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Maths element of Physics degree

(43 Posts)
bigbluebus Mon 07-Nov-16 20:25:26

DS had his heart set on doing an Engineering degree having done A levels in Maths, Physics, Chemistry. He got a place at his 1st choice Uni but at end of Yr 1 he narrowly failed 2 exams - including Maths and has decided that he no longer wants to carry on with the course as he finds the Maths too challenging.

He has taken a year out to look at his options (one of which is to resit the failed modules next Summer and progress into 2nd year) and is considering a degree in a humanities subject instead. I have suggested that he looks at other science degrees eg Physics, but he thinks that the Maths element will be equally as difficult in any degree of this type.

He is really struggling at the moment as he is in negative mode due to things not going to plan, so we are not sure if there are any other science related degrees he should be considering, as neither DH or I are scientists.

Any advice anyone can give re Science subjects where the Maths element is not as heavy as engineering, which DS could explore, would be most welcome.

thecapitalsunited Mon 07-Nov-16 20:32:04

If he is struggling with A Level Maths then he won't be able to cope with a Physics degree. Physics is pretty much applied Maths.

I'm not sure about other science degrees but would assume that you do need to be fairly numerate for most science degrees.

Why are you against him doing a humanities degree?

bigbluebus Mon 07-Nov-16 20:47:05

Thanks for that info re Physics. That's useful to know.

I'm not against him doing a Humanities Degree - it's just that he has always been very Science orientated and I feel it would be a shame to rule out anything else which might be an option. His choice of Unis for the course he is considering are also limited by the fact that he didn't do an A level in the humanities subject, so he may need to try and study an A level in that subject in the next 7 months - which I think is possible and will help decide if it really is the subject for him.

dovesong Mon 07-Nov-16 20:50:55

What about a social science like psychology? History is also fiercely analytical and "science brains" are sometimes better at it. Would probably have to do the a level for history though.

TyrannosauraRegina Mon 07-Nov-16 21:02:11

What field of engineering was he most interested? If civil engineering, he might like town planning or similar.

Geology or materials science degrees could be possible, although the maths content will vary a lot from university. There are a huge spectrum of biological sciences which can be quite light on maths, including those which spread towards bioengineering. Many don't require a biology A-level. Pharmacology could be a good choice if he enjoyed A-level chemistry.

Physics is generally extremely maths heavy, as are computer science and chemistry.

Also, he might want to consider applying for engineering at a different university. A different course, order of teaching, approach and lecturers could make the difference for him in understanding the topic. I would, however, steer away from universities which "highly recommend" further maths A-level, as they tend to have a faster pace of maths teaching in the first year.

bigbluebus Mon 07-Nov-16 21:44:15

dovesong It is History he wants to do. Interesting that having a 'science brain' would be useful. Most of the top Unis do require him to have A level History. He did consider doing it at school and was really interested in the topics, but he had to do the sciences and Maths to get onto the course he thought he wanted!

Tyrannosaura He wasn't doing Civil Engineering and isn't interested in that aspect. Chemistry was the least favourite of his subjects so he's not drawn towards anything in that direction. He did Biology to AS level but didn't carry it on to A2 as the syllabus didn't interest him in the AS which put him off.

He was interested in rocks and fossils when he was young but that interest wained as he got older - as a 6 year old he wanted to be a Paleontologist and was the leading expert on all things dinosaur. In fact I have only just cancelled his junior Rockwatch membership! Would he not need to have Geography A level to study Geology or would his science subjects suffice? I will have a look at that and see if it is an option.

I have tried to persuade him to look at another Uni (ex-poly) which he had visited previously and which has a good reputation for the type of engineering he was doing. The grade requirements for entry were much lower than the Uni he chose and I have suggested to him that this must mean that either the teaching style is different and/or the course is not as demanding as the RG Uni he was at. I think he has just lost confidence now and is worried about trying the same course again and failing and wasting another year not to mention course fees/student loan . He also has school friends doing different types of Engineering at ex-poly type Unis and has asked them how they are finding it. They have said they are finding the Maths hard - which I think has made his decision for him.

user1470648537 Mon 07-Nov-16 21:55:22

Having studied both physics and now maths at uni I can tell you that if you don't enjoy A-level maths then its not going to work out. Engineering is very similar to physics.
Many good universities offer foundation years? This could be a possiblity. If not why not take a year out and he can really think about his options?

Aftershock15 Mon 07-Nov-16 22:00:10

What about economics. Seems quite a sciency humanity subject.

TyrannosauraRegina Mon 07-Nov-16 22:00:31

Some unis will require geography A-level for Geology/Earth Science, but definitely not all - most will accept sciences and maths instead, especially if he can show interest in the subject.

If he has friends doing Engineering at other universities it might be worth him asking to see their maths notes. If one course requires an A/A* in maths, and another B/C, then it would stand to reason that even though the accepted students might feel equally challenged, the maths will have to start at a lower level or slower pace. To become chartered engineers, they will have to cover the same topics eventually, but spread over a longer time or less in depth. This might be the difference your DS needs - and finding the maths course initially easy would probably be a huge confidence boost.

