Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Physics First

It is interesting that something  like this that has been pushed for for years, can still make the news.

A middle school in New Jersey has revised its curriculum and puts physics first, ahead of biology and chemistry, for students taking science classes.

Egg Harbor City is part of a movement to rethink how science is taught. Instead of taking biology, chemistry, then maybe physics in high school, students will take algebra-based physics first, at the same time they take algebra, then take biology and chemistry.

That's radical, dudes!

Or is it? Anyone who has followed the field of physics education would have remembered way back in the end of the last century and into this one of this effort to put physics first, championed by Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman.

Of course, it is easier said than done. The ability to do this is very much tied to the ability of the teachers that conduct these classes. I believe that there were extensive training programs for these teachers in trying to implement this concept, and I don't know to what extent this is continuing, or even if this concept is even practiced anywhere else.

I've always told my students that out of the three science subjects, which are physics, chemistry, and biology, physics is the one they are most familiar with and should come naturally to them. Of  course, they look at me as if I said something outrageous, because everyone has the impression that physics is the most difficult out of the three sciences. I tell them that they are already familiar with the workings of physics, that the concept of mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity, etc. are something they use everyday and even take for granted.

I tell them that they already have some QUALITATIVE idea of physics. What we do teach in physics classes is a way to describe these familiar phenomena QUANTITATIVELY. This is where we go beyond "What goes up, must come down" and add "where and when it will come down". That is physics. The mathematical description of many of these familiar events is what separate a pedestrian understanding of something and a physics description of it.

But these events and phenomena are familiar things. In chemistry and biology, you have to deal with things that are not often common, everyday encounters. Maybe if you cook everyday, then chemistry is indirectly something you commonly do. But still, you deal also with a lot of thermodynamics and mechanics. Physics is something you deal with every day and almost every second of the day. You are just not aware of it.

So it should be familiar, not foreign. And putting it first is logical, because it is that familiar.


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