‘Physics First’ Is Moving Slowly Into Nation’s High Schools

By Sean Cavanagh — September 06, 2006 7 min read
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Even scientists and educators who have an abiding love of physics acknowledge that much of society at large doesn’t share their affection. The study of force and motion has long been regarded as the most difficult, or at least the most intimidating, of the high school sciences.

“People have an innate fear of physics,” said Gabe de la Paz, who teaches the subject in the Clayton, Mo., school system. “ ‘Oh, I hated that class.’ Nine out of 10 times, that’s what people tell me.”

From left, freshmen Ashley Parks, Jeff Bader, and Joe Purze work on an experiment in Gabe de la Paz's physics lab.

That reputation notwithstanding, a core group of educators believes that not only is physics more accessible than advertised, but it also can be taught earlier. They favor reversing the traditional lineup of high school science courses and teaching physics before chemistry and biology.

That reordering makes sense from a scientific and educational standpoint, advocates of “physics first” say, particularly at a time of rising concern about the scarcity of U.S. students choosing careers in science, engineering, and technical fields.

Still, numerous obstacles stand in the way of putting that model in place, from a lack of qualified teachers to opposition from some educators and the general public. Mr. de la Paz, who has taught 9th grade physics in his 2,500-student district for a decade, worked this summer with school officials from across Missouri to clear some of those barriers. He helped lead a series of state-sponsored workshops for teachers and administrators interested in offering 9th grade physics in their districts.

The main argument in favor of physics-first, as the movement is called, is a scientific one. Understanding biology today requires a firm knowledge of chemistry—especially with recent advances in genetics and biochemistry, supporters say. And much of chemistry, they note, such as the behavior of atoms and molecules, is in turn rooted in physics.

Although the physics taught to 11th or 12th graders, or in college, typically contains heavy doses of calculus and trigonometry, advocates of physics-first say the subject can easily be presented to 9th graders using more basic algebra and other math. Teaching physics first ultimately introduces a broader range of students to a subject that has traditionally been reserved for more elite, high-achievers taking it as juniors or seniors, proponents say.

“It’s a very different kind of physics,” Mr. de la Paz said of the 9th grade course. “For freshmen, it’s a very transparent way to get into science.”

Watered Down?

Nationwide enrollment in high school physics has been increasing slowly, as states have boosted their graduation requirements in science. Thirty-one percent of students take physics at some time during high school, up from 19 percent two decades ago, according to the American Institute of Physics, a membership organization in College Park, Md.

Yet only a small proportion of the nation’s public schools—about 3 percent—teach physics to 9th graders, a number that has risen incrementally in recent years, said Michael Neuschatz, the senior research associate at the institute. The percentage is higher, 9 percent, in private schools. Only about 300 public schools across the country, and roughly the same number of private schools, take the physics-first approach, according to the institute.

An informal survey in 2000 found that schools in 46 states had implemented physics-first; California and several Eastern states, including Maryland, New Jersey, and New York, were among the states where it was most popular. Rhode Island is launching a physics-first pilot this fall at five high schools, an undertaking supported by state funding.

The physics-first movement, however, has also dealt with periodic setbacks. The 133,000-student San Diego district, for instance, in May dropped a 5-year-old requirement that 9th graders take physics.

Backers of physics-first in San Diego argued that the policy would give many more students access to the class. But the reorganization of the science sequence angered some parents and educators. Opponents said students did not have the necessary math background for the course; others complained that it amounted to a watered-down version of the subject.

In particular, those critics took issue with Active Physics, a course they said relied too heavily on basic math and illustrations to convey physics concepts. Active Physics, created with support from the National Science Foundation, is published by It’s About Time, a publishing company in Armonk, N.Y.

Now, schools have the freedom to set their own course sequences, though students still must take three state-approved science courses to graduate. Some schools are expected to keep teaching physics first; others are likely to switch to offering biology in 9th grade, district officials say.

San Diego school board member Mitz Lee, who favored eliminating the physics-first requirement, argues that it imposed “watered-down science” on students. She believes physics should be taught when students are older and have a stronger grounding in math.

“Why are we forcing students to waste a year?” Ms. Lee said.

Role of Math

But proponents of physics-first see a strong value in introducing freshmen to the subject, even if they’re being spared some higher-level math. At the summer workshops in Missouri, Mr. de la Paz introduced teachers to core concepts of physics, and strategies for explaining the subject. He emphasizes building students’ deep understanding of a relatively small number of core concepts, setting clear objectives for expanding that knowledge, and having them conduct investigations to reinforce their understanding.

Many physics topics, such as straight-line motion, forces, energy, and mechanical waves, require some math, but not too much, and are appropriate for 9th grade, Mr. de la Paz said. Other concepts, he added—such as circular motion, momentum, and projectiles, which generally depend more heavily on algebra and calculus—can be avoided at that grade level.

Typical of many physics-first districts, students in Mr. de la Paz’s school move on to chemistry as sophomores and biology as juniors. They choose from a number of courses as seniors, from Advanced Placement physics or biology to astronomy or forensic science. Only two years of science are required for graduation, but the vast majority of students take at least three, he says.

Not all science teachers are as prepared to tackle physics as Mr. de la Paz, however. Twelve years ago, Fred R. Myers Jr. helped launch a physics-first program in his former district in Farmington, Conn., and since then, he’s emerged as a leading champion of the movement. He cites the lack of qualified physics teachers as one of the biggest obstacles to teaching the subject to 9th graders.

The Farmington district aggressively recruited physics teachers to meet its needs, but many schools would struggle with that challenge, Mr. Myers said. According to the American Institute of Physics, fewer than a quarter of physics teachers nationwide majored in that subject in college, a portion that has remained largely unchanged over the past 15 years.

Many chemistry teachers have taken the physics courses in college necessary to help them meet various states’ requirements for teaching physics, Mr. Myers said, but fewer biology teachers would have taken such classes.

Teacher Power

Many physics teachers, he added, are used to working with juniors and seniors who are among the highest-achieving students in their schools; they may resist working with younger students. Other teachers might oppose presenting what they regard as overly simplistic physics.

“You have to have a different mind-set to teach it in 9th grade,” Mr. Myers said.

A survey of physics teachers the institute took in 2000 found 61 percent disagreed with efforts to teach physics first, though that opposition has lessened recently, according to the organization.

State tests can pose another obstacle to physics-first. Many states test students in science in 10th grade; those exams tend to emphasize biology, observers say. They question whether moving physics to 9th grade will result in lower scores on those assessments, if students aren’t prepared for the vocabulary and content associated with biology.

Gerald F. Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, in Arlington, Va., supports teaching physics before the other sciences. But he also said that a more feasible option for schools would be to teach freshmen “physical science”—a blend of physics, chemistry, and other earth sciences. That approach would represent a less drastic change to the curriculum, but give students a strong dose of essential physics and chemistry, said Mr. Wheeler, who has taught high school and college physics and has a Ph.D. in the subject.

Physics-first “makes sense in every [way],” he said, “except in the logistics of making it work in a school system.”

So far, the schools that have had the most success in making physics-first work have a core group of educators who have launched and sustained it, said Mr. Neuschatz of the institute of physics. That support tends to be strongest at private and more elite public schools, he said.

“The sad thing is that the ethos behind the movement was to bring physics to everyone, but implementing it is very tricky,” Mr. Neuschatz said. Physics-first “will grow slowly,” he predicted, “and it will grow primarily in areas where there are enthusiastic teachers to embrace it.”

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Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 2006 edition of Education Week as ‘Physics First’ Is Moving Slowly Into Nation’s High Schools


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