Physics 131 – What IS Physics?

Spring 2024 Semester
Drs. Bourgeois (Sections 1&2), Toggerson (Sections 3&4), Bane (Secton 5)

How to Contact Us

Dr. Bourgeois Dr. Toggerson Dr. Bane
map marker icon Office Hasbrouck 201 Hasbrouck 133 Hasbrouck
email icon Email

We also encourage you to post your questions on the Discord server (details below) in order to get a more rapid response.

Class Sessions

map marker icon Location ILC s110
calendar icon Days and Times Section 1 (Bourgeois) — 8:00 – 9:15am

Section 2 (Bourgeois) — 9:25 – 10:40am

Section 3 (Toggerson) — 10:50am – 12:05pm

Section 4 (Toggerson) — 12:15 – 1:30pm

Section 5 (Bane) — 1:40 – 2:55pm

lab icon Labs Labs will be run separately. Look for a separate syllabus for these.

Welcome Letter

26 January 2024



Welcome to Physics 131! We are excited to share with you a subject that we find beautiful. We know that “beautiful” may not be the first adjective that comes to your mind when you think of physics 😊, but there is an elegance to the discipline that we are looking forward to sharing with you. In addition to the beauty, physics also provides a manner of thinking that is that is somewhat different from the other sciences. We are also looking forward to learning along with you about the many ways you can use your inner physicist to learn about other subjects and topics you care about.

Along the way, we want to help you achieve your goals, whatever they may be. If your goal is to get an A in this course, we want to help you do that. If, on the other hand, your goal is simply to get a C so you can graduate, that is equally valid in our eyes, and we will work just as hard to help you achieve that goal. We are firm believers that only you get to define success for yourself.

In this same vein, we want to acknowledge that you are a whole person with a variety of responsibilities and concerns including your health (mental and physical) and your family (however you define that term). Some of these may, rightfully, be more important to you than this course. That is okay. We have tried to make the course as flexible as we can while meeting our goals for the course. For example, we have tried to keep the cost of this course down as best we can.

In line with these goals, we want to point out, and encourage you to use, the many supports available to help you achieve your goals. For help with the course specifically, there are several resources available, detailed in the section Where can I get help? below and also listed on Moodle. There are also a range of resources on campus to help you. Specifically, I would like to point out the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health (CCPH) which provides mental health services primarily by telephone, 413-545-2337, and is available 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 365 days per year. There is also The Writing Center, The Learning Resource Center, and the English as a Second Language (ESL) Program. These resources are there for you. Take advantage of them!

The University of Massachusetts Amherst is committed to making reasonable, effective, and appropriate accommodations to meet the needs of students with disabilities and help create a barrier-free campus. If you need official accommodations, you have the right to have these met. I encourage you to visit the Office of Disability Services for help recognizing the supports available.Personally, We hope that you lean to appreciate the physics way of thinking even though we also know that physics may not be your favorite subject, and that you may even have some apprehensions about it. However, we feel that learning new ways of thinking and approaching problems is not only generally important, but also key to the development of new scientific ideas. In our opinion, the huge advancements in modern science at the intersections of disciplines support this position.

Not only does science benefit from the strengths of the different disciplines, but also from the strengths of different people and their backgrounds. If there are aspects of the course that prevent you from learning or make you feel excluded, please reach out to me. Together we’ll develop strategies to meet both your needs and the requirements of the course. Moreover, regards to not only the course, but also accessing other services. We fully believe that UMass Amherst has your best interests at heart, but sometimes bureaucracy can be confusing or move a bit slowly. If you want help navigating the supports above, require someone to give the University a nudge, or even just need $20 to eat, let us  know and we will do what we can. Moreover, we recognize that each person learns differently. If your current habits are not yielding the results you want, please come and see one of us. We know quite a few techniques that we have used as well as techniques used by our colleagues in undergraduate and graduate school. We can work together to find study techniques that work for you.

We look forward to getting to know you and sharing a vision of the world we find beautiful and elegant. We encourage you to come by a help session to talk about the class or just to chat. We love learning from my students, about other fields of science and folks’ non-science interests.

