Physics: fundamental and forsaken

August 15, 2006|By JOHN MURDOCK

How important are initiatives like the "physics-first" program being implemented in Carroll County? Consider this: Although physics is the fundamental branch of science - the bedrock on which much of our knowledge is built - many American students never even take physics in school. It is primarily designated as an elective for 11th- and 12th-grade students. Even the students who do take physics in U.S. schools are not doing well compared with students in other countries.

The 1995 administration of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study compared the average achievement of students in science literacy and physics at the end of secondary school. U.S. students scored significantly below the international average of 21 countries in science literacy, and scored at the bottom of 16 countries in physics. Given the slow progression of change in education, these comparisons are still very relevant in 2006.

I conducted a study that was a secondary analysis of data from the mathematics and science study. The purpose was to compare the typical physics curriculum - specifically its depth and breadth - in the United States with the typical curricula in different countries, and to determine whether there are correlations between depth and breadth of physics curricula and physics achievement.

The results showed that the U.S. curriculum has low breadth and low depth and that there is a significant correlation between achievement and depth. Given the small number of countries in the sample (13), the significant correlation indicates a strong relationship between depth and achievement. The correlation between breadth and achievement was insignificant, but the U.S. breadth was the lowest in the sample and was significantly lower than the average for the countries in the study. These results indicate that the U.S. physics curriculum needs to be deeper and broader.

Much of the discussion of science and math curricula has surrounded depth versus breadth, implying that one must be sacrificed to achieve the other. This is true in yearlong courses such as physics, chemistry and biology. So how do other countries achieve both greater depth and greater breadth? They have a more coherent plan for K-12 science education.

In my experience as a physics teacher in Howard County, even the top students come to my class with little knowledge of physics concepts. In the European countries included in my study, some physics topics are taught in depth in earlier grades than in the United States. These students enter secondary school with in-depth knowledge.

What can be done? Certainly, the physics-first initiatives like the one in Carroll County are an improvement. However, more physics topics should be taught, in depth, at even earlier grades. Change in education is often very slow. Given this reality, those of us who teach physics to juniors and seniors should sacrifice breadth in order to achieve depth. The Howard County Essential Curriculum in physics and the state's Core Learning Goals in physics include a relatively small number of topics so that depth need not be sacrificed.

It is refreshing to see that Carroll County schools have the courage to go against the grain and try something new. Freshman physics appears to be meeting with success in their high schools. This is a good first step, but much more needs to be done. As a state, we need to develop a K-12 curriculum for science that will allow students to attain both depth and breadth of knowledge in physics as well as other branches of science.

John Murdock, who taught physics at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia for six years, has been appointed clinical assistant professor of science education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His e-mail is

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