Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

Teaching science first

Posted by Melissa on January 5, 2009

In January’s issue of The Physics Teacher (TPT) there is an interesting article by Keith Sheppard and Dennis Robbins on the “First Physics First” movement, which occurred from 1880-1920. (Sadly, I think you need a subscription to TPT to read the whole article.)  For those of you who are unfamiliar with “Physics First”, it is a proposal to change the order of science courses in high school from biology-chemistry-physics to physics-chemistry-biology, with the idea that knowing about atoms, electrostatic forces, and energy before you learn chemistry is helpful, and likewise, in order to appreciate molecular biology and biochemical processes in cells, it is helpful to know some chemistry before taking biology. The “Physics First” movement hasn’t caught on widely in the US, and some folks in the physics community feel that physics taught in 9th grade with limited amounts of math isn’t “real” physics.

While I don’t want to get into a debate about “Physics First,” I have been pondering one suggestion made by Sheppard and Robbins in their TPT article. Essentially, they argue schools shouldn’t be choosing between 9th grade conceptual physics or 12th grade math-intensive physics, but instead schools should make introductory physics a two-year course. They write, “Indeed, the limited time and credit allocation is the ultimate problem facing U.S. high school physics. Physics is a 21st-century subject confined to a 19th century curricular time allocation. We would suggest that high school introductory physics needs parity with other subjects. It should be at least a two-year, two-credit course…”

Sheppard and Robbins claim, “No other curricular area teaches its separate disciplines as fixed one-year courses. Imagine the obvious nonsense of teaching languages in a Spanish-French-Latin order with students completing the study of each language in a single year.”

While there would certainly be benefits to having a two-year physics sequence in high schools, what does that mean for biology and chemistry? Wouldn’t biologists like to have a two-year introductory biology course, or chemists a two-year introductory chemistry course? Additionally, I don’t think the language analogy is an apt one. In my mind, the most valuable aspect of high school physics (or biology or chemistry, for that matter) is not expansive content coverage, but building students’ understanding of the scientific method and how physicists (or biologists or chemists) approach the world around them.  Moreover, scientific habits of mind are relevant across all science disciplines, and any high school science class should help students to appreciate empirical investigation and how such investigations are used to develop a framework of theoretical principles by which to understand the universe. Ideally, high school science classes would provide students hands-on and minds-on opportunities to make and use observations to build and refine models of physical and biological systems.

Leon Lederman, a Nobel prize winner and a champion of “Physics First,” gave a talk at the Minnesota AAPT section meeting this fall, and there he remarked that perhaps we should require all students to take three years of science in high school with an emphasis on the connections between all science disciplines, perhaps even naming the classes Science I, Science II, and Science III.  I find aspects of this proposal appealing, particuarly in an era when interdisciplinary opportunities in science are growing. Most students who take high school science classes are not going to be scientists, but we do want students to recognize the power of science as a tool for understanding the world and the process by which scientists approach and solve problems. A three-year science series could focus on the key ideas taught in physics, chemistry, and biology courses, but weave them together in a more integrated and intuitive manner. Then, in their 4th year, students could choose to take an advanced course in biology, physics, or chemistry depending on their interests.

Of course, there are challenges to this three-year integrated science approach. Teachers are certified to teach biology, chemistry, or physics so in deciding who teaches Science I — the person certified to teach biology or the person certified to teach physics — a science department is, in some sense, weighing in on the “Physics First” question.  Additionally, school districts would need to provide significant professional development opportunities for those teaching Science I, II, and III to discuss the appropriate curriculum and decide how to best link content and provide a coherent approach to addressing overarching goals for the three year sequence. Despite these challenges, at the high school level, I think it makes more sense to focus on promoting science as a connected whole rather than trying to make a disciplinary grab for a larger piece of the science pie for physics.