Brokk Toggerson, Paul Bourgeois, and Jason Bane
Physics Department
University of Massachusetts – Amherst

What tools do you need? What do they cost?

moodle logo Moodle – Free  

We will use Moodle extensively for:

  • Hub for all other tools
  • Surveys
  • Posting slides and other resources
  • Extra credit opportunities.
edfinity logo Edfinity – $29.00 We will use this system for both homework and for our quizzes and exams which will also be hosted on Edfinity.

To get started:

  1. Click the registration link in your Moodle course.
  2. You will be prompted to pay the $29.00 and enroll in our course.
  3. Start working on your assignments
This textbook – Free This textbook is specifically designed to help you complete the homework: the material needed to complete given homework problems is right before the relevant problem. The content may be videos, simulations, or a combination of these.
discord logo Discord – Free To provide support on homework and labs at all hours, I have setup a discord server for this class at You can either signup with your personal Discord login or use the box on the Moodle page directly as a guest.
gSheets logo Access to a spreadsheet software (Google Sheets, free, is the one we will reference in class). One of the goals of this course is to learn about the importance of computers in modern science and to develop some of the skills to master this tool. One way we will do this is we will use a spreadsheet as our calculators!

I will reference Google Sheets in class, but you are welcome to use any spreadsheet program such as MS Excel, or Numbers though these will not be supported.

camera Optional – Camera Many students find having a camera to be useful to take pictures of:
  • Demos
  • Stuff of the board
  • Whiteboard work
colored pencils Optional – Colored Pencils or Pens This is an addition from a student suggestion in a prior semester: many found having a collection of colored pencils or pens helpful for taking notes and exams.

Why are we studying physics and what exactly will we be learning?

I know that five years from now most of you will have probably forgotten the exact details of how to calculate the net resistance from air or water on a moving object (unless you work with such ideas every day in your careers!).


However, there are certain things that I hope you will remember from this class when you are in your careers or wherever else you will be in five years. These broad outlines are detailed below. More specifics, including what exactly I want you to learn from your homework and what exactly will be the topics of your exams can be found in the separate Goals and Objectives page.

  1. Physics is NOT list of equations and algorithmic procedures to be memorized – physics is an effort to uncover the fundamental rules that govern nature with the goal of being able to apply these rules to new situations.
  2. Math is a language – No one actually knows why the rules of the Universe can be represented mathematically! All we know is that it works. One of the most important things, I think, you can learn in this class is how to take a situation or physical law and describe it mathematically. While what you have learned in your math courses will serve as a critical foundation, we will be using mathematics in a bit of a different way than you do in math class. I like to say that “math courses teach you the grammar of the mathematical language. In this class, on the other hand, we will add vocabulary.“
  3. “Start simple and add complexity as you need it: focus on what you know to be true and then reason, doing one thing at a time, from there.” – In addition to describing how the world works, physics also has a very discipline specific way of applying that understanding and modeling the world. This method may be new to you, but it is a powerful way to understand complex phenomena.
  4. Confidence with not knowing – In this course, you will be analyzing new situations. You will NOT know all the steps at first glance. This may be a new, and stressful experience for you. These feelings are okay! Through this course, I want you to gain comfort with making mistakes and taking wrong turns, gaining confidence that you can figure it out.
  5. Becoming a better learner through learning how to learn (including from failure) – Developing confidence and mastering the physics method of understanding/modeling the world requires both a growth mindset and practice. Not just any practice, but intentional practice where you actively think about the concepts, your application of them, and any mistakes you may make.
  6. Solving real, interesting problems requires computers – most problems of actual interest are too complex to solve with just pencil-and-paper. You must use computers. Throughout this class we will gain familiarity with using computers for scientific analyses. You will be analyzing data with computers in the lab and using physics to write simulations of real-world situations.
  7. If it was ever true, in today’s world the idea of a “solo scientific genius working alone” is a myth – Modern science is done in teams and the work of a team is almost always better than the work of any of the members individually.

What do I already need to know?

College algebra is a prerequisite for this course. Thus, I will assume some familiarity with algebra, trigonometry, and geometry. I will also presume some familiarity with the basics of science such as the SI system of units. Moreover, while chemistry is not a prerequisite, I will often make connections to topics from chemistry. In all cases, materials to review or learn what you need will also be provided as needed as appendices in this textbook.

How will this course be structured? What is the schedule?

This course is fundamentally divided into four units and a final project following the table below. This structure is also visible on Moodle.

