Opinion

Published on November 14th, 2017 | by Sean Stahl

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Physics first

For generations of high school students, the sequence of physical science study has been biology in 9th grade, chemistry in 10th grade and physics in 11th grade. But this sequence was established over a century ago, in 1894, when science was a simpler matter. It needs to be changed.

In 1990 the Physics First movement first started promoting the idea that Physics should be taught first, then Chemistry, and then, in 11th grade, Biology. “Project Arise” (American Renaissance in Science Education), the leading entity in this movement, managed a pilot program in 1995 for six teams of educators and continues to advocate for a Physics First curriculum. Their website lists numerous resources and references for anyone looking for support in incorporating their approach.

I agree with this approach.  I think this would make study of the physical sciences easier and more enjoyable. Physics acts as a base for Chemistry, and together Physics and Chemistry form a solid foundation for Biology.

In 9th grade, students are taught modern molecular biology using concepts from chemistry and physics: biochemical processes, how energy is transferred and distributed throughout the cell, how DNA works. But students don’t yet understand what energy really is. In order to understand energy, students would need to have studied physics. A mastery of the basic physics concepts of electrostatic and nuclear forces and the concept of energy storage and transfer are crucial to the understanding of chemical structures, atomic binding, gas laws and even the periodic table of the elements.

Chemical reactions result in energy. All entities considered “alive” (biological) run on energy. Teachers can talk to their students about energy, but students don’t really know what energy is until they take physics. This is where they learn about energy, forces and matter and its motion through space and time.

As a result, they end up with a huge, indecipherable textbook, having to memorize things they don’t have the background to understand. Rote learning: isn’t elimination of this the basis of the whole Common Core movement? How about we apply an active, inquiry-based learning process to the sciences, and get back to fundamentals with math? I digress.

One problem with pushing physics up to 9th grade is many students don’t have enough math skills to be able to learn physics. According to a student from North Hollywood High School, where they teach Physics first, “physical properties are invaluable to an understanding of chemistry. However, by pushing physics [up], students are forced to learn many concepts before ever taking a Calculus (or often even (sic) Pre-calculus) class, which would be ideal.”

This argument is completely valid, but a New York Times article written in 1999 states, ”We’re proposing a kind of conceptual physics that is not so mathematical, using just the algebra ninth graders know,” Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Leon Lederman, who is the leading advocate of Physics First said.

”You can teach Newtonian motion, the conservation of energy, and give a feeling for what an atom is, so they can walk into Chemistry the next year with grace and confidence.” -Leon Lederman

At Samo, not only is physics generally not taught until the junior year, it only covers mechanical physics — the study of forces acting upon bodies. There are many more fields of physics including astrophysics, econophysics, medical physics and even…chemical physics and biophysics.

All of these fields of physics can be a base for other classes or jobs that students might want to pursue.  If students fully understand science and how it works around them, maybe they will be motivated to continue their studies.

I think 9th graders should take a “Physical Science” or “Introduction to Physics Concepts” course, and study how the world around them works with real-life experiments, using basic algebra. After chemistry and biology, they could have the option of taking advanced physics in 12th grade, using more advanced math like vectors, geometry, and calculus.

The world is getting more and more complicated and technological. A strong understanding of physical sciences is going to help with employment and understanding what is going on around us. Climate change, bioengineering, artificial intelligence, control of the weather, GMO foods, biological warfare, epidemics, mass starvation – everything is changing and advancing so quickly, we need to rethink how we approach the sciences to maximize understanding as a community. If AI doesn’t get to us first.

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