The keys to learning college-level Physics

“Physics is a different way of looking at the world.”

A key principle of my blog is Creating Ecosystems of Success, and a key focus is awareness of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Several years ago, I tutored in the former Northern Virginia Tutoring Service to earn some extra income outside of my federal science career. The subject that gave me the most business year after year was International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP) General Chemistry for high school students – both college-level courses.

On a few occasions I tutored some students in Physics – the ‘Grandfather’ of all the sciences. Physics has a special place in my heart as it was a milestone for me during my growth as a student. I didn’t take to ‘Physical Science’ as an eighth grader, and I struggled with high school Physics as a junior. Midway through my junior year, I figured out what was going on and ended the year respectably. I discovered that I could succeed in a ‘quantitative’ science course.

With a younger cousin now taking IB Physics as a freshman in high school and struggling early on herself, I’ve decided to craft a piece about the keys to learning college-level Physics. As a Pharmacologist/Toxicologist, I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible in this piece. Please excuse me if I’ve misspoken about anything or even leave a comment below this post.

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“Physics is a different way of looking at the world,” my father, a Physics major himself in college said when I was a junior in high school and didn’t understand the class initially. It was a vague explanation and I still didn’t get it. My teacher at Hutch-Tech High School in Buffalo, NY also didn’t give a nice comprehensive explanation of what the class was about before going into his discussion of “Scalars” and “Vectors”. He was a very robot-like, studious-looking, middle-aged gentleman, with a graying beard and glasses who almost never blinked as one classmate humorously pointed out one day.  To give him the benefit of the doubt, I’ll say that he might’ve given us a nice introduction and perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention.

In terms of my cousin who is struggling with Physics, one of the first questions I asked her coincidentally was if she knew what Physics was all about. She of course quickly answered, “No.” When learning anything, I believe that context is critical because it lets us know the ‘why’ and makes attacking the ‘how’ much easier. I explained to her that Physics itself is a broad field, but most importantly that it’s a way of mathematically explaining the natural world around us: calculating the masses of things, the speeds of objects, understanding how light and sound travel, understanding gravity, etc.

When NASA, SpaceX or their collaborators and competitors send astronauts and rockets into space for example, there’s a whole series of calculations that need to be performed and worked out ahead of time. Understanding “Time Dilation” in outer space requires some knowledge of how gravity and light work together. This gives us insight as to why individuals age more slowly in low-gravity environments. Calculating how fast a football ball travels, understanding the acceleration of cars, building high-speed rail systems, building bridges and buildings, and understanding how cell phones work – this all involves Physics.

Partway through my junior year struggles, something ‘clicked’ and I realized that we were being asked ‘word problems’ – problems where we were given multiple pieces of evidence and then having to solve for an unknown – usually having to use an Algebraic equation. I’ll use an example from the ‘Mechanics’ chapter of most Physics curricula. Mechanics deals with the movement and speeds of objects and thus involves concepts like: ‘Force’, ‘Momentum’, ‘Velocity’, ‘Acceleration’, ‘Friction’, and ‘Inertia’. The word problems typically involve giving two to three pieces of the puzzle and then asking the student to solve for the unknown.

An example is being given the mass of car, the speed of the car and then being asked to determine its Momentum (p). To answer the question, students must understand what Momentum is in terms of ‘units of measure’. In this case, Momentum is represented as: mass (m) * velocity (v) – the units usually being kilograms (kg) for mass and meters per second (m/s) for velocity:

p = m (kg) * v (m/s)

The measurement of speed is a ‘rate’ and in the United States, we typically measure speed in miles per hour (m/h). Canada uses kilometers per hour (km/h). Most Physics curricula express it as m/s. Underneath the Mechanics umbrella there is also Acceleration (a) which is very, very close to Velocity except for one subtle difference – the units are meters per second squared (m/s²). Instead of Momentum (kg*m/s) this one little change creates the unit for Force (F) (kg*m/s²) which is referred to as the “Newton”. The actual formula is:

