It's Not Your Father's Physics Class

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Patrick T. Callahan's physics students are as likely to be carrying Seventeen magazine as they are a catalog for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

And they're more likely to be interested in understanding why a box in the back of a truck slides forward when the driver slams on the brakes than in preparing for an Advanced Placement exam.

But they're just the kind of students a growing number of physics educators hope to reach. Nudged in part by new state policies nationwide, teachers are finding that students on the general track can learn the basic principles of Newton's laws without the emphasis on algebra and trigonometry that has dominated physics instruction over the past century.

"If they don't see where and how it will be useful, they're not interested in it," said Mr. Callahan, a 25-year veteran at Catasauqua High School in this working-class, eastern Pennsylvania community just north of Allentown. "That's the biggest thrill I get. They say: 'Oh yeah, that really is important.' "

The changes could send ripples through the high school science curriculum and could even turn the traditional progression from biology to chemistry to physics on its head.

Growth Accelerating

In 1997, 807,000 U.S. high school students were enrolled in physics—the highest level since World War II, according to the American Institute of Physics, a professional group based in College Park, Md. The number is 29 percent higher than 10 years earlier, according to a 1998 institute survey.

From 1987 to 1997, the number of students taking physics courses that emphasize basic scientific concepts instead of mathematical principles more than tripled, to 88,700, the survey also found.

Mr. Callahan's classes at Catasauqua High are an example of the latest approach. The gray-haired teacher, who looks like a better-groomed version of Albert Einstein, teaches two periods of the subject to freshmen on the general track, one period to juniors headed for vocational education, one period to 9th graders in college prep, and two periods to seniors.

On a recent day, the 9th graders in the general track spent the period learning about force and impact by experimenting with bungee-jumping dolls. The juniors shared data from the previous day's lab, proving that a vehicle traveling 30 mph will need four times as far to stop as one traveling half that speed.

One spur to the new makeup of Mr. Callahan's classes is Pennsylvania's academic standards, which say some principles of physics should be taught by the 9th grade. A forthcoming state test will measure how well schools are teaching what's in those standards. Such changes are common throughout the country as states raise standards for what students are expected to know.

Active Physics, the curriculum Mr. Callahan uses with all of his freshmen and juniors, is recommended by Ohio and West Virginia for use in those states' high schools, according to Thomas A. Laster, the executive vice president of It's About Time, the Armonk, N.Y.-based publisher of the curriculum.

Other states are requesting added physics content as they approve 9th grade science textbooks.

Texas wants a 9th grade text that includes a healthy dose of conceptual physics when it approves books next year for purchase with state money, and Indiana's list approved last year included a conceptual-physics book, according to Judy L. Elgin, the director of product planning for the science department of the publisher Prentice Hall, based in Upper Saddle River, N.J.

Not Just Physics

Just how much physics 9th graders should learn is the subject of debate throughout the science education community.

Leon M. Lederman, the winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in physics, has been pushing schools over the past five years to put that discipline ahead of biology and chemistry in the high school curriculum. Physics, he and others argue, is the foundation of all science and is the easiest to observe through experiments with gravity, waves, and objects in motion, such as the bungee-jumping dolls in Mr. Callahan's class.

All of that can be taught without the algebra and trigonometry that have come to be the basis for the physics courses taught in U.S. high schools.

"Conceptual physics is relatively unmathematical," said Mr. Lederman, the resident scholar at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a state magnet school in Aurora, Ill., who won his Nobel Prize for research he conducted at the nearby Fermi Laboratory. "You can use only the math that students are learning in the 9th grade or have learned in the 8th grade."

A few schools are making the switch, although not as quickly as Mr. Lederman would like.

This year, the Little Rock, Ark., district overhauled its high school courses to replace an integrated-science course with the Active Physics curriculum in 9th grade.

"Getting [students] out of general science and putting them in a rigorous program, they're going to learn more even if they struggle," said Dennis R. Glasgow, the director of math and science programs for the 26,000-student district.

Others suggest that schools shouldn't hand off their high school freshmen to physicists. The answer instead might be to improve the content of existing general science courses, covering more ground in physics but still including smatterings of earth science and basic biology.

"You could design a program that comes off as an integrated science that isn't a drive-by, pass-through of a bunch of topics," said Rodger W. Bybee, the executive director of the Biological Science Curriculum Study, a Colorado Springs, Colo., nonprofit group that develops science curriculum and textbooks for all grade levels.

More Physics

Even Mr. Bybee acknowledges that students need to be introduced to physics earlier in their academic careers.

At Catasauqua High School, the freshmen in the honors program are the only ones who take physics for the full school year. Mr. Callahan would like to teach the Active Physics course to all 9th graders for the full year, but he is one of only two teachers certified to teach the subject.

That's a common problem for schools that are trying to reorder their science curricula, physics educators say. The biology-to-chemistry-to-physics sequence has long been the standard in American high schools, and most teachers aren't prepared to change.

"Some physics teachers tell me they don't do freshmen, like I'm asking them to do windows," Mr. Lederman said.

Likewise, biology teachers don't want to relinquish their roles as gatekeepers into high school science, others say.

To address its shortage of physics teachers, the Little Rock district is paying for about 20 teachers in the city' s five high schools to receive state certification to teach the subject, Mr. Glasgow said. After taking eight credit hours each last summer, all 20 received provisional certificates this year and will be fully certified for the 2001-02 school year, he added.

In addition, schools hoping to introduce physics to 9th graders don't have many curricular choices with long track records.

Prentice Hall's Conceptual Physics is intended for college courses euphemistically called "Physics for Poets," but many high schools use it. And while Mr. Callahan has been teaching Active Physics as part of pilot tests for five years, the curriculum has been publicly available only since last fall. Since 1997, schools have been able to buy a CD-ROM called the Comprehensive Conceptual Curriculum for Physics.

As interest in such courses increases, more materials are likely to become available, however.

"All of the publishers are looking at that market very seriously and are figuring what might fill that need," Ms. Elgin of Prentice Hall said. "Our representatives have been asked for it more and more and more."

Vol. 19, Issue 40, Pages 1, 12-13

Published in Print: June 14, 2000, as It's Not Your Father's Physics Class
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