It also might be worth talking to his university and seeing if there are other courses he can use his existing modules/credits towards. These would probably be close to his interests and might let him start in second year - which would reduce the fees.

annandale Mon 07-Nov-16 22:06:35

What about a history degree with a strong economic history element?

History and Economics at Oxford

History with Economic and Social History at Aberystwyth


I always really liked the economic history modules I did but felt at a disadvantage having junked maths with huge relief at 16.

bigbluebus Mon 07-Nov-16 22:44:18

Tyrannosaura Thats interesting re the levels and is what I've wondered all along. DS was probably 'bottom of the pack' at his Uni but had he gone for the ex-poly - which was his insurance, then he would have been nearer the top of the ability range with his grades. I felt sure that the course must go at a slower pace or not as in depth as otherwise the students with lower grades whom they take, wouldn't be able to keep up.

I'm not convinced he wants to return to his original University City now as all the friends he made will be in Yr 3 by the time he went back and will be on placement elsewhere. I think a fresh start is what he is after.

ReallyTired Mon 07-Nov-16 23:01:36

A physics degree is essentially applied maths. In fact a physics degree can be used as the basis to train to be a maths teacher. If the op son hated the maths side of an engineering degree then a physics degree would be a disaster.

I feel the op son needs to think about what he wants to do for a living. Maybe an computing related degree would be less maths heavy. (Not computer science that us incredibly mathematical)

user7214743615 Tue 08-Nov-16 07:41:34

Maths element of Chemistry will be way easier than that for Physics/Engineering. Physics courses usually need more maths than Engineering. But whatever he chooses he has to want to be there. Any STEM degree will involve a lot of work.

user7214743615 Tue 08-Nov-16 07:43:44

BTW very few students fail Maths for Engineers modules (as opposed to getting lowish marks in the 50s) if they have been attending regularly, keeping up with homework etc. Failing is a sign of not enough work, rather than not enough ability.

Very few students who fail modules admit to themselves (let alone their parents) that their study habits were not good enough.

ReallyTired Tue 08-Nov-16 07:55:36

I met plenty of people who failed engineering or physics maths class courses inspite of working hard enough. Admitally in the past you didn't need particularly high grades to get into these courses. Certainly people with a B grade in maths from a private school (i.e. Spoonfed) might not have the natural ablity needed. It's a massive step up from a level.

Smellslikeoranges Tue 08-Nov-16 08:01:53

As a science teacher and with other scientists in the family I am afraid that user7214743615 gives a solid reason why he may not have done so well. My brother has a civil engineering degree and certainly was no superstar in maths. Where I am living now (Australia), their maths for engineering courses are certainly below the level of maths expected for a physics degree. If he got maths A-level with a decent grade, he should be able to deal with the maths in an engineering degree. Maths is like a language to a certain extent - use it or lose it. You can't cram for a maths exam like you can for other subjects (including other science subjects). Continuous constant practice is what gets results in maths. If I were you I would have an honest conversation about his lifestyle and study habits at uni. I am sure I don't need to tell you how some students act when they first get to university. Also I don't mean to suggest that your son is lying, but don't necessarily believe the first thing that he says. Young students are not unknown to give excuses rather than admit that they buggered things up. (A friend of mine had to redo his second year at uni because he deliberately missed an exam because he "knew" that he had failed another exam - something his parents never found out about as they may not have pay for it!)

Smellslikeoranges Tue 08-Nov-16 08:04:23

Also ask him if he actually honestly liked his course. Maybe a couple of years working would help him to decide what he really wants to rather than jumping into another course that may not be right for him.

user7214743615 Tue 08-Nov-16 08:25:58

I met plenty of people who failed engineering or physics maths class courses inspite of working hard enough.

As an examiner (and external examiner) for such classes, I just don't agree. The passmark for a university course is 40%. Usually with coursework this means that you can pass with around 35% in the final exam i.e. by doing only one third of the exam correctly.

There is a very direct correlation between those who fail and those weren't attending classes/turning in completely assignments/showing up for problem classes etc.

In 20+ years I have actually never seen a student who worked reasonably fail such a course. (Of course sometimes students do have personal or health reasons for not working and passing, and thus get uncapped retakes.)

BTW I also don't agree that a B in maths arises from private school "spoonfeeding". In fact, if anything, state schools teach much more to the exams in A level maths than private schools do. It is quite common for students from state schools to have learnt how to do common exam questions in A level maths without understanding the underlying principles. However, we are used to this, know where the weaknesses are, and teach accordingly. Virtually all Maths for Engineering modules round the UK have drop-in sessions/workshops etc for students to get up to speed, ask questions, get help.

One of the biggest issues with Maths is that students don't expect to have to work - they have typically gotten through A level maths with just a few minutes spend on homework. Adjusting to having to study at least 1 hour for every hour of lectures is a big shock to them. Many of those who fail rested on their laurels for too long, didn't do the homework thinking they'd be easy, fell behind and couldn't catch up.

