kitchen table math, the sequel: Physics First?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Physics First?

"To teach her students about velocity, teacher Ethel Locke set them loose in the halls of Woonsocket High School with marble launchers.
Through trial and error, the students discovered that their marbles achieved the longest arcs if they were launched at an angle halfway between the floor and the ceiling. If they set the launchers at higher or lower angles, gravity pulled the marbles to the floor at shorter distances."

Physics no longer a junior member

"Pausing from the task at hand, Devon confided that he liked physics better than he thought he would. Ordinarily, he said, it 'is not a class you would like.' "

That's because it isn't physics.

How about deriving the equations you need from g=32.174 ft/sec^2 and analytically calculating that angle.?

Does anyone have any experience with Physics First? The story claims that this order has "nearly doubled" the demand for AP science courses in physics, biology, and chemistry. They must have another senior-level AP physics course. This means that kids would take two physics courses in high school?

39 comments:

SteveH said...

I just checked. Woonsocket High offers:

Principles of Biology
Principles of Chemistry
Principles of Physics

For college prep

and

Accelerated Biology
Accelerated Chemistry
Accelerated Physics

as honors courses.

No AP classes offered in these subjects. I assume that the Physics First classes are the "principles" courses. I can't imagine that the accelerated physics course is done as a freshman or that those headed for the accelerated course would take both.

SteveH said...

I came across this other comment regarding another high school talked about in the article.

"Julia Steiny: Suddenly, kids find physics a magnetic field to study"

http://www.projo.com/education/juliasteiny/content/se_edwatch0403_05-03-09_LKE73MG_v9.2aa7d25.html

"Portsmouth High still offers senior (traditional) and AP physics. But with basic physics already under their belts, seniors are now free to take all sorts of advanced science, including oceanography, anatomy, urban ecology, as well as AP biology and chemistry. Many are doubling up on science courses. This is great."

So, slowing down the material is better for some kids, but does everyone have to take Physics First. I'm trying to figure that out. It seems like they do.


"What a relief when education gets incentives right. Kids will work harder and take on tougher challenges when they want to. Not so much when we cajole, force, threaten, shame or browbeat them into it."

Well, instead of doing all of those things, you could teach them correctly in the first place. It couldn't be that. It has to just be an issue with motivation. Blame the students. If students are motivated, it's amazing what they can learn. Ergo, it must mean that if kids aren't learning, then they just need more motivation.

SteveH said...

As far as I know, the idea of Physics First was not about forcing kids to take more courses, starting with hands-on motivation courses.

SteveH said...

"Added Woonsocket colleague Suzanne Doucette: “Math is math, but physics is real life.”"

I'd like to add this to Catherine's "I thought I couldn't be amazed again" list.

SteveH said...

"Critics of the Physics First approach say that freshmen lack the advanced math skills necessary to master the material.

But advocates say the critics miss the point.

Students always can take a second, more advanced physics course as an elective when they are seniors, said Ronald Kahn, director of client services at the East Bay Educational Collaborative.

Physics First “keeps them excited,” says Kahn, himself a veteran high school physics teacher.

“That’s what we need in the ninth grade,” he said, students motivated to embrace the sciences.GIVING SCIENCE A CLOSER LOOK."


We understand the point. Physics First is not about a better way to teach content. It's a way to slow down the process (lower expectations) and improve motivation. Instead of requiring real science in high school, students can take hands-on fluff science with the option of taking the real science courses later, instead of something else that they might like to take.

lgm said...

Sounds like they've renamed Physical Science which is either an 8th or 9th grade course depending on how the school chooses to do it and who they want to offer it to.

Anonymous said...

We have noticed the push by NSF for discovery math in the textbooks it funds because most states test math competency and the lack of knowledge and skills becomes apparent over time.

It's easy to overlook that the various NSF funded MSPs - math and science partnerships- also push discovery science.

Many of the Centers for Learning and Teaching set up with colleges and universities have their focus on inquiry learning in science. Some are focused on K - 12, but others seem to be trying to change science instruction to an inquiry approach even at the university level.

It's not clear whether some of our kids will ever escape from these inquiry methods until they are in advanced college or graduate course work.

How will they get the math and science foundational knowledge to get that far?

Steve H-

In connection with your comment on lowering expectations to a point where the work expected is accessible to most, it's interesting to note that many of the CLTs have an express focus on "Diversity/Equity".

Why can't the focus be on lifting everyone up instead of slowing some capable kids down?

Richard I said...

I have a quote on my teaching room along the lines of .......

"There are three physics courses taught at most universities: physics with calculus, physics without calculus and physics without physics."

It sounds like Physics First could be a prerequisite for "physics without physics".

Catherine Johnson said...

