Carroll County joins a move to put physics first

Across the country, officials are pushing to reverse the traditional sequence of high school science education


As the ninth-graders peered into two mirrors they had taped together to study reflections, their assignment seemed simple enough: Using one pencil as their object, count the number of pencils that appear in the mirrors from various angles.

Marco Alvarez and Ashley Ponton gradually decreased the angle of the mirrors from 67 degrees to 32 degrees, as physics teacher Joel Weiss had instructed, to better visualize the concepts of angle of reflection and angle of incidence. At 67 degrees, they counted five pencils. At a 32-degree angle, the reflections made Ponton's eyes cross.

"How am I supposed to count this many?" she puzzled as she strained to track the 13 images that filled the facing mirrors.

While the students at Century High in Sykesville are pondering their findings, educators are closely watching the educational experiment taking place there and in classrooms across the country - a physics-first movement that is betting on the benefits of teaching the science course during the first year of high school.

Once considered a subject too daunting for anyone but the smartest students, physics is being promoted as a foundational science that is best taught at the beginning of the science sequence. Instead of the conventional biology-chemistry-physics sequence developed in the 1890s, physics-first schools teach physics in ninth grade, chemistry in 10th grade and biology in 11th grade.

"Physics explains chemistry, chemistry explains biology," said Leon M. Lederman, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1988 and has been championing the physics-first movement for more than a decade. "There's a coherence, and that's what science is all about."

Physics-first proponents maintain that the study of biology has become increasingly complicated, in part because of advanced topics such as DNA replication that must be taught. They say that students do better if they have first mastered such concepts as the structure of atoms and molecules, which are taught in physics and chemistry.

For example, physics explores the chemical processes by which atoms form molecules, which helps students understand how molecules interact in biological functions.

Advice on sequence

Lederman, who said he receives e-mail every week from educators seeking his advice as they consider changing their science sequence, estimated that as many as 1,500 high schools nationwide are teaching physics to all ninth-graders.

"The most positive evidence we have is that enrollment in elective courses and Advanced Placement [courses] zooms up when physics is taught in the ninth grade," said Lederman, director emeritus of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago and founder of a residential public school for talented math and science students there.

He said he hopes that students with a greater knowledge of science will be better informed to make decisions about such ideas as whether genetically engineered foods are safe or whether cellular telephones cause cancer.

Fred Myers - science department chairman at Farmington High School in Connecticut and considered the "grandfather of physics-first" - was one of the first educators in the country to switch to a physics-first sequence 12 years ago.

"If it's done in a nonelitist way, physics is for everyone," Myers said. "Sometimes it takes time not only for the students to adapt, but also for the teachers to adapt. Once everyone has adapted, it's worth its weight in gold."

But critics worry that physics is too challenging and will discourage ninth-graders.

Nearly six in 10 physics teachers in a nationwide survey conducted last year opposed the idea, said Michael Neuschatz, senior research associate with the American Institute of Physics.

"Some teachers are just not comfortable with something they haven't tried before, and some would prefer teaching the more elite students," said Neuschatz, who conducts the survey every four years.

Last year's survey found that 55 percent of the 2,500 physics teachers who responded opposed the idea, while 24 percent agreed with it and 21 percent were neutral.

Brad Yohe, Carroll's science supervisor, said physics teachers were his loudest opponents.

"I'm not naive enough to tell you that teachers are thrilled to death," he said. "They're not. It's harder to teach physics to ninth-graders."

Happy in Carroll

Yohe, who said most of his science teachers are happy with the change, hired additional physics teachers. Meanwhile, others have earned dual certification, such as chemistry teachers becoming certified to teach physics.

Yohe said the key thing he did was to slowly introduce the idea.

"Parents have to understand what's going on and how it's going to work," said Yohe, who phased in the change over six years. "It makes them nervous."

For many adults, the thought of high school physics dredges up anxious memories of mind-numbing calculations. But physics-first proponents say that today's teenagers are learning conceptual physics that is rooted in algebra, not trigonometry and calculus.

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