Column: Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy physics, too

Three levels of physics are offered at Minnesota West

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WORTHINGTON — I like to drink coffee in the morning, as many people do. While walking to my coffee maker in the kitchen, my foot pushes backward on the floor, and the floor pushes me forward with an equal force but in the opposite direction. This is Newton’s Third Law of Motion, which states that every force (my foot pushing on the floor) has an equal and opposite force (the floor pushing back on my foot). The force from the floor is what propels me forward.

I arrive at my coffee maker and turn it on, completing an electrical circuit allowing electrons to flow from the outlet in the wall to the heating element, which converts electrical energy into heat energy, and the water gets warmer. After the little blue light turns on letting me know the water is ready (another circuit), I place my reusable filter with my chosen coffee grounds into the machine and push the button (there many more pairs of forces involved here). A pump inside the machine reduces the pressure inside the water line, allowing the normal pressure of the atmosphere to push the water down in the reservoir and up into the top of the filter. Gravity takes over, pulls the hot water down through the coffee grounds and fills my mug with warm caffeinated goodness.

That’s just a taste of the physics involved with a simple, everyday task. Physics is the study of everything around us and how it all works, from entire superclusters of galaxies down to the smallest atoms and even the particles that build the atoms. When you take a physics course, you learn about motion and forces, energy, gravity, momentum, simple harmonic motion, waves and sound, heat and phase changes, electricity and circuits, magnetism, light and optics, and maybe even a little quantum mechanics depending which class you take.

We offer three levels of physics at Minnesota West, all of which have a laboratory component so that you can do hands-on physics while learning the concepts.

Survey of Physics is a basic course that gives you a general grounding in many of the topics listed above and how they work in our everyday lives. It is aimed at those students that need a science class for their degree but may not be comfortable with math and science.


Fundamentals of Physics is an algebra/trigonometry-based course that is more in depth than the survey class and really digs into the concepts, and is taken by students who may be going into a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) field, but don’t need the full calculus version of the subject. This includes those in computer science and pre-medicine programs, or anyone who wants a firmer grounding in physics.

General Physics is the full calculus version of physics. Isaac Newton invented calculus to mathematically express his Laws of Motion and other ideas in physics, so this course gets to the roots of physics Those who want to go into any engineering field or other highly technical STEM career take this course.

I’m sure by this time you are all thinking, “Ew, physics sounds hard!” Seriously, when I tell people I teach physics at Minnesota West, I get reactions from “I loved physics!” to “I loved the physics on the day I finished it!” The advantage of taking one of the courses at Minnesota West is the small class size and the personal attention you will get from me when you take one of my courses. You might not get that kind of help at many larger universities, so Minnesota West is great starting point to a four-year degree for all of the STEM background courses we offer in biology, math, chemistry and physics.

On a lighter note, we also have a basic astronomy course that gives an introduction to the entire universe and also counts as a laboratory science course for your degree. I’m excited by the addition of our new telescope and observatory, where we can look at many of the actual objects we study in class. I also plan to do public viewings at the observatory for everyone, hopefully as soon as this fall.

Minnesota West is a great place for students to take physics or any of our other science and math courses, whether you are getting a two-year degree or transferring to a four year school. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to make some coffee.

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