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Introductory Physics Sequence


(last updated on May 11, 2016)


AP, IB & Cambridge International A-level credit

It is possible to receive credit for either PHYS 115 or PHYS 121 based on AP, IB and Cambridge International A-level programs? See here for details.

Proficiency Exams 

If a student believes he or she knows the material in PHYS 115, 116, 121 or 122 and should not be required to take the course, it is possible to receive credit through a proficiency exam. See the proficiency exams page for more information. 

Transfer Credit 

If you have taken or would like to take introductory physics at another institution, you will need to apply for transfer credit.  See the transfer credit page for more information.

The Department of Physics offers three different sets of introductory physics courses:

PHYS 115/116  Introductory Physics I & II

PHYS 121/122  General Physics I & II

PHYS 123/124  Physics & Frontiers I & II

The first course in each sequence covers classical mechanics while the second course covers electricity and magnetism, E&M. The official course descriptions can be found at the bottom of this page. All three sequences carry 4 credits per course, with 3 hours of lecture per week as well as a 3 hour laboratory that meets on alternate weeks ( 7 total meetings during a semester ). Any of these sequences is accepted for a major in physics ( although PHYS 115/116 is accepted only for the Physics B.A. degree ) and, if one’s major allows it, it is possible to combine the mechanics course from one sequence with the E&M course of another sequence. 

A traditional physics sequence would also include a third course such as PHYS 221, Introduction to Modern Physics. Until a few years ago, almost all engineering and BS science majors at CWRU took PHYS 221 but this requirement was dropped by the accreditation board for engineering and now only a few departments retain this requirement.

PHYS 115/116 Introductory Physics I & II

The PHYS 115/116 sequence is designed for students working towards a B.A. in science, primarily life sciences, and is designed to cover the material that is tested by the MCAT exams.  PHYS 115 is offered in the fall and PHYS 116 is offered in the spring.  PHYS 115 and PHYS 116 are also offered in succession each summer, at a very accelerated pace, so that students may complete both courses in one summer.

PHYS 115 is similar to PHYS 121 in most respects; the most important distinctions between them are the level of mathematics used and a few differences in content. For example, PHYS 115 is certain to include a discussion of fluids since this topic is critical to living systems.  (Fluids are generally not covered in PHYS 121, at the discretion of the instructor.) The differences between PHYS 116 and PHYS 122 are more substantial; in PHYS 116, several weeks are devoted to optics and selected topics in modern physics ( x-rays, nuclear physics, etc.) that are relevant to modern chemistry, biology and medicine.

Until the  Fall of 2003, the PHYS 115/116 sequence was listed in the General Bulletin as ‘calculus-based’ and had a formal calculus prerequisite. In fact, this sequence often used the same text as did PHYS 121/122.  Beginning in the Fall of 2003, calculus was removed from the formal course description.  This has been done to allow the use of algebra-based texts better suited to describing biological systems.  Although the level of mathematics used in these courses is now left to the discretion of the instructor, students enrolled in this sequence are still expected to be familiar with differential and integral calculus. Most CWRU life science students take PHYS 115/116 in their sophomore or junior year, after completing a year of calculus.

There is a perception that the PHYS 121/122 sequence, being strictly calculus-based, is more rigorous than is the PHYS 115/116 sequence. Some departments that accept PHYS 115/116 for their majors advise their students to take PHYS 121/122 if there is a possibility that the student might pursue a career in research.  The Physics Department is neutral on this issue; we feel that either course is a fine introduction to physics and we accept PHYS 115/116 for our own B.A. majors.

PHYS 121/122  General Physics I & II

The PHYS 121/122 sequence is designed for students working towards a B.S. in science or a B.S.E. engineering.  This sequence places a heavy emphasis on the development of problem-solving skills.

Both courses in this sequence are offered in the fall, spring and summer.  A few CWRU departments suggest their majors start PHYS 121 in the fall of their first year while other departments suggest a delay until the spring semester. In most cases this doesn’t matter but students should NOT enroll in PHYS 121 unless they’ve had a calculus course that covered derivatives and integrals. A good high school course should be sufficient but, if in doubt, students should complete MATH 121 before enrolling in PHYS 121. Because our Student Information System cannot check high school courses, the calculus prerequisite for PHYS 121 is listed as advisory and is not enforced when students register, but this does not mean it is not critical for success in PHYS 121.