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4 Responses to “Teaching science first”

  1. Uncle Al said

    That’s crazy talk,

    Objective evalution is patriarchal historic White Protestant European oppression of Peoples of Colour. Heteronormatism problematizes homosocial othering. Social advocacy demands every voice, if sufficiently diverse (squalid), has equal merit.

    Every aspect of science and mathematics should be banned from public education. “Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness,” 1984.

  2. Mark Hammond said

    Dr. Eblen-Zayas makes a wonderful argument against a “disciplinary grab” by physics teachers. I have sensed the perception among teachers of biology and chemistry that Physics First, by itself, is such a disciplinary grab (although it is not that hard a sell to convince them it isn’t). The perception of a grab is just one of many defensive reactions that accompany someone else telling you that they have this great idea that will cause YOU more work this summer!

    I am very inclined toward the idea of teaching interdisciplinary science courses in high school. I teach physics to one or two German exchange students each year, and, at home, they get physics, chemistry and biology each year of high school. This is implemented differently in different schools, but the message I get from most of our German visitors is that the connections between the disciplines are not always exploited. That is, they get a unit of physics, then a unit of chemistry, then a unit of biology, then repeat for four (or five) years. Also, the physics they get seems to be very much aligned toward covering many topics, as opposed to developing deep understanding. This may not be true everywhere, and I am searching for actual teachers to talk to about how things are actually done in Germany.

    The difficulties that Dr. Eblen-Zayas cites with implementing interdisciplinary courses in high school are considerable in public schools, where certification is paramount. I teach in a private school, where certification doesn’t exist. (For instance, I will be teaching a novel as part of an English class this spring.) Yet there are still the professional development concerns, as well as a few others specific to private schools: 1) Teachers (at my school, at least) enjoy a large amount of autonomy, thus they may not take kindly toward being told they have to abandon their beloved subject matter and teach differently. 2) there is the “college counseling office” hurdle to clear (“How do we explain to (insert high-falutin’ college name here, say… Carleton) what these “science” courses are?” “These sound like remedial courses, whereas ‘Physics’ sounds weighty.” This could, alternately, be called the “panicky parent” problem. 3) The problem of incoming students after 9th grade.

    I don’t think any of these problems are insurmountable, but they do have to be addressed. Physics professors at Carleton may have some advice for me about problem 2 above! I have the same issue with my (non-AP) advanced (second year) physics class. I use Matter and Interactions, so I have some kind of agreed upon standard. But not everyone recognizes that standard. My students create a portfolio with the purpose of showing their freshman physics professors what they have already accomplished in mechanics and E&M. Then a decision on course placement can be reached. But this doesn’t convince anyone in the admission office to make that discussion possible in the first place.

    • meblen said

      Mark, I think you raise some excellent points. I do think the issue of “marketing” these changes, both to colleges and to parents, is a difficult one. People are concerned about “what’s in a name” even if what really matters for student learning is content, and I’m not sure I have any good suggestions about how to deal with this issue.

  3. Keira Sharrocks said

    Meblen:
    I did not have the same read on the article. Having read the other articles by Sheppard and Robbins (especially their language analogy article)- it seems that their “disciplinary grab for physics” applies equally to biology, chemistry and the earth sciences– that is — all of the sciences should be at least two year courses and have more than a single credit assigned to them. I think that they are arguing for parity of the sciences with other subjects in terms of curricular time and credit allocation.

    Simple illustration of their point– students completing an AP language in high school have (on average) spent 4 years studying that language and have received (on average) 4 credits for this [note students completing 2 AP languages have been awarded 8 credits]– compare that with the credit/time allocation for students completing AP sciences– For AP biology it is (on average) 2 years and 2 credits, similarly for AP chemistry. AP physics numbers are actually lower than this — 50% of AP physics students according to the AIP are taking their first physics class [that is they have not taken an introductory physics class before AP physics].

    Is physics so much easier that students can complete an introductory college level course with less time than is needed for other subjects?

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