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

Posted by admin in : History, Policy and Education (HPE) , trackback Bookmark and Share

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.

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