PHYS 123/124  Physics & Frontiers I & II

The PHYS 123/124 sequence is a limited enrollment,  invitation-only pair of courses that cover roughly the same material as do PHYS 121/122.  However, PHYS 123/124 put less of an emphasis on basic problem-solving skills and more on innovative educational methods and frontier concepts not normally discussed in introductory courses.  Special topics in PHYS 123 may include chaos, fractals and special relativity.  PHYS 124 covers electricity and magnetism using more sophisticated concepts of vector calculus (which are taught in the course) and includes a discussion of how electric and magnetic fields are inherently related to each other when viewed through Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity.

You can learn more about PHYS 123 by reading Is_PHYS123_RightForYou_2016.

Students who enroll in PHYS 123 but who decide to withdraw during the first two weeks of the semester ( the drop/add period ) may switch to PHYS 121 on a space-available basis.  Students who have a 4 or 5 on an AP Physics-C exam will forgo their AP credit if they accept an invitation to enroll in PHYS 123; however, these students may change their mind, withdraw from PHYS 123 during the semester and still receive AP-credit for PHYS 121.

Students who do well in PHYS 123 are invited to enroll in PHYS 124 the following semester, although they are also free to switch to PHYS 122. Students who complete and do well in PHYS 121 may petition for admission to PHYS 124.



PHYS 115. Introductory Physics I (4)

First part of a two-semester sequence directed primarily towards students working towards a B.A. in science, with an emphasis on the life sciences. Kinematics; Newton’s laws; gravitation; simple harmonic motion; mechanical waves; fluids; ideal gas law; heat and the first and second laws of thermodynamics. This course has a laboratory component. Students may earn credit for only one of the following courses: PHYS 115, PHYS 121, PHYS 123.  

PHYS 116. Introductory Physics II (4)

Electrostatics, Coulomb’s law, Gauss’s law; capacitance and resistance; DC circuits; magnetic fields; electromagnetic induction; RC and RL circuits; light; geometrical optics; interference and diffraction; special relativity. Introduction to quantum mechanics; elements of atomic, nuclear and particle physics.  This course has a laboratory component.  Prereq: PHYS115. Students may earn credit for only one of the following courses: PHYS 116, PHYS 122, PHYS 124.

PHYS 121. General Physics I. Mechanics (4)

Particle dynamics. Newton’s laws of motion, energy and momentum conservation, rotational motion, and angular momentum conservation. This course has a laboratory component. Prereq: MATH121, MATH123, MATH125 or one year of high school calculus. Students may earn credit for only one of the following courses: PHYS 115, PHYS 121, PHYS 123.  

PHYS 122. General Physics II. Electricity and Magnetism (4)

Electricity and magnetism emphasizing the basic electromagnetic laws of Gauss, Ampere, and Faraday. Maxwell’s equations and electromagnetic waves, interference, and diffraction. This course has a laboratory component Prereq: PHYS121 or PHYS123. Coreq: MATH122, MATH124 or MATH126. Students may earn credit for only one of the following courses: PHYS 116, PHYS 122, PHYS 124.  

PHYS 123. Physics & Frontiers I – Mechanics (4)

The Newtonian dynamics of a particle and of rigid bodies. Energy, momentum, and angular momentum conservation with applications. A selection of special frontier topics as time permits, including fractals and chaos, special relativity, fluid mechanics, cosmology, quantum mechanics. This course has a laboratory component. Admission to this course is by invitation only. Students may earn credit for only one of the following courses: PHYS 115, PHYS 121, PHYS 123.

PHYS 124. Physics & Frontiers II – Electricity and Magnetism (4)

Time-independent and time-dependent electric and magnetic fields. The laws of Coulomb, Gauss, Ampere, and Faraday. Microscopic approach to dielectric and magnetic materials. Introduction to the usage of vector calculus; Maxwell’s equations in integral and differential form. The role of special relativity in electromagnetism. Electromagnetic radiation. This course has a laboratory component. Prereq: PHYS123 or consent of department. Coreq: MATH122 or MATH124. Students may earn credit for only one of the following courses: PHYS 116, PHYS 122, PHYS 124.

PHYS 221. Introduction to Modern Physics (3)

Concepts in special relativity, statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics and their impacts on modern technology. Applications to atomic structure, and selected topics in nuclear, condensed matter physics, particle physics, and cosmology. Prereq: PHYS116, PHYS122 or PHYS124.

Contact the academic representative of the Department of Physics (Prof. G. Chottiner, ) for more information.

Page last modified: July 7, 2016