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.