Forget about debating what came first, the chicken or the egg. A new trend in science is to first examine exactly how that chicken crossed the road. In other words, physics-the exploration of energy and force-is now the first science course taught at some high schools.
Back in 1893, a committee of 10 educators, led by a Harvard University president, decided high school science should start with biology in ninth grade, chemistry in 10th grade and, if necessary, physics in 11th or 12th grade.
The committee in part felt that physics required too much math for freshmen, which is untrue, according to physics Nobel Prize winner Leon Lederman, who is also a resident scholar at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. Lederman has been leading a crusade to bring the "Physics First" program to high schools across the nation and even Canada.
Lederman, director emeritus at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, adds that back in the 1890s, there were no connections among the three science courses. It wasn't until the 1930s when quantum mechanics revealed atoms and their importance that showed the connection among the sciences.
Lederman, who was always "vaguely aware something was wrong" with the typical science line-up taught in high school, says that biology depends on molecules like DNA. And to understand DNA, one has to understand a molecule. And to understand a molecule, one has to understand chemistry and how different atoms interact. And atoms are taught in physics.
Lederman estimates that 350 to 450 private and public schools in the U.S. use Physics First. "It's catching on," says Lederman, founder of Project ARISE, the American Renaissance in Science Education. "I see it [becoming more the norm in schools] maybe in 10 years."
"It's been echoed by every scientist that biology is the most complex of the sciences," says Kim Bess, science coordinator at the San Diego Public School District, one of the biggest school districts using physics-first. "So why on Earth do we teach it first?"
Even the National Science Teachers Association proposed the Physics First approach before Lederman announced it in a workshop in 1995, noting physics explores interaction between objects. "Physics really is the fundamental science," says Gerald Wheeler, NSTA executive director.
"If we could get kids to understand [physics] at the conceptual level-the basic idea of force, motion and energy-then they can go into chemistry and understand reaction rates and energy flow, and [then take] biology to understand biochemistry."
The American Association of Physics Teachers encourages Physics First, but Executive Officer Bernie Khoury says some schools and teachers "may not be ready for it."
Teachers may need additional support and materials, such as workshops, to help them develop and teach Physics First.
"Under the old paradigm, the students taking physics had more maturity and more analytic and math capabilities," he says. "So if you turn that sequence upside down, you can expect the students coming into Physics First will be quite different."
The American Institute of Physics doesn't take a position. In fact, Michael Neuschatz, AIP's senior research associate, says many teachers oppose the change. Neuschatz adds that the shift to Physics First requires more money, more time and more training to prepare teachers. There is already a shortage of qualified high school physics teachers.
School face many obstacles in rearranging the science curriculum in part because they are "not recruiting the right teachers," not retaining them and not offering enough professional development, adds Lederman, also Pritzker professor of science at Illinois Institute of Technology.
Twenty Years with Physics First
While the switched science approach is fairly new in San Diego and other districts, Choate-Rosemary Hall, a private school in Wallingford, Conn., has been teaching Physics First since the late 1970s, according to Kathleen Wallace, science department head. Taking a physical science before a biological science was first recommended. Then in 1986, Choate-Rosemary Hall required high school students to take a physical science course before biology.
Now, all but five of the 150 entering freshmen are taking physics. And most of those students will go on to take chemistry next year. While the private school students are not required to take all three courses-physics, chemistry and biology-students do tend to take more AP science classes in their later years.
"It made a lot of sense to us," Wallace says.
Biology was largely observational in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Wallace says. As the 20th century progressed, biology became much more "molecular in nature" and complex, she adds.
While Choate-Rosemary Hall has no concrete data to prove or disprove the success of Physics First, Wallace says that many educators nationwide call her looking for information about the program. "We know a fair amount of our kids often go into science in college," she says. "I don't know if it's any more than we'd have under the old science sequence," she says.
She adds that by the time students get to biology they have the "benefit of having two other lab-based courses in science" under their belts. "They have confidence in the lab and they have a familiarity with the scientific techniques and methods."
They are also better readers and writers by the time they get to biology and that leads to greater success in biology due in part to its stress on reading text for understanding.
The Physics First program required the school to increase its number of physics teachers. So the biology and chemistry teachers were trained in physics-some took summer course work and some paired with experienced physics teachers, visited the classroom and followed the syllabus.
"We encourage teachers to teach across disciplines," Wallace says. "It allows teachers to bring more into the classroom."
As for the math component, Wallace says the regular physics class requires students to be in Algebra I. The class teaches conceptual physics but requires "some understanding and ease with the basic concepts of algebra." Teachers discuss slope and the laws they need to understand. The honors physics class requires students to have already taken Algebra I before.
Math's Role-or Not?
Educators say students are more than capable of handling physics at a younger age. Some say math may play a big role in grasping physics, as it involves some calculus and many ninth-graders are only taking algebra.
But Lederman says that schools can "easily teach physics on a conceptual basis with almost no math."
"It's not watered down, it's watered up," Lederman says. And teachers have to teach it in "English rather than in algebra."
