Introductory Physics courses at the college level are often broken up into three or four semesters, depending on how you count.

Physics Classes for Majors and Non-Majors

Physics I covers Newtonian mechanics.  This includes kinematics in one and two dimensions, and vectors.  It introduces Newton’s First, Second, and Third Laws.  These laws are then applied to circular motion, rotational motion, stress, and strain.  The course also introduces energy, linear momentum, angular momentum, and the principle of conservation.  At some colleges, Physics I may include fluid dynamics.

Physics II covers oscillations, wave motion, and sound.  The topics of electricity, magnetism, electromagnetic waves, optics, diffraction, and interference are also included.  The course may include thermodynamics.

Physics I and II with calculus are often required of non-physics science majors, including chemistry students and meteorology students.  Physics I and II with algebra are often required of other science majors, including biology, conservation, and other life sciences.  Before you enroll in a particular physics course, make sure to talk to an advisor from your department.  They can help you make sure to take the proper flavor of physics.  I’ve had several students over the years who take the algebra version, then need to retake the calculus version to meet their major’s requirements.

Physics Courses for Physics Majors and Physics Minors.

Physics III is offered at some schools.  It will often dive a bit deeper into topics from Physics II, particularly oscillations, thermodynamics, and electromagnetism.   At some schools, it will involve higher level math topics used in physics.  At other schools, there may be a course called Mathematical Physics offered in conjunction or in place of Physics III.

Modern Physics is a transition class between lower and upper division physics classes.  Even though it is called “modern”, it really focuses on information from the early 1900’s, including relativity and introductory quantum mechanics.  It also includes topics from elementary particle physics.

Physics III, Mathematical Physics, and Modern Physics are required courses for physics majors.  At many schools, these courses also are required for students who want to minor in physics.