AP Physics 1

As promised, I’ve been slowly making my way through Rice University’s online AP Physics 1 course on the edX platform. WIth sixteen weeks of content and three separate exams, this is probably the longest single course I’ve taken. It’s so long that they were adding portions of the course even while I was taking it! (I know they actually had it all ready since this used to be on a fixed schedule before moving to a do-at-your-own pace format.) It’s mostly taught by the same professor Jason Hafner but joining him are teachers Gigi Nevils and Matt Wilson who are responsible for walking students through example problems.

One thing this course never really explains is what AP Physics actually means, maybe because it’s intended for American students and they should all already know what it is. As far as I can tell, this means it’s a college-level course who students who aren’t going to major in physics or engineering. Basically it’s as much physics as possible without having to resort to calculus. Apparently calculus is so verboten that Hafner secretly whispers to the camera that this is really calculus but he’s not supposed to tell us that. It works for me though since I found this to be much more accessible than the Electricity and Magnetism course. It’s still difficult enough for me to be reasonably challenged but I had no problems completing all of it.

The course covers kinematics and the other physics of linear motion, rotational motion, gravitation, harmonic motion and waves, the very basics of electricity and ends with sound. There are the usual lectures and quizzes, but the most interesting part is that there are now simulated experiments. How this works is that an experiment is filmed and accompanying the video are instruments such as stopwatches and rulers. This allows students to practice making observations and recording them with the provided tools. You are then quizzed on the basis of your observations. When real experiments aren’t feasible, they provide a computer simulation instead. It’s not as good as the real thing of course, but it’s best I’ve ever seen in any online course so far and I’m seriously impressed by the quality of the content.

In fact, almost every aspect of the course is incredibly polished. Each unit opens with a professionally filmed trailer that explains the real world applications of the current subject, usually in a an exciting context like race cars or diving. Hafner is a great professor and a decent showman with all of antics in the lecture hall. I especially appreciated that he takes the time to explain how the current subject fits in with the rest of physics, which strictly speaking isn’t required for the syllabus, and is essential in my opinion to ensure that students really understand what is being taught rather than simply training them to solve problems with equations. For example, he points out the times when what he teaches are based on models and that the models do break down when we go to the extremes.

I’ve previously learned many of the topics covered here but even for those I gained new insights. For example, it’s easy to learn how to use the equations for momentum but prior to this course, I’ve never really understood why it made sense to define momentum as a concept separate from velocity or kinetic energy. Another thing I finally internalized is the strange contradiction in the study of electricity in which we know that the only things that ever move are electrons and yet we define current as flowing from the positive node to the negative node. This course has been absolutely invaluable for rounding out my knowledge of basic physics.

One nitpick is that some of the last units of the course seem weaker, with fewer lectures by Hafner and less content overall, as if they were really hitting targets on the syllabus. Also, while I’m sure Nevils is a great teacher, her frequent pauses and verbal backtracking make her segments kind of annoying to go through. Still they’re insignificant when set against the high quality of the most of the material. This is a fantastic course and I only wish that the Rice University would get around to making AP Physics 2.

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