Curriculum Column

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Requiring students to take more high school science courses has done little to boost physics enrollments, according to a survey of secondary school physics teachers.

Because it is traditionally the last course in the high school science sequence, physics has not benefited from changes implemented by almost all states in the late 1980's that require students to complete at least two years of science classes.

"Physics is still an elective for the college-bound,'' noted Michael Neuschatz, a senior research associate at the American Institute of Physics, which conducted the survey. "And it would take a much, much stronger movement'' to make three years of science the required norm.

The report, "Physics in the High Schools II,'' was released last month by the College Park, Md.-based institute.

But national reforms, such as the Scope, Sequence, and Coordination of Secondary School Science project of the National Science Teachers Association, could help boost physics enrollments, Mr. Neuschatz said.

The scope-and-sequence project would abandon the "layer cake'' approach and instead teach each branch of the physical sciences every year.

"But one of the major things that we found is that it doesn't seem that those initiatives have begun to take root yet,'' Mr. Neuschatz said.

However, more students who do not plan to earn degrees in the sciences in college are taking "conceptual'' physics courses, which are less mathematics-intensive.

"One possibility is that aspects of the conceptual approach may grow into regular physics,'' making it more accessible, Mr. Neuschatz said.

The latest survey results indicate, however, that the image of physics as a subject suffering a "deep systemwide crisis'' is largely false.

For example, contrary to the popular misconception that physics is taught only sparsely, roughly 98 percent of high schools in the United States offer a physics course, though many teach it only in alternate years.

Meanwhile, although only a small percentage of physics teachers were physics majors, nearly all those who teach physics specialized in science, mathematics, or science and math education while in college.

On the other hand, Mr. Neuschatz said, the majority of physics teachers cannot teach only physics because enrollments in those classes are too low.

Vol. 13, Issue 39E, Page 8

Published in Print: July 13, 1994, as Curriculum Column
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