I haven't read the thread, so maybe someone has mentioned this, but I'm pretty sure that the person behind Physics First is a physicist.

sigh

I'll find my Wall Street Journal article...

Anonymous said...

Richard I,

That is hilarious. I'm going to have to remember that.

SusanS

Catherine Johnson said...

Textbook Battle: Top High Schools Fight New Science As Overly Simple—San Diego's Physics Overhaul Makes Classes Accessible, Spurs Parental Backlash—Test Scores Barely Budge

Catherine Johnson said...

Freshmen get ball rolling on physics
Many high schools alter traditional order of classes to hook students on science earlier

Catherine Johnson said...

Leon Lederman

Catherine Johnson said...

A few years ago David Klein told me the situation in science education is even worse than the situation in math.

ChemProf said...

Eh. I don't have a problem with this -- as lgm says, it is basically physical science. I'll admit, though, that part of my reasoning is that high school science is usually taught so badly that it is hard to screw it up more. The nice thing about even discovery physics as a first course is that it is better suited to introduce experimentation than biology is. In typical high school courses, students are taught the scientific method at the beginning, then never apply it or even refer to it again.

That said, I think the idea is flawed. Chemistry does depend on physics, but depends on modern physics/quantum mechanics, not the kind of kinematics taught in high school physics. I can see teaching chemistry before biology, if you want to include biochemical concepts, which is increasingly how college biology is taught (at my school, Bio 1 is a sophomore course, since they need chemistry first).

It did look like they were getting some exposure to the math -- the instructor did introduce some trig and you don't need a whole lot of trig to do this kind of physics -- so I don't know that it does any harm. Not that that's a ringing endorsement of high school science in general. I tend to assume my students will know what a mole is and not much else, honestly.

Kai said...

"Sounds like they've renamed Physical Science which is either an 8th or 9th grade course depending on how the school chooses to do it and who they want to offer it to."

Yes--And I think a solid physical science course in 8th grade is excellent because then you get physics (and chemistry) "first", which is an excellent way to start, because it is so fundamental, but there is still time to do four years of high school/AP level science.

But maybe my expectations are too high.

SteveH said...

Physics First, as described in this article, is really not about a better way of doing what they had before. It's about doing something different. These are extra courses used for motivation purposes. You should always be able to do better by adding more courses or slowing down coverage of the material.

This sort of science is really for middle school. Actually, my son does get this sort of thing along with having to memorize a lot of facts. The problem with this implementation of Physics First in high school is that these are extra courses that have to be traded for something else.

There seems to be a big resistance by educators to follow a problem back to its source. Everything ends up as a student problem; they need remediation or motivation.

SteveH said...

"...the instructor did introduce some trig and you don't need a whole lot of trig to do this kind of physics ..."

I saw that, but this is a freshman course. I'd love to see the syllabus.

SteveH said...

"I'm pretty sure that the person behind Physics First is a physicist."

I've always thought that Physics First was supposed to be a better way of doing the same thing. This article clearly shows that they use it for motivational purposes only.

ChemProf said...

"I've always thought that Physics First was supposed to be a better way of doing the same thing. This article clearly shows that they use it for motivational purposes only."

It is supposedly better, but it was never a better way to teach PHYSICS particularly. The theory is that biology uses concepts from chemistry, which uses concepts from physics, so that order builds better. The traditional order was based on math dependence, so started with descriptive biology (no math), then chemistry (some algebra, need a good understanding of ratios), and finally physics when students had at least trig (although part of the reason that I find it hard to worry much is that the typical trig-based high school physics is not that useful compared to a real calculus based course). The complaint is that the science courses don't build, since concepts from biology don't help with the study of chemistry, and physics doesn't build from chemistry.

To me, the flaw here (and the reason a physicist came up with this idea, not a chemist) is that the physics that chemistry builds on isn't taught, and can't be taught well, in high school. A high school version of quantum mechanics is necessarily going to be an exercise in hand-waving.

Biology can build on chemistry, depending on how it is taught, so I'd argue that given the math issue, a better order might be chemistry, biology, physics. However, since chemistry is usually the worst taught of all of high school science, that's probably a bad idea!

Allison said...

We've had this discussion before on other comment threads, and I agree with ChemProf.

I *did* have the order of Chemistry, Bio, and Physics. It was honors Chem and honors bio (they didn't offer AP versions thereof.) The Chem course had a math test you had to pass as a prerequisite-basically, you had to be in honors alg 2 or higher to be in honors Chem. The honors bio course would then cover cellular respiration, ATP cycles, etc. in molecular detail, since it was possible to explain reduction and oxidation chemically.


The only place where I strongly disagree with ChemProf is in his claim of not-so-useful trig-based physics.

