Wednesday, November 28, 2012

First place-Physics!

For the average high school student, the science requirements consist of one of the following sequences:

9th grade- Biology; 10th grade- Chemistry; 11th grade-Physics
9th grade-Earth Science; 10th grade- Biology; 11th grade- Chemistry; 12th grade- Physics

The original order was developed because educators thought it was the easiest way to teach science. Each course requires successively more difficult mathematics. Students could learn Biology more easily than Chemistry or Physics.

This has been the science sequence for decades, but recently some educators have questioned the wisdom of this order.

The new version that people recommend is Physics First (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physics_First, http://www.physicsfirstmo.org/). The big leader of Physics First is Nobel Prize Winner Leon Lederman (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Lederman).

The main issue with the traditional order is that Biology, Chemistry, and Physics all share many concepts.You often need ideas from Chemistry to explain parts of Biology, and ideas from Physics to explain parts of Chemistry and Biology.
Any student who has taken the traditional order probably remembers discussions where the teacher has to say “well, I can’t explain this to you until you get to chemistry and then to physics.”

Here is a quote from an AAPT pamphlet on Physics First (http://www.aapt.org/upload/phys_first.pdf):
“The wisdom of placing physics last is being reconsidered by educators because 1) in order to understand modern molecular biology and the biochemical processes in cells, students need a solid background in bothphysics and chemistry, and 2) mastery of the basic physics concept of electrostatic and nuclear forces and the concept of energy storage and transfer are crucial to the understanding of chemical structures, atomic binding, gas laws, and the periodic table of the elements”

Proponents of Physics First advocate teaching the courses in this order:
9th-grade Introductory Physics; 10th grade- Chemistry; 11th grade-Biology; 12th grade-Advanced Physics

Figure 1: Bookshelf with books representing the different science sequences. Shelf 1 is Physics First, Shelves 2 and 3 are the traditional science sequences.

The introductory physics class is focused on conceptual physics and lends itself to inquiry-based learning (See previous post: http://www.parsingscience.com/2012/08/the-science-inquisition.html). With a foundation in physics, students can then learn biology and chemistry more easily. The advanced physics class can be more mathematically rigorous.

The hope with Physics First is that students will be more likely to take Physics classes and that learning Biology and Chemistry will be more natural and easy.

Of course, Physics First is not without its critics. Some people believe that many high schools will not have the personnel to teach these new physics classes or that it will be too difficult to implement. Others question whether all students actually need to learn Physics.

Results are still being gathered on whether this type of program is beneficial or not.

In my opinion, Physics First is a great idea, and I look forward to seeing how progress unfolds.

If you want to learn more about Physics First, here are some links:

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