F = m (kg) * a (m/s²)

This is just a piece of Mechanics. There are many more calculations in the: Circuits and Electricity, Dynamics, Kinematics, and Thermodynamics chapters just to name a few. This meticulousness with formulas and units of measure is what my father meant by, “looking at the world differently.” He meant looking at the world mathematically and in terms of formulas, laws and ‘constants’. And with that, I’ll discuss some simple keys to excelling at college-level Physics. They are as follows:

Understanding Physics at a high level: While the goal is to understand the world in a mathematical way, context is critical in my opinion because otherwise you’re just needlessly doing calculation after calculation. Again, my high school Physics teacher may have given us a nice comprehensive introduction and I was either daydreaming about basketball or girls, but my first memories of the class were ‘Scalars’ and ‘Vectors’ as described above. Once I got older and understood that Physics is everywhere, and its great history, I developed a great respect for the field and those who work in it.

Understanding the scientific and mathematical relationships: At some point during my junior year of high school, the ‘light bulb’ in my brain turned on. I realized that most of the questions we were being asked involved a principle of some sort and there were corresponding equations and formulas. The examples cited above involved Mechanics but there are many other modules in Physics. Students must be able to quickly read a question and identify which principle and the corresponding formula/equation being called upon. From there it’s pretty much ‘plugging and playing’.

Students must become meticulous about the units measure and your calculator must become your ‘best friend’ just like in Chemistry. Some questions give the student two different units of measure and the units for the answer may be a combination of the two, a constituent of the two, or something completely different if a ‘physical constant’ value is involved – the speed of light or sound for example or the Earth’s gravitational constant. Some questions even involve multiple equations. You get the point, and this is what makes the final key is so important; practice. By the way, many teachers and professors allow their students to write down their equations and formulas and bring them to the tests eliminating the need to memorize them.

Being disciplined about practicing the problems and seeking help: The final important key in my opinion, is taking the time outside of class to go over the practice problems and being ruthless about it. Depending on how long a given test is, students will usually only have about an hour to complete the questions. For that reason, it’s critical to be able to identify what’s being asked quickly, and then being able to quickly calculate the answer. To do that, students must practice as many problems as possible in their spare time – if the teacher assigns only the odd numbers in a chapter, then the student must also be willing to do the even numbered questions to master the principle.

Religiously doing the practice problems takes a certain amount of discipline, foresight and drive. More importantly it also builds confidence. This is the point I tried to drive home to my cousin and others in her situation. If students are confused about something when practicing their problems, they should seek out their teacher or a knowledgeable peer for more help. Once again, a key pillar of science is asking questions and knowing when you’ve arrived at the boundaries of your own personal knowledge.

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“I want to congratulate you. You’ve really turned things around this year,” my high school Physics teacher said to me late in my junior year. His words surprised me, and they showed that he was paying attention to how his students were doing. He saw me flounder early in the year, and then start to grasp the material as time went on. My early grades in the class were in the mid- to high-60s, but I recovered to finish in the high-70s to low-80s. As an undergraduate, I knew what to do immediately and scored in the 90s both semesters.

So, there you have it. Keep in mind that this is for high school and college-level Physics and it can get much more complex. There is for example “Calculus-Based Physics“, which gives me the chills just thinking about it. I imagine that the keys I gave still apply though the material is far more complex.  Lastly Physics in addition to being a prerequisite class for many STEM-hopefuls, it’s also a bit of ‘gatekeeper’ course which can derail the dreams of many Medical School hopefuls and other aspiring healthcare professionals.

Undergraduate Physics is as far as I went, though some of the principles did come into play once I started my graduate research. For the sake of this piece though, like Chemistry, students can get overwhelmed and lose hope once they fall behind early, which is dangerous because some may never want to participate in the STEMs afterwards.

Thank you for taking the time read this blog post. If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy:

The keys to learning college-level Chemistry
The story of how I earned my STEM degree as a minority
The transferrable skills from a STEM degree in the basic sciences
A look at STEM: What is Pharmacology?
A look at STEM: What is Toxicology?
A look at STEM: What is Inhalation Toxicology?

