kitchen table math, the sequel: Barry G on learning physics in high school

## Monday, June 15, 2009

### Barry G on learning physics in high school

We had a bit of physics in 8th and 9th grades. My first real course was as a senior in high school. The teacher was very good and I was totally amazed by the subject. Although it was not calculus-based, it did use trig which we were studying at the time, and math and science merged very nicely. I still remember the lecture on the derivation of the formula for distance of a uniformly accelerating body, relating it to the "area under the curve" which in this case was a straight line, and thus was the area of a triangle. I wondered why he called a straight line a "curve", and the next year in freshman calculus, it again all made sense, when we learned integration.
I can't wait to learn calculus.

Or physics.

Speaking of subjects I intend to learn, The Teaching Company has high school courses. I ordered the chemistry course. * I'm thinking of asking C. to work through as much of it as he can next summer, before he takes chemistry at Hogwarts. (He's taking AP biology next year, when he'll be a sophomore.)

I have Nature of the Earth, too, and Building Great Sentences, which is fantastic. Building Great Sentences is so fantastic that the other night, when Ed and an attorney friend were discussing the critical importance of writing short sentences, I rolled my eyes.

"You don't try to write short sentences?" Ed asked.

"No," I said curtly, leaving the men to wonder why.

While it is true that I personally have not read Strunk & White, I have listened to two lectures from Building Great Sentences, and thus feel confirmed in my view that short sentences are neither here nor there.

*

Allison said...

--(He's taking AP biology next year, when he'll be a sophomore.)

wait, really? with no chemistry course under his belt?

ap bio should require at least a modicum of understanding bonds, reactions, certain chemical structures and their byproducts. is this normal at hogwarts?

Catherine Johnson said...

The freshman biology course includes whatever "biochemistry" (is that the right word) the NY Regents bio course used to include.

So it's possible he knows those things -- ??

You would know better than I.

Apparently the Regents biology course has been watered down; I gather that all of the chemistry that used to be part of it was taken out, probably when the state decided that all students had to earn Regents diplomas.

Hogwarts kept all of that material.

What do you think?

ChemProf said...

That's pretty common, actually. If you look at the College Board's description of the AP Biology test, it is 25% molecules and cells (mostly cells and types of biomolecules), 25% heredity and evolution, and 50% organisms and populations. So the sense in most high schools is they can teach enough chemistry to get by.

That's why our Bio department gives AP credit for the second semester of Biology, which is mostly "critter biology", rather than the first, which contains a lot of biochemistry and which requires a year of chemistry first.

Now, in my opinion, this isn't ideal. They can get some funny ideas about how molecules work. My favorite example is the idea, stated in lots of Bio textbooks, that chemical energy is "stored" in chemical bonds, which implies that breaking a bond releases energy. This is wrong - it takes energy to break a bond or everything in the universe would break down into atoms! It works in thinking about respiration, because the product molecules (water and carbon dioxide) are so very stable, but it isn't extensible.

Biology is at a cross-roads in general, though, which effects how it is taught in high school. It is hard for biologists to see their discipline as dependent upon another (here's another turf issue!) We've barely gotten our college's Biology faculty to accept that Bio 1 isn't a freshman course, despite a truly horrific failure rate. If you look at the College Board, it assumes that there is such a thing as a freshman biology course, so that wouldn't require freshman chemistry! You'll see this, though, if you look at C's AP biology book -- it almost certainly starts with a couple chapters that attempt to teach all of chemistry (badly).

One of the biologists at my college is co-author of one of the major biology textbooks, and we've had lots of discussions about those chemistry chapters, but there's no way to squeeze a year and a half of material into a couple of chapters.

RMD said...

ChemProf,

Are there any books you might recommend for parents to read to help explain chemistry to their kids without introducing "wrong" concepts? (e.g., storing energy in bonds)

ElizabethB said...

I personally really like Real Science 4 Kids, it's written by a Chemist who's a homeschool mom, I've learned a lot from the K-3rd grade level, and I was a bio major who took inorganic chem (intro to, however, not the hard version.)

http://gravitaspublications.com/

She also has upper elementary and junior high versions of Chemistry that I like.

Catherine Johnson said...

You'll see this, though, if you look at C's AP biology book -- it almost certainly starts with a couple chapters that attempt to teach all of chemistry (badly).

That's really interesting.

I had subliminally picked up on these changes - but only subliminally.

If anyone has had any experience with the Teaching Company chemistry course, let me know.

I wonder if I should try to get C. to spend some time with that course this summer?

ChemProf said...

"Are there any books you might recommend for parents to read to help explain chemistry to their kids without introducing "wrong" concepts? (e.g., storing energy in bonds)"

RMD, I'd look at ElizabethB's suggestion, but I don't have a lot of experience with pre-high-school texts. That is something I should look into. I've seen a few really bad ones, as my mother teaches elementary school (K-2, multiage), and asks me questions about her textbooks occasionally, but I don't know of any good ones, I'm afraid.

Some of these wrong ideas, especially "storing energy in bonds", are so strongly established that you see them in almost any elementary science text, when they talk about converting chemical energy to kinetic energy, for example. A good college professor or high school teacher can help, by knowing the common misconceptions and dealing with them, but it would be great if we didn't have to, and a poor teacher can cement those misconceptions. I think that's why chemistry is often so poorly taught in high school. My high school teacher was a near-retirement white male who was an actual chemist, but his replacement was a young biology major who was only a chapter ahead of her class the next year.

For parents who want to review chemistry to help their kids, I know that students find the Schaum Outlines helpful when they review for upper level classes.