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First Year in Physics

Welcome to the Physics Department at the University of Michigan! Physics is one of the fastest-growing majors at U-M. The first year in a new department can often be overwhelming, confusing, exciting, and unpredictable. We have provided some information that will answer some questions and, hopefully, help you feel more prepared as you enter your first year in our department. 

First Semester Coursework

As a first-year student, you'll likely be enrolling in one of our introductory courses. The Physics Department offers three introductory course sequences. All sequences are calculus-based and consist of two semesters of lectures with labs. As such, we recommend that students have completed MATH 115 (Calculus I) or equivalent for the 100-level intro courses. The courses are designed to be taken one course (lecture and lab) per semester as they build on each other. While they can be mixed (PHYSICS 135/136 followed by PHYSICS 240/241, for exampe), it is recommended that they are pursued in a single sequence.

First semster recommended courses:

PHYSICS 135/136: Physics for the Life Sciences I: This is recommended for students who plan to pursue a major in the life sciences, medicine, kinesiology, or health sciences. 

Topics that are covered include mechanics of life such as gravity and forces, energy, and fluids. 

PHYSICS 140/141: General Physics I: This is recommended for students planning to major in the physical sciences or engineering.

Topics that are covered include vectors, linear motion, projectiles, relative velocity and acceleration, circular motion, Newton's laws, particle dynamics, work and energy, linear momentum, torque, angular momentum, gravitation, planetary motion, fluid statics and dynamics, simple harmonic motion, waves, and sound.

*PHYSICS 140 is offered in two formats: a traditional lecture and a studio-style class that involves a team-based learning format. Take a look at this document that might be useful to help decide which one might be the best fit for you.

PHYSICS 160/161: Honors Physics I: This is a more intensive class that is recommended for students with a strong background in physics. Students who took AP physics in high school and scored well on the AP test may want to consider this path.

Topics covered include principles of mechanics and how they can be applied in systems ranging from binary stars to nuclear collisions.

 

Students who feel that they would like a stronger math foundation, particularly those who do not have a calculus background, may want to consider PHYSICS 115: Principles of Physics. This two-credit mini-course is offered in the second half of the semester (Fall and Winter) and helps students become more familiar with concepts and math skills that will be used in the introductory courses. 

I have AP credit. Do I get to skip a class?

Because the content is not directly equivalent, the Physics Department does not accept AP credit to replace any of our courses. While students can receive credit toward their degree as a result of AP credit, they are not exempt from any physics classes.

Credit that you may receive can be found here

Students who score well (typically a score of a 5) on the AP test are encouraged to pursue the honors track beginning with PHYSICS 160/161.

Please note: LSA policy precludes AP credit from being used toward a major or a minor. If you are considering a physics or interdisciplinary physics major or physics minor, you may need to take additional coursework. 

Second Semester Coursework

We recommend that students have completed MATH 116 (Calculus II) for the 200-level intro courses. You should continue the sequence that you began in your previous semester. 

Second semester recommended courses:

PHYSICS 235/236: Physics for the Life Sciences II: This is recommended for students who plan to pursue a major in the life sciences, medicine, kinesiology, or health sciences. 

Topics that are covered include electricity and magnetism, waves and imaging, and nuclear physics and astrophysics.

PHYSICS 240/241: General Physics II: This is recommended for students planning to major in the physical sciences or engineering.

Topics that are covered include charge, Coulomb's law, electric fields, Gauss' law, electric potential, capacitors and dielectrics, current and resistance, EMF and circuits, magnetic fields, Biot-Savart law, Amperes law, Faraday's Law of Induction, simple AC circuits, and electromagnetic waves.

PHYSICS 260/261: Honors Physics II: This is a more intensive class that is recommended for students with a strong background in physics or for those who did very well in their first semester physics course and are interested in challenging themselves.

Topics that are covered include an in-depth look at electrcity and magnetism along with computer-aided problem solving, and contemporary applications. 

Advice from Previous Students

Tips for a Successful Intro Course Experience

"Office hours are a must. For the introductory courses everyone in the physics help room should know how to do your problems, or at least 95% of it. Never be afraid to ask people for help. If you see some older students in the physics help room, they usually will help and should know a little bit about what you are doing in case no one else can help you."

"Go to office hours and work with others on Mastering Physics! There’s a lot to learn from each other."

"Find people in your classes to work on homework and study with! It will help you enormously!"

"Make sure that you are comfortable with some calculus before diving in. If you’re not sure if you’ve got enough math background, you can ask a physics advisor, the instructor, or some friends who have taken the courses before. Also, it is very important that you try to understand the topics conceptually. If you’re not going to pursue higher level physics it may be tempting to try and memorize all the formulas, but learning the concepts is actually the way to do well in physics courses with the least amount of effort."

"Keep up with the work constantly, if you have a question ask professors quickly."

"Ask every question that occurs to you about the Python programming and try to keep notes of what you’ve learned. Recognize that, even if you’ve already learned the physics material that the class covers, there are basic principles and ways of thinking about physics that can still be drawn from the class, and that your professors are especially delighted to have those kinds of conversations."

"Try to complete everything as early as possible, go to office hours, study more than you think you need to, meet your professors and try to have a great professional relationship with them."

"Using the Help Room is probably the best time-efficient way to work on your problems, and hence do well in the class. I'd recommend working on your weekly homework at the Help Room, so you have instant access to a tutor if you ever find yourself stuck on a problem."

Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

"Knowing what math level is recommended for a course and being up to date on that is the best way to make sure you do well---many students' difficulty in courses like 260 especially (which uses multi-variable calculus often but whose requirements may not say so) is seeded by being unfamiliar with math concepts."

"Even if you think it is a dumb question, no one is going to be mad if you ask it. Asking questions is a very important way of learning physics. The more questions you ask, the easier it gets."

"Don't wait until the last moment to do problem sets and homework assignments. You get a lot more out of then if you take a bit more time."

"Memorizing formulas. Don’t do it. There are some you need to know like Newton’s Laws, gravitational force, etc. but for the most part you don’t want to memorize specific things. It’s much safer to know where they come from and be able to work your way to it, and you’ll be more confident in your answer."

"Do not simply work alone."

I Wish I'd Known...

"It’s absolutely okay to struggle! Physics is hard for everybody at some point, and you’re not any less smart for needing some help. Just be honest with yourself and look for help when (or before) you need it. I promise nobody’s going to think less of you for going to the help room or going to office hours, so take advantage of these resources whenever you can."

"The Physics Help Room can help with programming questions!" 

Tutoring Resources

Physics is a challenging subject. While the departmet does not keep a running list of private tutors, below you'll find some links to resources that can be helpful if you find yourself in search of some additional help with the material.

Other Helpful Resources

Beyond Your First Year

If you are interested in pursuing your physics education beyond the introductory courses, more information can be found on our Major and Minor Programs page.

Additional campus resources can be found here.