If you’ve found value here and think it will benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right-hand column in this post and throughout the site, or add the link to my RSS feed to your feedreader. Lastly, follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

The keys to learning college-level general chemistry revisited

The first principle of my blog is Creating Ecosystems of Success, and a key focus is awareness of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. A key class for many STEM-hopefuls is ‘college- level’ General Chemistry, both in high school and college. Some students, particularly those attending very competitive high schools, take college-level Chemistry and struggle with it.

Several years ago when I tutored part-time, I worked with several students in Northern Virginia where taking ‘Honors’ and ‘International Baccalaureate’ (IB) General Chemistry as freshman and sophomores was a normal occurrence. For three to four years, I worked in the former Northern Virginia Tutoring service where I consistently coached lost and struggling students, and helped them confidently finish their classes strong.  The service was run by my mentor and fellow blogger Dr. Ralph G. Perrino (Dr. Perrino’s blog).

I originally published this piece on the Examiner back in March of 2013. I’ve decided to republish this revised version as tutoring was a fun and rewarding experience for me, which also helped me earn some extra income. I myself didn’t fully grasp General Chemistry back at Hutch-Tech High School as a sophomore. It wasn’t until I was an undergraduate at Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) that I understood and mastered this exciting quantitative science. I went on to use that knowledge in my graduate studies, in my federal science career, and eventually as a tutor.

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After starting my federal science career, tutoring not only allowed me to supplement my income, but it was a very educational experience for me as well. When applying to work as a tutor through the Northern Virginia Tutoring Service, I listed Biology, Chemistry, and Physics as my areas of expertise. I had some experience with all three disciplines in my undergraduate and graduate studies.

Chemistry by far was the course that generated the most demand for me, specifically ‘Honors’ and ‘International Baccalaureate’ (IB) Chemistry. IB courses are basically ‘college-level’ and can be quite a jump for some high school freshman and sophomores. Even some upperclassmen struggle in them. These classes are particularly problematic when the students fall behind in them early, lose confidence, and when the subject area falls outside of Mom and Dad’s areas of expertise – hence the need for a tutor.

The students who needed my help weren’t ‘slouches’ by any means. Most of them resided in Virginia’s Arlington and Fairfax Counties.  Fairfax County is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation – a county with a very strong school system where 90% of its students matriculate to college. The parents’ vigilance and drive to assure that their children do well academically is also a hallmark of this county. This was manifested in their willingness to invest some of their hard-earned money into tutors – sometimes several at one time for multiple children. Those parents were very impressive.

When working with the students, my initial goal was to approach them with a positive and optimistic attitude. Patience, understanding and a bit of humor were parts of my approach as well.  These were particularly important for students who had lost hope. After this initial part, we dove into the actual science and turning their grades around. There were four key principles that I stressed to my students: time management, taking initiative, practice and attention to detail.

The kids I worked with were ‘high achievers’ and typically juggled multiple classes, and in some instances, multiple Honors/IB courses. They were also involved in a plethora of after school activities (sports and clubs of all kinds), which often caused a bit of an overload. In cases such as these, time management for each class, especially the demanding classes, was very, very important.

The next principles I instilled were taking initiative and the importance of practice. College-level courses require students to assume more responsibility for their studies with less coddling by teachers. This is especially important for quantitative sciences like Chemistry and Physics, which are calculation-intensive and require rigorous practice. I stressed to my students that this was the only way to feel confident at test time, when students were tasked with working their way through several pages of complex problems, usually within 45 minutes to an hour.

The argument that teachers aren’t ‘teaching effectively’ in these subjects may be partially true in some instances, but what’s also true is that the teachers can’t do everything. They can’t make the students practice what they’ve learned after hours and on weekends – arguably the most important part their learning. This is where the most meaningful part of students’ learning takes place as was the case for me as an undergraduate when the light-bulb turned on one Sunday afternoon in Charlotte, NC.