Fundamental Question
(Typical name)
Dates Topics
What is entropy? How do randomness and probability manifest in our world?


14 February –
27 February
  • Fundamentals of what physics is.
  • Building simplified models of situations.
  • Microstates and macrostates.
  • Probability and probability distributions.
What is energy? How can we create a unified picture of energy across biology, chemistry, and physics?


28 February –
27 March
  • Reading and writing mathematics.
  • Defining systems.
  • Potential energy (including chemical) and kinetic energy (including temperature).
  • Work and heat.
  • Degrees of freedom.
Exam I 28 March Units I and II 
How do we describe motion?
(Position, Velocity, and Acceleration)
3 April –
16 April
  • Vectors.
  • Position, velocity, and acceleration: converting between stories, mathematics, and graphs.
What are forces and, thinking about one moment in time,  what do they do?
17 April –
1 May
  • Types and categories of forces.
  • Developing and interpreting mathematical representations of force laws.
  • Newton’s Laws.
Exam II  2 May Units I, II, III, and IV
Final projects 6 May –
10 May
  • Apply everything we have learned to understand a real-life biological phenomenon.
Project Presentations TBD During Finals Week

Note, this course is fundamentally cumulative!

As you can see in the table above, each exam in this course is cumulative. The reason is that the material in this course is also fundamentally cumulative.

Within each unit, how will I be learning?

The structure of the course exactly mirrors the process of learning physics!

Physics Learning Process Course Structure
Refresh Prerequisite Knowledge Complete Initial Problems of an Edfinity Homework Set to Review
  • Basic math skills.
  • Foundational science skills such as unit conversion.
  • Basic spreadsheet skills.
  • Accessible as soon as you complete a syllabus quiz in Edfinity.
  • Appendices in the back of your textbook to help your review.
  • For learning:
    • 6 attempts per problem with no penalty.
    • Encouraged to get help: Discord, the physics help room, the instructor, your friends, whatever!
    • No extensions, but as an acknowledgement that life happens, you can complete unfinished work for 80% credit up to one-week after the due date.
      • Only applies to the problems you did not finish, as opposed to the assignment.
      • All material is on the quiz however!
Develop Conceptual Understanding Conceptual Physics Homework
  • What is a ____?
  • What does it do?
  • What does it depend on?
  • Content in the textbook.
  • Practice in later problems in Edfinity homework assignment.
  • Still for learning, i.e. the same rules as above: 6 attempts per problem etc.
  • Due at 8am on the first day of the unit (giving you as much time as possible before the first quiz!).
Check You Understanding of the Concepts Quiz on the First Day of a Unit
Make sure everyone is at the same “starting line”
  • During Class.
    • On Edfinity.
    • Get access to a spreadsheet as a calculator.
    • Get a reference sheet.
  • Take twice:
    • Individually for 50% of your grade.
    • With your team for the other 50%.
  • If you miss the quiz day:
    • Show up to any of the 131 sections (see list at top) within one week.
    • Forfeit the team portion obviously: individual counts for everything.
Translate Concepts into a Mathematical Form Ungraded Translation Practice In-Class When We First Encounter the Concept
Apply Conceptual Knowledge and Mathematical Language to New Situations to Uncover New Things About the World In-Class Practice Problems
  • “Start simple and add complexity as needed” philosophy.
  • Build and evaluate models and simulations of the world.
  • Actively working with your team, not sitting and passively taking notes.
  • Ungraded: no consequences for
    getting it wrong / a safe space to fail.
Reflect on Your Application Skills to Get Better Faster Metacognitive Journal
  • 8 entries for your team over the course of the semester.
  • Graded on a simple 0-1-2 scale:
    • 2 – A good faith effort.
    • 1 – A superficial effort.
    • 0 – You didn’t do it.
  • Multiple options (instructions in Moodle):
    • Reflecting on your problem solving skills.
    • Explaining mathematical and computational tools.
    • Explaining physics concepts in essay form (worth double!).
  • Detailed instructions will be provided with the assignment, and you will have an opportunity to re-do the first one to get a sense of how they work.
Additional Individual Practice If Needed Optional End-of-Chapter Problem Worksheets
The workload for this course is already substantial. Moreover, part of becoming a more sophisticated learner is determining when you need more practice and taking it upon yourself to complete this.
  • Worksheets available on the various topics.
  • Not graded or collected in any way; therefore, no assumptions of academic honesty!
  • They have answers, but not solutions:
    • They will say that the answer is 5N for example, but NOT show how that number was obtained.
    • Gave solutions once and grades went down.
    • Need help? Ask on Discord etc.!
Demonstrate Your Skills and Learn From the Experience Two Cumulative Exams
You will need to provide
  • Your own computer. (we will have a few spares for emergencies, but not enough for everyone). You will need this both to take the exam itself and to access a spreadsheet you will use as your calculator.
  • A pencil and protractor for the open-ended portion. You are welcome to bring pens etc. of different colors (sometimes useful!).

