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In Praise of High School Physics

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In British Columbia, high school students generally have four options for grade 11 science: Earth Science, Life Science, Physics, and Chemistry. If a student is interested in pursuing sciences or engineering at the university level, the recommended combination is Physics 11 and Chemistry 11. When I discuss these courses with students, the most polarizing is Physics 11. Responses range from “it was really cool; I built a catapult” to “WHY DO I HAVE TO TAKE THIS???”

I only took physics once in high school (got an A!), but my husband is a physicist, so I have spent 30 years hanging out with people who think physics is literally the coolest thing. I have also advised students for decades as they move from high school to university level sciences, and I’ve seen the impact of taking (or not taking) Physics 11 and 12.

So, without further ado, a series of responses to “WHY DO I HAVE TO TAKE” high school physics.

An image demonstrating physics principles you can begin learning at the high school level
  • For engineering, Physics 11 and 12 are fundamental classes. First year engineers will take as many as four physics classes in first year, so it’s good if they really like it. 
  • In most universities across Canada, the study of sciences involves at least one first-year physics class. Having completed physics 11 at a minimum allows the student to meet this requirement. Programs as varied as atmospheric science, forensic science, and biochemistry are likely to require a full first year of physics.
  • Many students who are interested in life sciences or pre-med studies feel that it’s “unfair” that they need to take physics in high school or in post-secondary. However, in almost all cases, they will have to take at least one physics course in first-year university. At UBC, it’s Physics 101 – physics with applications to the life sciences – a course which focusses on things like fluids, levers, forces… lots of things that explain how blood flows, hearts pump, and knees bend. More practically, there is first-year physics material on the MCAT.
  • In kinesiology, students may require a true physics course (like at SFU or UVic). In all cases, they will take a course called “biomechanics,” which is essentially the physics of the human body.
  • Students who wish to pursue architectural studies at Waterloo, U of T, Ryerson, etc. will find that Physics 12 is a requirement for these courses. This isn’t surprising – I think it’s good for architects to understand what makes buildings stand up!
  • Many first year computer science students will complete university level physics, not just because they are in a faculty of science, but because an understanding of physics opens up the most exciting branch of modern computing (see below)!

These are just a few programs with a high school physics requirement – so taking Physics 11 leaves a lot of doors open. Of course, there’s one other university major I haven’t mentioned yet: it turns out you might like high school physics enough to decide to become a physics major in university! Hear me out… it could happen!

At the undergraduate level, there are multiple routes a student can take to completing a BSc in Physics – from astronomy to geophysics, from biophysics to chemical physics, or a field that blends into other fields, like engineering physics. Every year, I work with students who make the decision to pursue this major, but even though they are following their passions, they are still unsure where their studies will lead them.

Well.

Completing a BSc in physics, students can work in industrial fields like computing and software development, materials research, and research and development.

With the additional completion of a Bachelor of Education, students can pursue careers in science education.

The critical thinking skills that a BSc in physics teaches are proven to be very strong preparation for the MCAT (med school exam) and the LSAT (law school exam).

Another route is for students to pursue graduate studies in physics and specialize in fields like astrophysics, particle physics, condensed matter physics, and many more. Completing this kind of degree permits students to either work in academics or pursue a career in subjects ranging from medical physics (the treatment of cancer through radiation), quantum computing and quantum information (the new wave of computing that some say will transform society as much as the iron age or the information age), or even things like financial modelling (PhDs in physics are highly in demand on Wall Street). There are plenty of exciting career options with a background in physics.

So if (when) you start Physics 11 this fall, go in with an open attitude. See what it has to offer, ask questions about ideas that are interesting, and think of it not as a hurdle but as an interesting first step.

Want to get a head start on Physics 11? Consider checking out our summer boot camp.

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