Finally, I impressed upon my students the importance of learning to pay attention to several key details. Chemistry tends to start off with ‘concept-based’ learning: the trends of the “Periodic Table of Elements“, the micro-particles that comprise atoms, and then chemical bonding. With the balancing of chemical equations, the class becomes more ‘critical thought-based’.

The ‘quantitative’ phase starts with the “Stoichiometry” chapter which permeates throughout the remaining chapters. This is the phase in which the calculator becomes one of the student’s ‘best friends’ as they must calculate decimals, express numbers using ‘scientific notation’, and sometimes calculate ‘log’ values. When calculating acids, bases and pH values, students also must be able to use the ‘^’ calculator function in some instances, which admittedly confused me as the tutor once. An important part of this phase is understanding and being able to convert ‘units of measure’ – converting grams to kilograms, and then grams to moles, Celsius and Fahrenheit to Kelvin, and so on.

The calculation of moles, percent compositions, percent yields and so on, leads the class to become highly quantitative and the students then must also keep track of various equations/formulas, and chemical/physical constants, while also integrating concepts from earlier chapters. This continues into the “Solutions”, the “Gas Laws”, “Kinetics” and “Thermochemistry” chapters. While specific calculations are used throughout the course such as the conversion of grams to moles, some chapters have their own unique equations, formulas and units of measure such as ‘millimeters of Mercury’ (mm Hg) in the Gas Law chapter which is a measure for atmospheric pressure.

Examples of chemical/physical constants include “Avagadro’s number”, and the “Universal Gas Constant”, which itself has many different values depending upon the units used. As we progressed through the chapters, one thing I constantly had to remind my students of was always keeping their Periodic Table of Elements handy. I consider this the student’s first best friend in the class, as it has pieces of information about every element necessary to answer questions in even the more advanced chapters.

This all sounds like a lot right? Again, it can be particularly problematic if the parents have no experience in the area. Once lost, students typically need extra help in the form of spending more time with the teacher or working with a tutor. When the above-mentioned keys are introduced and the student buys in, he or she can gain confidence, get back on track and find the class to be fun. Tutoring caused me to have to relearn some material I’d forgotten over the years, and to learn concepts we hadn’t covered when I was an undergraduate.  In some instances I was learning along with the students I tutored.  This was fun for me and created a sense of adventure.

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If you’re a STEM-professional, tutoring is a really good way to generate a second income depending upon the demand for your knowledge set in your area or elsewhere. With the technology available to us today, tutors can work with students remotely in some instances without having to physically be there. In either case, helping students to understand their subject matter, and ‘to get over the hump’, is a very rewarding feeling, and an accomplishment all in itself.  It’s also gratifying when the parents thank you and stay on their children about when their next tutoring sessions will be.

What also helped me out during my tutoring experience was that I could go back and ask one of my veteran undergraduate Chemistry professors questions when I got ‘stumped’.  In some instances, I needed to be refreshed on some of the nuances of some of the problems I was doing with my students. I don’t think he’ll mind me mentioning him, and I’m very thankful that he was willing to provide guidance when I didn’t know what to do. This underscores the importance of not burning your bridges and maintaining relationships with your professors long after you’ve earned you degree.

My former professor also pointed me in the direction of the Chemistry Olympiad Exams for challenging and fun practice problems. You can download the yearly exams as pdfs for free.  The answers are in the back, so you can go over them yourself or with your student, and even work your way backwards to figure out the right answer, if either of you answered the question incorrectly.

Thank you for taking the time out to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this one, you might also enjoy:

The story of how I earned my STEM degree as a minority
The transferrable skills from a STEM degree in the basic sciences
Don’t Be A Mad Scientist: Avoid These Stupid Lab Mistakes
A look at STEM: What is Pharmacology?
A look at STEM: What is Toxicology?
A look at STEM: What is Inhalation Toxicology?

If you’ve found value here and think it will benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right-hand column in this post and throughout the site, or add the link to my RSS feed to your feedreader. Lastly, follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.