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21 April 2012

Mail Time: What experiments do I have to do for AP?

An unidentified reader writes in via email:

I was wondering if you know of a list of recommended labs that Physics C students should do to be prepared for the AP exam.  Does such a list exist?  If not, what are some labs that you recommend AP Physics C students be exposed to?  

The nice part of AP physics is that, unlike in biology, the committee does not list a set of required or recommended experiments which must be understood before the exam.  Rather, the AP exam expects general familiarity with laboraty procedures and data analysis.  The test will ask at least one free response question "posed in an experimental setting," on which pure mathematical problem solving will be worthless.

Physics C students should have done regular experimental work throughout the year.  It doesn't matter what particular experiments you've done; but you should know how standard equipment works, like spring scales, motion detectors, etc.  You should know how to describe an experimental procedure in no more than three sentences.  You should know how to linearize an experimental graph.  You should know how to figure out the physical meaning of the slope and intercept of a best-fit line.  

Physics C experiments don't necessarily have to be different from physics B experiments.  If you're stuck for a good experiment, try looking back on the B and C exams since 1996; most of the experimental problems can be set up in a high school laboratory.  Try actually doing those labs.  Or, pick a free response problem that you know you could actually set up in your lab.  Do so.  Verify the result of the free response question.  

That kind of laboratory experience -- nothing complicated, but complete familiarity with equipment and analysis methods -- will serve you well, both on the exam, and in your future study of physics.


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