Physics First

February 01, 1996 1 min read

A group of top scientists, policymakers, and teachers has embraced a plan to reverse the traditional sequence in which high school sciences are taught so that all students take physics in their freshman year, followed by chemistry, then biology.

Leon Lederman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, has put forward the idea in various articles and commentaries. But for the first time, a group of science education leaders has met to discuss whether the plan is feasible.

Although most high schools teach biology first, then chemistry, with physics typically reserved for only an advanced group of juniors, Lederman believes that all students would benefit from a better grounding in the principles of physics.

The new group, American Renaissance in Science Education, or ARISE, met this past fall in Naperville, Ill. Among those who attended were Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences; Gerald Wheeler, the new executive director of the National Science Teachers Association; Rodger Bybee, executive director of the Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education at the National Research Council; and more than a dozen science teachers.

“The reverse order makes sense, pedagogically and logically,’' Lederman said in an interview. “I mean, how can you start with biology when modern biology is molecular-based? How can you teach chemistry without kids knowing what an atom is?’'

Lederman and his colleagues agreed that such a major structural change in science education would face many barriers and predicted that it would take at least three years to implement. “Obviously you are going to need new teaching materials and the teachers today are not necessarily prepared to teach this kind of course,’' said Marjorie Bardeen, manager of the education office at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill.

But in the Naperville school district, a curriculum committee has already recommended that its board adopt the new approach. “We’re really excited about it, and we are ready to go,’' said Bill West, science and technology coordinator for the district.

Free copies of a document describing the goals of the new plan are available from the education office at the Fermi Lab. Call: (708) 840-3092.

--Meg Sommerfeld

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Physics First