For example, anyone can explain basketball player Michael Jordan's "hang-time" with a formula using velocity and gravity, Lederman says. But he says you "really have to understand physics" to explain it. "When you jump, you use all the muscles in your legs, you push against the floor... and you rise rapidly. Then you slow down. Gravity slows you down and then you stop and you speed up again until you return back to the floor. Most of the time of the jump is spent at the top and that's called 'hang time' in basketball."
However, Jim Jarvis, a geosystems and physics teacher at Westfield High School in Fairfax County, Va., says physics taught with minimal math is silly. "I find Physics First well intentioned, but nonetheless amusing and shallow in that some who have learned physics with mathematical rigor can claim that the math is not needed to grasp the concepts of physics," he says. "Without the math, the concepts just aren't there."
"Without the math," he adds, "all a student has learned is about physics, not physics."
But at Maryland's Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville, some freshman are learning math-based physics. Out of about 400 freshmen, 88 take the course and have already taken Algebra I. The same students are now taking geometry or a higher math.
"I think it is a very effective program for students," says Principal Jeanette Dixon. "We put our best and brightest in that class."
And physics teacher David Zaleski says the freshmen now "get it" just as much as the seniors taking physics, though most seniors are taking pre-calculus and have additional algebra and geometry behind them.
"We teach essentially the same material at the same pace," Zaleski says. "There is some difference in the mathematical skills [between freshmen and higher grades.] ... What we teach with physics is largely based on Algebra I skills. I strongly believe you could go a long way in any introductory physics course using algebra skills."
San Diego's Reversal
Two years ago, San Diego schools discovered that only 38 percent of their graduating seniors were eligible to apply or attend the University of California due to competition. Students, who were only obliged to take two years of high school science, needed at least three years to get in. So, the superintendent and chancellor of instruction required students to take three years of science. Then Bess looked into Lederman's work and implemented Active Physics. "It has the foundational understanding of physics' principles that kids need before they go to chemistry," Bess says. "The underpinning of everything is physics. Then you can look at chemistry, which takes the energy you learn in physics and transforms it chemically. Then the real difficult modern biology can be done."
Last year, some schools and teachers in San Diego volunteered for a pilot program to teach physics for freshmen. This year, every freshman takes it, having already taken algebra in eighth-grade.
Among the challenges, Bess says, was getting physics teachers comfortable teaching 14-year-olds, when they were used to a smaller group of upperclassmen. The district had to increase physics teachers from 30 to about 90 to accommodate more students. The district trained other science teachers, had them undergo a two-week summer institute and monthly meetings. The district is also paying teachers to undergo a two-year physics program at San Diego University.
Girls Encouraged to Pursue Physics First
At The Hockaday School, an all-girls private K-12 school in Dallas, freshmen started taking physics last fall. "When I was observing some of the science classrooms [in the past] the girls in their earlier years were missing on understanding some fundamental principles of all science-those that are learned in physics," says Barbara Fishel, the school's lead science teacher chair. Physics is about why things move and measuring movement. "Biology is really molecular in nature," she says. "And girls need abstract thinking skills to learn that."
To prepare, Fishel says eighth-graders last year were taught experiential physics, including Newton's laws of physics. Now freshmen, they learn about waves and thermodynamics, among other traditional physics topics, in conceptual physics.
To accommodate teaching physics to freshmen as well as juniors (who did not take physics as freshmen) this year, the school's chemistry and biology teachers are being trained in physics to help teach the classes.
Maryland Considers Approach
As a state, Maryland has been looking into the Physics First approach for about four years.
Diane Householder, coordinator for science for the Maryland Department of Education, says she started considering the idea about six years ago when she first heard about it. Two years later, she applied to get funds from Research for Better Schools, a non-profit educational research and development firm in the Mid-Atlantic region, to bring professionals who use or tout Physics First to speak to educators and teachers in Maryland about the success of such programs.
"The whole thrust of the effort has been to make science educators and leaders aware of what's going on at the national level," Householder says.
While she would not recommend what districts should do, she says each county can make its own decision. At least four counties in Maryland use Physics First and another three counties are considering it.
"It will always be something that the science supervisors in various counties will decide," Householder says. "All I do is make sure the community of learners and educators is aware of cutting-edge information."
Personally, Householder says, students who take physics as freshmen "tend to want to take more science" in later years. "They're more comfortable with it," says Householder, a former physics teacher. "Physics is a very concrete science. It's about things that kids experience every day. It wins their attention."
At Paint Branch High School, one of six Montgomery County Schools in Maryland leading Physics First, the freshmen are excited. And Dixon says the approach, which has been around fort five years at Paint Branch High, ends up accelerating students so that they can take chemistry and biology in the following year of school. Then they have time to take AP biology, AP chemistry or AP physics in later grades. Dixon adds that cost is not an issue because the state and county provide training for teachers. "We want to hire the best and brightest to teach our kids," Dixon says.
"I see kids in the hallway and they say, 'Mr. Zaleski, we can't wait to take AP Physics next year.' There's a lot of built-up interest," Zaleski says. "There's no data that shows those in ninth-grade physics become great scientists. But in class, they tend to do well."
Angela Pascopella, firstname.lastname@example.org, is features editor.