Sunday, August 14, 2005

Some thoughts on Physics First in high schools

The traditional high school science sequence is biology, chemistry, and then, maybe, physics. Logically this is backwards. We start students off with the science of complexity, biology, without a foundation of fundamental physical principles, physics. We don’t build buildings starting off with the roof and lifting the house superstructure to put it all on the foundation, so why do we try to build science education like this?

Nobel Prize winning physicist Leon Lederman took the lead some years back to begin a national campaign called Physics First (or Physics Phirst, as many like to spell it). Start freshman (or even 8th graders) off with a class that focuses on physics, then do chemistry after students know something about energy, forces, collisions, electric charge, and all that makes chemistry work, and then finally get to biology after chemical reactions, molecular structure, atomic theory, and so on have been studied so students may have a better chance of actually making sense of living cells, which are essentially small chemical plants.

After being asked by several others recently to give my personal take on Physics First, here goes. I absolutely agree with this curriculum shift from a philosophical point of view. If our goal is to actually have students learn some biology, rather than memorize it for the test and then forget it because it really makes no sense without some other knowledge, then yes, creating a logical progression of studies is almost a no brainer. The trouble comes in as far as how schools actually can do this logistically. There are key problems most districts will face if they want to even try this at the level of a pilot program.

- if all freshman are to take physics, schools will need significantly more physics teachers. There are large shortages now, with maybe only a third of students ever taking physics, and many of those teachers are not physics majors (rather, converted math or chemistry teachers, etc.).

- many physics teachers worry about the lack of math that would be involved in a freshman physics class. A freshman class would almost certainly have to be a conceptual physics class, which many teachers I personally know are opposed to at some level. I don’t have a problem with it at all, because even with calculus-based physics classes, in my mind conceptual understanding is most important…getting an answer through mathematical manipulation is one thing, knowing what the answer means is another (and that is the physics part anyhow).

- Science departments will need to revamp lab space, hardware, software and textbook inventories at a time most schools are in the red. It could be an expensive endeavor in many cases.

- Believe it or not, I know too many veteran physics teachers who admit they do not want to work with freshman in required classes. They are used to junior and senior students who want to be there in an elective class. In my mind this is a lame excuse, but it is out there (and administrators would have to say, “Tough.”).

The most glaring concern is the first. A lack of teachers will presently mean most districts and schools will not be able to establish a full curriculum shift even if they wanted to, at least not to the point where the program would be as strong as it could or should. There are ways around the other problems, but if a school cannot find qualified teachers, the change won’t be possible. I am not aware of large data sets yet from the few schools that have made the switch as to how well this approach makes in science education.


Erica said...

Why do you think it is that there's this huge shortage of physics teachers, but the problem doesn't seem to be as bad in the other sciences? This is something I can't understand, since physics isn't any harder than chem and bio and is way cooler (in my unbiased opinion.)

When I asked you to write a blog entry on Physics First, I didn't mean you had to do it within the next twelve hours. But I do appreciate it :). Thanks!

vonny said...

Hi Erica,

This was a topic I was going to write about at some point, so it might as well be sooner than later.

There are several likely contributing factors to smaller numbers of physics teachers. These would include:
- fewer students are exposed to physics in their schooling (almost all take bio, mroe than half take chem, and only 25-30% ever take any true physics). Without exposure, one would not expect someone to pursue it as a major.

- math...on surveys of favorite and least favorite subjects, math wins the least favorite always (maybe not always, but I've never seen a survey where it wasn;t the bottom feeder). People are then turned off to physics for that reason and do not pursue it as a major.

- reputation...physics is normally known as a 'hard' subject, and this keeps many away from it. I agree and would argue that conceptually classical physics, at least mechanics, is the easiest of the sciences to learn since we know so much about it from everyday life. But physics majors need to go beyond the concepts and then there is that darn math again...

In my opinion, these are the three main reasons. There are probably more I'm not thinking about, so if anyone has some thoughts please share!