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12 July 2017

Teaching AP Physics C to those who've already taken AP Physics 1: Sequencing

AP Physics 1 is designed as a first-time physics course.  While I suspect the majority of the 170,000 students taking the exam are seniors, the course is perfectly appropriate for sophomores or juniors; I even teach one section of 9th graders, and they do quite well.

So, then, what do you do when these underclassmen want to take more physics in future years?

I highly recommend AP Physics 2.  A high school student who does well in both AP Physics 1 and 2 could not be better prepared for college physics courses.  The deep conceptual underpinning provided by AP 1 and AP 2 will make even a calculus-based college course straightforward.  

That said, I know a lot of folks are teaching the calculus-based AP Physics C as a second year course.  Fantastic.  But it seems like a difficult transition: Much of the mechanics portion of Physics C covers the very same concepts mastered in Physics 1, though there's a good bit of calculus overlaid on those concepts.  Other than circuits, students have had zero exposure to electricity and magnetism.

Sequence AP Physics C like this:

September and October: Do algebra-based electricity and magnetism exactly as covered on the old AP Physics B exam.  Emphasize conceptual understanding.

November through mid-January: Go through the Physics C mechanics curriculum, paying primary attention to the calculus applications.

Mid-January through March: Start from scratch with the Physics C - E&M curriculum, reviewing material from the fall in context, and adding calculus applications.

April: Put it all together.

Why this sequence?

Electricity and magnetism are some of the most abstract concepts covered in first-year physics.  They're quite a change from Physics 1, where virtually every problem can be set up easily and quantitatively in the laboratory.  It's worth spending a significant amount of time just defining and using the concepts of electric field, electric potential, capacitors, magnetic field, induced EMF.  Using calculus while these ideas are introduced adds an unnecessary distraction.  Don't start with integrals and derivatives, which are conceptually opaque even to some of the best-performing high school math students.  

Start with the concept of the electric field, and the relationship F = qE.   Get students thoroughly comfortable with the direction of an electric force and field, with putting an electric force on a free-body diagram.  Then deal with electric potential and PE = qV.  Get students relating the existence and direction of an electric force to the difference in electric potential, and using electrical potential energy in energy bar charts.  Introduce capacitors as devices that store charge (according to q = CV) and block current.  Consider electric fields and potentials produced by parallel plates and point charges.  

Go on to magnetic fields and forces, first teaching F = qvB and F = ILB and their associated right-hand rule.  Consider how a current can produce a magnetic field.  Finally, explain induced EMF, and how to find the magnitude and direction of an induced current in a wire.

This is all AP Physics B stuff.  You can find a wealth of released exam questions on these topics, both free response and multiple choice.  Use them.

In about November, you can move on to mechanics.  You're at a significant advantage by waiting this long to start true Physics C material.  A number of your students will be taking calculus concurrently.  I used to have to teach them how to evaluate basic integrals, while my colleagues in the math department cringed and gnashed their teeth.  It's likely, though, that by November calculus classes have begun teaching integration, at least conceptually.  Physics can follow and reinforce calculus class, rather than the other way around.  And since your students are so well versed in mechanics concepts from their Physics 1 experience, they can focus on how calculus serves as a language expressing those concepts.

(Waiting until November for mechanics also solves a political problem.  If you start with mechanics, you give the impression that Physics C will be nothing but boring review, more of the same stuff from the first-year course.  Then when you bring on the electricity, you'll face a rather hostile audience who's already settled into a cozy senior year routine.  Start with the tough new stuff while your seniors are fresh and motivated.)

Finally, when you come back to electricity and magnetism, those concepts have had time to percolate in your students' brains.  Physics isn't mastered the first time students see it; it's mastered after the same ideas are seen in multiple contexts.  The full-on Physics C E&M unit doubly reinforces previous work: students revisit the concepts of field, potential, etc. that you introduced in the fall, but they also revisit the calculus language that you introduced with the mechanics unit.

I haven't had the opportunity to teach this course.  However, I've heard good reviews from those who have followed the approach I describe.  Try it.  Let me know how it goes.


  1. Excellent, excellent advice. I'll elaborate later. I start my second semester class with the point charge E field rather than the Coulomb force because I want to emphasize the field concept from the start. Starting with the electric force suggests that the course is just like mechanics but with a new force. It isn't, and the jump to Gauss' Law is quite challenging if you start with forces.

    1. Please, do elaborate! Do you have any particular strategies you use during mechanics to prepare students for the field concept in electrostatics?