ReallyTired Tue 08-Nov-16 09:52:51

I studied physics twenty years go. It was possible to get a place with CCD. I found the maths on my physics course hard with a B achieved by a lot of spoon feeding at a private school. My A level maths class was a class of six. The state school kids had been in classes of 25 and were used to a lot less handholding. Being in a lecture with no opportunity to ask questions or tell the lecturer I was completely lost was tough. I passed thanks

It was a workbook and I worked through the problems. The book was not even on the official book list.

My university class has seventy people at the start. About half the year had to do resits and many people failed the second resit and were kicked off the course. Some of those people weren't lazy, they attended the extra maths classes, but just simply could not get their heads round the concepts.

Roughly just under 50 people graduated.

catslife Tue 08-Nov-16 11:29:59

* I have suggested that he looks at other science degrees eg Physics, but he thinks that the Maths element will be equally as difficult in any degree of this type.*
Actually he is right with this conclusion.
I think that at university students can work hard, but not spend their time wisely so some end up concentrating on areas that they like most rather than those that most need improvement.
reallytired is correct that some courses do have high drop out rates. He may be able to pass the first year exams with a resit but then you may find he ends up in a similar situation a year later.
I did Maths, Physics and Chemistry A levels and the same subjects in my first year at an RG uni with a view to joint honours in Physics and Chemistry. Maths A levels have changed and now many students taking degrees in Physics and engineering will have both maths and further maths A levels so there is a bigger gap to cross for those with just Maths. I switched to Chemistry at the end of the first year and the Maths requirements were easier (more Pure Maths needed than mechanics and this was my strongest area mathematically).
Having said that though Chemistry was my favourite A level subject.
Biochemistry type degrees involve less Maths and are possible to do without Maths A level so would be accessible (if they would accept AS Biology).
Degrees such as Pyschology do involve some Maths but mostly statistics.
Hope this helps

user7214743615 Tue 08-Nov-16 12:18:15

I studied physics twenty years ago.

Since which time things have changed a lot.

Teaching is a much larger focus these days; student satisfaction shapes every decision; many more students go to university; the incoming maths level of students is far, far lower and thus university level maths covers what was in A level 20 years ago; etc etc etc. There are plenty of drop-in sessions, office hours, workshops etc for students to interact with lecturers and other teaching assistants.

Grading has also completely changed over the last 20 years. Universities look for two thirds of students, on average, to score over 60% (2:i or above). Of the remaining third, we would want to see as few as possible failing. The failure rate varies by university but a typical first years maths for engineering module could have < 10% failing. (The numbers failing are higher when the maths modules are not core i.e. failing does not prevent progression to the second year.)

Students who don't get to the bottom of why they failed generally don't do well, whether they switch courses or carry on.

user7214743615 Tue 08-Nov-16 12:20:40

Now many students taking degrees in Physics and engineering will have both maths and further maths A levels so there is a bigger gap to cross for those with just Maths.

No, this is not true.

Outside the very top few places, around half or more of students on Maths degrees won't have FM. For Physics and Engineering, the number with FM is much smaller (25-35%), outside the very top places like Oxbridge, Imperial.

The Maths for Physics and Engineering modules are definitely designed primarily with single maths A level in mind. Those with FM tend to coast a bit in the first semester before meeting new material in the second semester.

Lancelottie Tue 08-Nov-16 12:30:40

I don't know about maths being harder for physics. I did physics; DS is attempting engineering, and unless I was an undiscovered genius all those years back, his maths seems stonkingly harder than mine was.

...actually, though, that might indeed be because my brains fell out down the back of the sofa some years ago.

Am I misremembering, BigBlueBus, or does your DS have Asperger's? DS does, and is definitely struggling because of a tendency to get fixated on elements of the course, thus working hard but not necessarily covering things in sensible proportions.

The other snag with engineering is the sheer volume of 'stuff'. If you have 30 hours lectures/practicals, and then need to cover an hour-per-hour in your own time... there really isn't much time left to be a bit unwell, or confused, or in an Asperger-y panic for a day or so.

ReallyTired Tue 08-Nov-16 12:36:13

I don't believe that a levels have been dumbed down as much as politicians and newspapers make out. Engineering and physics courses ask for higher grades than they did in the past.

Most people reach a ceiling in their maths education where they really struggle to get the concepts. I can imagine a situation where someone has slogged their guts out for a level, but no amount of work is going to get them to understand degree level maths. Luckily there are careers for those who aren't so mathematically gifted.

BikeRunSki Tue 08-Nov-16 12:45:37

My degree was Physics and Geology. I struggled with the Maths in Physics a bit, and became an Engineering Geologist via an MSc in Engineering Geology (maths element ok if you've got A level maths). This has been my career for 20+ years and I love it. I'd highly recommend Geology or Environmental Science for a less-numerate scientist.

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