We will provide

  • A desk with internet access.
  • Proctors of whom you can ask questions.
  • Scratch paper.
  • A reference sheet with constants etc. which you will be able to access in advance.

Not permitted

  • Notes or other resources of any kind (physical or digital). All Moodle resources will lock at 3pm on the day of the exam and not re-open until after exam is complete.
  • A regular calculator. You must use a spreadsheet instead!
  • Your own equation sheet.
  • The goal is to see if you can APPLY the fundamental ideas we have learned in-class to explain NEW common phenomena.
    • The exams, therefore, will be problems you have not seen before.
    • I want you to be able to use the ideas and reason as a physicist – not just memorize solutions to problems you have seen.
  • Note the focus on in-class, not the homework or quizzes.
    • These assignments provide foundational conceptual knowledge needed for the in-class activities.
    • Thus, they are indirectly on the exam: you need this stuff to understand what we did in class!
  • Administered via Edfinity but taken during dedicated exam times in proctored rooms.
    • Two times for Exam I and Exam II
      • 4-6pm.
      • 7-9pm.
    • You will sign up for the time and room you want!
  • Take twice:
    • Individually for 75% of the credit.
    • With your team on a subsequent day for 25% of the grade.
  • A video on how to prepare will be provided before the first exam.
  • After the exam, there will be an opportunity to reflect on the experience for a bonus!
Synthesize All the Material and Apply It to a Different Field Final Projects
You will explore one of four questions related to one of the four disciplines below:
  • Ecology and evolutionary-biology.
  • Food science and nutrition.
  • Kinesiology and biomechanics.
  • Microbiology

Your investigations will require you to combine the understanding of several different aspects of physics wile also using some of the skills you have developed in lab regarding model building and poster making.

Ultimately, you will present to your peers.

There is a lot of discussion of teams above, how do teams work in this class?

Overarching motto for teamwork in this class

We have all been in the rut where we can’t figure something out, but as soon as we bounce ideas off someone else, we get it. That experience is a manifestation of the social aspect of learning: being forced to articulate your ideas clearly and bouncing ideas off of others improves learning and problems solving skills. In addition, the vast majority of you are interested in the science or health fields. In these fields, the lone-genius working by themselves, an archetype which is so prevalent in our culture, no longer exists (if they ever did)! To work in the science and health fields, you need to be able to work with others on scientifically challenging tasks. I do recognize, however, that many of you may have had a bad experience with teamwork in a class in the past. To that end, the mottoes of this class are

1. You are beholden to your team, not to us, for your team performance.

2. Your team cannot hurt you, your team can only help you,
but your team cannot save you!

How will teams in this course be structured?

How big are the teams and how long will they stay together?

On the third day of class, you will be organized into teams of five. These teams will be heterogeneous in many dimensions and will be constructed by me using the CATME software. You will stay in the same teams for the entire semester. 

Will team performance be evaluated? (Or “How do the team’s points get distributed?” or “What if one of my teammates is a slacker?”)

Team activities will be graded, and that grade will be applied to everyone in the team, regardless of who is present. However, to ensure fairness in case you get a teammate who may not be pulling their weight, there will be a peer-evaluation system using the CATME software at the end of the semester. In this process you will evaluate the performance of your fellow teammates.

The evaluations will result in a multiplier for each team-member. The purpose of this multiplier is to take into account different levels of effort. If everyone pulls an equal share of the weight, then everyone’s team multiplier will be 1. If you pull more than their fair share then your team multiplier may go as high as 1.05; such values are rare, however. Someone who is not pulling their weight, may have a multiplier as low as 0.4. This multiplier gets multiplied to all team scores: metacognitive journals, team quizzes, and team exams. For example, say your team has a team quiz average of 90%. If you have a multiplier of 1, then a 90% is what will figure into your grade. If your multiplier is say 0.4, then the team quiz average for your grade is 0.4*90% = 36%. Thus, being a good team member is important in this class!

