but they bring a skill set of brilliance, tenacity, arrogance, curiosity, great conversational skills and a love of science. They exhibit the habits of life-long learners who are willing to fail on the road to success. These students are most often rewarded with college credit and advantage in the admissions process. They are juniors and seniors, but juniors are more consistent and harder workers on average.

I teach both mechanics and electricity and magnetism and treat each as a semester course. My students receive two science credits for 90 minutes a day for an entire year. Those who have completed BC calculus have a distinct advantage, but those currently enrolled in either BC or AB calculus can succeed if they prove to be hard workers who do not give up easily. The students observe that math is a series of problems similar to the example, while physics is not; it is an exploration into how the mathematics of the real world works. Therefore physics is more complex and the math must often be teased out of the context of a word problem. E & M raises the stakes both mathematically and conceptually, the addition of integral calculus in the analysis of symmetrical objects and more abstract concepts of potential, electric and magnetic fields stretches the mind. This is where perseverance in the face of lack of understanding is a valuable lesson for future study. Those students who have limited success benefit from the foundation that can be built on a college E & M course.

My class works as a cooperative community where peer tutoring is key. My role at times becomes more of that of a coach on the side. The students often form outside study groups and have been know to shed a tear or two. I use Tipler Physics for Scientists and Engineers. I supplement with interactive physics online applications and the online lectures of MIT professor Walter Lewin. Major labs are based on analyzing the physics of working models of student designs. For instance, they build and test a ballistic device to analyze projectile motion. They then compare this real world data to laboratory data collected using CPO Physics (Cambridge) equipment. I have 25 AP Physics students in 2 different classes. Both classes include a mixture of B and C students; I have 10 C students and 15 B students. This year is unique because I have only 3 female students, but I have had classes that are exactly opposite.

I have a class motto, 'never surrender, never give up', because this course is not for the faint at heart and requires long distance runners not sprinters. Learning physics requires building a foundation of core knowledge and adding mastery over the course of time.