Calculus based physics is really overwhelming if it's the first time you see physics co-req'd with the first time you see calculus. It's much better to have actually been forced to work out and draw free body diagrams for a semester or a year in high school, and then in college (or later in high school if you have the math down), do the same and do the equations with calculus, too. The reason being that time to get the intuition right is really important for physics. But I'll speak to this more in a few days; I'm going to follow up with a big post in a few days about how badly we Americans learn physics at all levels, well into grad school...and the problems are deeply conceptual, not mathematical.

ChemProf said...

Actually, Allison, I'd agree with you that taking physics and calculus simultaneously is overwhelming. In an ideal world, I'd have students take calculus first, then calculus based physics. I've had many students take this sequence, and it isn't clear to me that those who had physics in high school do any better than those who hadn't. Given that isn't going to happen, however, I don't know that it matters much when physics is taught in high school.

9th grade science is often more like middle school science, at least in my neck of the woods. In my day, the normal sequence was Life Science in 9th, Biology in 10th, Chemistry in 11th, and Physics in 12th. Looking at my old high school's website, I see it hasn't changed much, except that now freshmen take Earth Science. So, having a basic physics course in 9th grade, even one that is discovery based, would probably be an improvement!

ChemProf said...

Another thought. My husband and I have been considering homeschooling, largely because of this site and lefty's. It is useful to know the red flags, like our local "excellent" elementary school reminding parents to work on those math facts! We have some time to figure it out, as our daughter is two months old, but have been reading The Well Trained Mind.

It is interesting/depressing to note that the physics course described in the article is not much different than the physics class they recommend for fourth graders in The Well Trained Mind (except for the introduction to basic trig!)

Anonymous said...

With a 2 month old I'd suggest reading Jane Healy's classic Your Child's Growing Mind and then her Endangered Minds.

They are fascinating and changed how I raised my kids. Too much visual stimulus through TV and videogames for very young kids may leave them almost unteachable no matter how good the instruction.

Couple a poor attention span with inquiry learning and whole language and you have the mess so many of us are seeing.

Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure about the "this belongs in middle school" comments. Launching marbles sounds a lot like the kind of "hands-on experiments" we did in fifth and sixth grade (which was elementary school back in the day).

SteveH said...

"Launching marbles ..."

Of course this is all based on the information from the article. We don't know the details, but we have vary good reasons to suspect that there is very little rigor involved, expecially in a freshman course.

I wish I could argue about the best approach to science in K-12, but the battles we have to fight are way, way below that. In this case, it's not Physics First, it's take three extra classes before you get to the real content because that's better for most kids who weren't prepared properly in K-8.

I would like to know, however, if students can skip the three beginner courses and go straight to the real classes. Hopefully, they won't do this at the high school my son will go to.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm going to follow up with a big post in a few days about how badly we Americans learn physics at all levels, well into grad school...and the problems are deeply conceptual, not mathematical.

I didn't learn physics at all.

Part of my motivation -- maybe a lot of my motivation -- stems from how poorly I was educated, and this was with an Ivy League degree (& a Ph.D.)

Barry Garelick said...

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.

Eric H said...

Steve H claims that because students are testing ideas rather than deriving them "it isn't physics."

As an experimental physicist & professor, I strongly disagree. Physics is an experimental science. It is perfectly possible, and to me preferable, to get a solid conceptual introduction to physics without any sophisticated math. Focusing strongly on math can cause two problems. For those without strong math skills it can confuse and turn off. Just as problematic, for those who know the math, it can make them think they understand the physics just because they can crank through some equations. I even see this problem with some graduate students -- if during a qualifying exam I ask them to explain something and they begin by writing an equation rather than drawing a picture they are bound to be in for a rough time.

In teaching the introductory physics sequence the things I find missing most often -- numerical literacy (ability to do back of the envelope calculations & approximations, ability to work with units) and basic understanding of important concepts like potential -- would most likely be hindered more than helped by a more mathematically sophisticated introduction. Conceptual Physics, as is done with Physics First, is definitely the way to go.

SteveH said...

"It is perfectly possible, and to me preferable, to get a solid conceptual introduction to physics without any sophisticated math."

Thanks, but I think I will have my son skip the "conceptual" learning, thank you, especially the way it's done in K-12, i.e. low expectations. Unfortunately, many schools are requiring the conceptual fluff course first. If you want to talk about a rigorous course in experimental science, then I'm willing to listen. But if you want to talk about wasting class time with launching marbles in the air, I'll pass. That is not high school work.


"Conceptual Physics, as is done with Physics First, is definitely the way to go."

This really isn't about physics first, it's about conceptual first; it's about having to take another course; it's about lower expectations. You can always improve education (I hope) by requiring more classes. However, it would be much better to fix the teaching of science and math in K-8 so that extra conceptual science courses are not necessary in high school.

