Saturday, March 03, 2007

Should All Students Take Physics?

It appears that in the effort to bolster science literacy, some high schools in the US are beginning to require all students to take a class in physics.

Boosters say physics should no longer be seen as the hard-to-grasp province of math whizzes, but should be taught to everyone because it's key to developing analytical skills and a true understanding of chemistry and biology.

While I think this may be a step in the right direction, some time I believe that these things are not spelled out explicitly to the students, especially on why taking a class in physics is important REGARDLESS of what they do later on in life. When I used to run undergraduate intro physics labs (as many graduate students in physics tend to do as TA work), I remember telling my students in no uncertain terms that while it is "nice" that they could understand and remember some of the physics material that they got out of the course and labs, what is more important to acquire is the skill and analytical ability out of the course and labs. I flat told them that the majority of them are not physics majors, and will probably not use that much "direct" physics material that they learn in the class, even if they are engineers. But what they will learn and acquire are the ability to think things in a systematic, analytical manner (if the physics lessons are done properly), and how we gain knowledge and certainty on things that we accept. This ability transcends physics, and is useful in all aspects of life. The fact that some people do not have such ability is why we have people believing in pseudosciences, and why people cannot tell the difference between anecdotal evidence and valid scientific evidence.

So I'm all for teaching physics to everyone. However, I think in many cases, the students need to be told WHY they are being made to learn such a thing. They should be made aware that along with the material, HOW physics is done should also be the focus. It must be introduced deliberately, rather than subconsciously or via accident. For many of these students who will grow up and NOT become a physicist or a scientist, such ability to think clearly and arrive at a decision based on valid evidence will be a crucial factor in their lives.


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