jump to navigation

What does Physics First mean to you? April 29, 2012

Posted by admin in : History, Policy and Education (HPE) , add a comment

Did you know that in today’s economy, where millions cannot find a job, there are hundreds of thousands of jobs for which employers cannot find qualified U.S. born workers?

What does physics education have to do with putting your child in position to be among those who can qualify for the jobs of tomorrow in advanced manufacturing and traditional STEM fields?

• Physics is a gateway course for post-secondary study in science, medicine, and engineering, as well as an essential component in the formation of students’ scientific literacy.
• Physics classes hone thinking skills.
• An understanding of physics leads to a better understanding of other science disciplines. Physics classes help polish the skills needed to score well on the SAT and ACT.
• College recruiters recognize the value of taking high school physics.
• College success for virtually all science, computing, engineering, and premedical majors depends in part on passing physics.
• The job market for people with skills in physics is strong.
• Knowledge of physics is helpful for understanding the arts, politics, history, and culture.
Ref: Ten Reasons Why No Student Should Go Through High School Without Taking Physics

Currently only 25% of Black and Hispanic high school students take any course in physics. Thus many do not even get to the gateway. The availability of physics as a course for high school students is not equitably distributed throughout the U.S. While some schools provide physics for all who wish to take it, a more common scenario, particularly for urban schools, is limited availability. The existence of policies that restrict science opportunities for secondary students results in diminished outcomes in terms of scientific proficiency, and lack of diversity in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics professions.

Reforming the system and Physics First
In most high schools the science course sequence is chemistry first, biology second and physics last. This sequence was born many decades ago before people knew a lot of the fundamental scientific principles of chemistry and biology (Shepard and Robbins, 2003). We now understand that physics is at the foundational roots of all that we know and can learn about the other sciences. So it makes sense to first learn the fundamental concepts of physics before proceeding to learn chemistry, biology and Earth sciences. This is called logical development of scientific cognition, and it is imperative that in the 21st century that our education system catches up to this idea.

Physics First is the educational strategy that sequences high school science courses beginning with physics in the 9th or 10th grade, chemistry in 10th or 11th grade, culminating with biology and earth science in the 12th; while developing proficiency in mathematics and computing in lock-step over the entire 4 years. Schools that have adopted Physics First have shown much higher student appreciation for science, more science course taking in subsequent grades, and higher test scores. But also, when a school commits to Physics First, in many cases they are reforming the system from “physics not at all”. And that reform of providing a formal opportunity to learn physics allows students to pass through an important gateway to higher achievement and prosperity.

A first course in physics need not be overly saddled with advanced mathematics. The emphasis should be focused on conceptual understanding rather than mathematical manipulation. In fact conceptual understanding of physics need not wait until high school. Even middle school students can profit from a conceptual physics course. Conceptual understanding of physics taps into students’ natural curiosities of how and why the world the world works around them. That conceptual understanding, not its mathematical expression, is what will improve performance in later courses in other disciplines. As mathematical maturity is further developed, students can revisit the advanced mathematical expression of physics.

Richard Hake has suggested that Physics First could be the opening battle in the war on science/math illiteracy  as envisaged by the AAAS ‘Project 2061.  This is because a widespread first physics course for ALL ninth graders might (a)
help to overcome some systemic roadblocks to science/math literacy of the general population – most importantly the severe dearth of effective pre-college science/math teachers, (b) enhance the numbers of physics major and graduate students, through programs designed to provide a large corps of teachers capable of EFFECTIVELY teaching physics to vast numbers of students in the Physics First schools: ninth-graders plus those taking high school honors and AP physics courses.

What can you do?
Every child deserves the opportunity to learn physics. This is a message you must make to your teachers, principals, and district administrators. Physics First works out very well for high school students and should be vigorously supported as an important opening battle in the full scale war on science/math illiteracy.  But learning physics does not have to wait until high school. With the availability of all kinds of smart phone apps, even middle grade students can do experiments in motion, sound and light, which are bedrock principles in physics. And in the primary grades, learning physics comes when teachers tap into young kids’ natural curiosity about how and why things work. The key to developing kids of today for jobs of the future is to foster curiosity, encourage discovery, and provide opportunities to learn concepts and principles.

Lessons learned (so far) from the superluminal neutrino episode April 7, 2012

Posted by admin in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO), Cosmology, Gravitation, and Relativity (CGR), Nuclear and Particle Physics (NPP) , add a comment

Reprinted from Waves and Packets, April 7,2012 edition

With the March 15 paper of the ICARUS group claiming no advance effect for their (seven) neutrino events, it seems the urgency and interest in this matter is dwindling. OPERA spokesperson Antonio Ereditato and experimental coordinator Dario Autiero have announced their resignations, following a controversial vote of “no confidence” from the collaboration’s other leaders. Waves and Packets has asked three distinguished physicists what they think the lessons learned are from the entire episode.

“It is misconception that Einstein’s special theory of relativity says that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. For example, electrons can travel faster than the speed of light in water. This leads to a phenomena known as Cherenkov radiation which is seen as a blue glow in nuclear reactors. In addition, for a long time it’s been speculated that subatomic particles known as a tachyons might exist. Tachyons are theoretically predicted particles that travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum and are consistent with Einstein’s theory of relativity. For ordinary subliminal particles light acts as a barrier from above. That is ordinary matter cannot be accelerated to the speed of light. For superluminal tachyons light acts as a barrier from below. That is to say that tachyons cannot be decelerated to the speed of light. It has been conjectured that tachyons could be used to send signals back in time. To date tachyons have not been observed experimentally.” Ronald Mallett, University of Connecticut-Storrs

“I think the first thing the whole episode indicates is that there is still enormous public interest in our field. The need to explore is still felt keenly so we need to be clear that announcing results, even controversial ones, should be respected by scientists if proper peer review of those results has been performed. It also points out the absolute necessity of following through on external checks. Public review of the scientific process is not a bad thing nor is showing some humility and skepticism even about ‘sacred’ principles like special relativity. Episodes like this one give us the opportunity to address misconceptions like those surrounding the connection between special relativity and the speed of light. Showing fallibility doesn’t weaken us as long as we remain appropriate demanding of ‘extraordinary proof’ for “extraordinary results.” Larry Gladney, University of Pennsylvania

“I can think of two positive remarks to be made. The first is that, given an information leak from someone familiar with the OPERA experiment to Science magazine, the OPERA Collaboration did the right thing in going public with the information they had at hand. In the spirit of good science, they nearly begged other experiments to validate or invalidate their working hypothesis of superluminal neutrinos. It now appears that invalidation was in order, as reported by the ICARUS experiment. Over the next several months, we may anticipate half a dozen experiments on three continents providing further measurements of neutrino speed; new data will also be forthcoming from the OPERA and ICARUS experiments. My second positive remark is that many of us have been pushed by the OPERA claim to examine the deeper meaning of Special and General Relativity. While paradoxes, such as superluminal travel with inherent negation of cause and effect, are mathematically consistent with Einstein’s equations, they generally are hidden behind horizons, or require invocation of new physics such as negative energy, extra dimensions, sterile neutrinos, etc. It has been fun and educational to think about the possibilities. Any opportunity to explore a guarded secret of Nature must be seized upon. It unfortunately appears now that superluminal neutrino travel may not be one of Her guarded secrets.” Thomas Weiler, Vanderbilt University

What’s your view? Contact Waves and Packets at editors@wavesandpackets.org.