What if I am absent?

As stated in team motto #1, you are not beholden to us for your team performance, you are beholden to your teammates. You need to let your team (not us!) know when you are going to be absent and why. You and your team will have an opportunity in-class to discuss what constitutes reasonable absences, and your team is responsible for taking attendance. This attendance roster will not figure directly into your grade but will serve as a reference document for doing evaluations. If you are absent, we recommend finding a way to make it up to your team by taking on some other responsibility.

How Will My Grade Be Determined in This Course?

Please make sure you have read all the sections above about the various components. Otherwise, this section will not make much sense!

How Much Is Each Component Worth?

Category Percent of Final Grade
Homework 10%
Quizzes 10%
Problem Solving Journal 5%
Individual Exams 25% (Lowest at 10%, other 15%)
Collaborative Exams 10% (2x at 5% each)
Final Project 20%
Laboratory 20% (See lab syllabus for details!)

What is the Grading Scale?

A  ≥ 89% A- ≥ 86%
B+ ≥ 83% B  ≥ 80% B- ≥ 78%
C+ ≥ 75% C ≥ 72% C- ≥ 69%
D+ ≥ 66% D ≥ 60% F  < 60%

We reserve the right, but not the obligation to lower these thresholds if we deem it necessary (something we have never done at UMass!).

What Do I Need to Earn an A?

Category An “A”-student should be able to average
Homework 100%
Quizzes 95%
Problem Solving Journal 100%
Individual Exams 78%
Collaborative Exams 95%
Laboratory 98%

Note, we do NOT expect perfection on exams! Problem solving is hard and different folks bring different skills to the table. Moreover, some folks simply do not test well. As such, you can do well in this course without earning perfect scores on the exams.

Will There Be Any Bonus in This Class?

There will be a total of 3 points of bonus on your final grade in this course. These will come from various activities to reflect on your learning. This value of 3 points is specifically chosen to push folks from the top of one grade letter to the next (often called a “bump”).

The number 3% has been carefully chosen. You can see looking at the grading scale above, that if you are close to the border of a threshold, 3% will bump you to the next level but will never bump you over a letter (you cannot go from B+ to A, only B+ to A-). Furthermore, in my view the grade you earned is the grade you have before any bonus. The bonus reflects an extra level of diligence and a willingness to not only engage in learning physics but in thinking about yourself as a learner as well. As such, no additional “bumps” will be given. A grade of 88.9% will be an A-.

Will Exams (Or Any Other Assignments) Be Curved?

In this class, you have every incentive to help your peers. Helping your peers will NOT hurt your grade in any way. You are not competing with your peers for a limited number of “A”’s or anything like that. If everyone earns a grade over 89%, then everyone will earn an A. As such, there will be no curve.

What if I have a question about how an assignment is graded?

While grading so many problems and exams mistakes do of course happen. However, as a rule the number of mistakes in your favor usually balances the number of mistakes against you. If you would like a regrade please bring the assignment to me WITHIN ONE WEEK of the date that the assignment is returned and we will regrade the ENTIRE assignment. It is possible that you can end up with a lower score. Requests for regrades at the end of the semester will not be considered.

Where can I get help?

We want you to be successful in this class. As such, there are a collection of resources available on Moodle under the “Where can I get help?” section. Note, you don’t have to have a specific question to use these resources! You are welcome to just come by and:

  • Discuss the topics we are talking about in class to deepen your understanding.
  • Talk about how to more effectively study for this (and similar) classes!
  • Talk about a cool science thing you saw in the news.

Academic Honesty

While I encourage you to work with your peers in this class, there are individual portions, in particular the individual quizzes and exams. We want our learning environment to be honest and fair. UMass Amherst has a Academic Honesty Policy that includes cheating and plagiarism as forms of dishonesty. I should not even have to say this, but cheating will not be tolerated on these individual activities. If you are caught cheating on an exam, the minimum consequence is that you will fail the class. Furthermore it is my responsibility to report you to the Dean of Students. Also, all students are expected to abide by the student policies at


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