What is Physics First? "The Executive Board of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) recognizes that teaching physics to students early in their high school education is an important and useful way to bring physics to a significantly larger number of students than has been customary. This approach—which we call “Physics First”—has the potential to advance more substantially the AAPT’s goal of Physics for All, as well as to lay the foundation for more advanced high school courses in chemistry, biology or physics." In brief, the physics first approach requires all 9th graders to take physics. They then move on to take chemistry at sophomores, and then biology or AP biology as juniors. Students can then, in most districts, take AP physics or AP chemistry (or both) as seniors. This is the model now used in leading Massachusetts schools, including Newton, Brookline, Cambridge, and Deerfield, as well as high schools across the country (Missouri, Maryland, Illinois, Rhode Island, California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, etc.). Here's what a 1999 New York Times article describes about this movement: http://www.nytimes.com/1999/01/24/us/a-push-to-reorder-sciences-puts-physics-first.html.
What's better about Physics First? Here's what the Newton North High School website describes as the reasons this district adopted a physics first model:
- Physics is the foundation of all science and is the easiest to observe through experiments with light, sound, motion, electricity and magnetism.
- Physics deals with phenomena that relate directly to the student's world, making it a course in which students can make predictions, practice data collection and graphing techniques, and start to make scientific sense of their observations (Hickman, 1994). It maximizes the use of students’ personal experience in the everyday world and in their everyday language.
- Physics gives students the opportunity to apply their mathematical skills to real situations.
- Physics is the basis for understanding the more abstract concepts introduced in chemistry and biology. Today chemistry students learn about the electrostatic and nuclear forces in atoms, energy transformations that occur in chemical reactions, and gas laws while biology students delve into the biochemical processes in cells. Providing a strong conceptual framework in physics will only help students understand these complex processes (Hickman, 1994).
- The performance of 9th and 10th grade students taking a conceptual physics course on the NY Regents exam compared favorably to that of 12th grade students mathematical-based course (Hewitt, 1990).
- The sequence of biology-chemistry-physics for high school science was created in 1894 by a national commission, the Committee of Ten. This was when biology was a descriptive science focused on classification. Those rules no longer apply (Lederman, 1998).
- More girls and minorities are succeeding in science and pursuing more advanced science courses in schools which start physics in the 9th grade (Cohen, 1999).
- The science framework and related MCAS will be changing to include subject area courses and exams, one of which is a grade 9/10 conceptual physics course.
- All students will have had a physics course providing relevance and real world connections to their lives. All students will see physics for what it really is, not a course which is too difficult to take. With this in mind, more students may go on to pursue higher level physics.
As noted on the Newton website, one of the key benefits of a physics first approach is that this strategy helps increase the percentage of girls and students of color in taking physics, which in turn could increase the percentage of girls and students of color who choose physics as a college major or even a career. Considerable evidence documents that students of color are less likely than white students to take a physics class (http://www.aip.org/isns/reports/2008/055.html), and students of color are very underrepresented in physics at the college level, even at elite schools such as MIT (http://www.aas.org/cswa/MEETING/lopez1.pdf.). Similarly, women are underrepresented in college physics classes and in graduate programs in physics and engineering. In line with this view, a 2006 article in the Yale Daily News (http://www.yaledailynews.com/articles/view/17621) noted that even at this very elite school, "engineering, physics and mathematics lagged behind many of the humanities departments in attracting women, who tend to flock to fields ranging from art history to English, as well as the "softer" sciences, such as biology and environmental studies.... In the 2005-'06 school year, anthropology, environmental studies, art history and psychology are among the majors in which women are most overrepresented. At the same time, women are underrepresented in many of the physical sciences, including electrical, chemical and mechanical engineering, mathematics and physics." So, our approach to teaching ecology and environmental science is simply exposing girls to precisely those areas of science in which they are already more likely to be interested.
I believe the high school science teachers were right to shake up our required 9th grade science curriculum to increase interest and accessibility to science constructs for all students. But I believe that considerable evidence suggests the best way to accomplish this goal would have been to move Amherst Regional High School to a physics first model -- which would have the added benefit of eliminating tracking (all students in Newton take the same physics course in 9th grade - unlike our divide between "honors" and "college prep" in the 9th grade course) and exposing all students (including girls and students of color) to physics in 9th grade, followed by chemistry in 10th grade, and biology in 11th grade. This approach would increase the rigor of science education in Amherst for all students, and keep options open for all students in terms of college majors and professional careers. I hope that our new superintendent, Dr. Alberto Rodriguez, will take a serious look at the physics first approach now being used in leading high schools, and will consider recommending such an approach in Amherst.