Paul B said...

I think there's a bit of misreading going on regarding this article.

First, and this is just a nit because it might just be poor reporting but; marble launching isn't about velocity. It's about the interaction of velocity (as the marble leaves the launcher),acceleration (as the marble is acted upon by gravity), and the height and angle of the muzzle.

Second, the primary focus of the program is to move physics from senior to junior year as a means towards fostering more interest in physics, specifically, and science in general. The article makes a point of the possibility of more rigorous physics courses later on.

There's no way to tell how much rigor is being applied in this program (from the linked article) and if the opening velocity observation indicates the rigor in the reporting it would seem that this point may have been missed.

I would also offer up the observation that ANY high school course that is taught well should include elements that 'hook' the student to elevate interest. If the article is to be believed, it sounds like the original (senior) physics course was decidedly NOT doing that.

If shooting marbles is the hook and it is used to drag student's curiosity to a new level, then followed by direct instruction that connects their observation to the math, I don't see the problem. If shooting marbles is finished after the data is gathered then the curiosity engendered is wasted.

I just can't tell if that is what the program is doing from the evidence provided and I would caution about reading too much into it in either the 'play' aspects or the 'rigor' that follows.

I remember doing similar experiments (with lots of rigor) in college physics after I was equipped to deal with the calculus inherent to such work. I also remember doing similar experiments in high school with a formulaic treatment. Both were valuable and neither 'ruined' me (at least I don't think so).

What might not be obvious to everyone reading this is the extent to which this kind of experimental work has drifted down (to lower grades) where neither the teachers or the students are equipped to get beyond the 'play'. For those who are aware of this migration, this kind of article raises the hairs on the back of their neck. For those who are unaware of the drift, this kind of article seems perfectly reasonable, even inspirational.

Perhaps this article describes the reporter's experience more than the teacher's.

SteveH said...

Physics is being moved from the junior year to the freshman year. It's not the same course. I originally thought that the idea behind Physics First was that it was a better ordering of the same material. Obviously, it can't do that, but what is lost in the move of physics should be gained by the increased rigor of biology and chemistry. It doesn't do that either. Apparently, high schools are using this revision of order as an excuse to lower expectations and conceptualize all of the courses. They require more classes.

There might be some justification for this to "hook" more students into taking additional science courses, but they could do that without using Physics First as pedagogical cover. It reminds me too much of math. Schools talk about understanding and critical thinking, but what they really mean is lower expectations. Rather than look backwards to earlier grades to see if there is a fundamental flaw there, they assume that they just have to try something different. Our high school received many kudos for their algebra with lab class in ninth grade. I'm sure that this helps many kids, but the students would have been better helped with something other than Everyday Math in K-6 and CMP in 7th and 8th grades. Rather than add an additional layer of science classes in high school, they should fix science in K-8. If the math is taken out, they can handle it.

As with many things in K-12, this is about lower expectations dressed up as better education to hide the fact that too many kids are not getting to high school properly prepared.

EricH said...

SteveH, I think you have a different idea of what "conceptual physics" means. Your comment that it is only a cover for lower expectations is absolutely not what I meant nor what I have seen in the classroom. We have been shifting our introductory course more and more towards conceptual physics over the past 5 years because we have found that students actually learn the material better. The thing is that once you understand the math, math is not the difficult part of physics. Physics is. Math (calculus) can be a distraction.

You say you'd rather have your son skip the conceptual learning. Frankly, if I had a choice of a student who only took a conceptual physics course as a Freshman or one who took the typical junior physics course (say at a Halliday and Resnick type level common in many high schools) I'd go for the former. Continuing the physics education of someone with a strong conceptual understanding of the material by adding the math is much easier then having to go back and teach the physics over again (and undo all the bad habits common in students who think that physics is just manipulating equations).

ChemProf said...

EricH, you are assuming that students are acquiring a strong conceptual understanding in these classes, as opposed to playing around five hours a week. In college, that may well be true, but in high school it often isn't, especially if the person teaching physics was the Earth Science teacher since the former (senior) physics teacher is now teaching AP. This would have been the case at my high school, for example, where we never offered more than two classes of physics.

A Conceptual Physics class can be rigorous, but as played out in modern American high schools, it often isn't. It is not easy to tell from this article what kind of class is being discussed here, since like a lot of education writing it is vague and easily distracted by shiny things, but SteveH is right to be concerned that Physics First in high school results in most students not really learning any physics. I am less concerned because I'm pretty sure they weren't learning much anyway. Certainly in the last decade, I can't assume that students who have had high school chemistry actually know any chemistry!

SteveH said...

"Your comment that it is only a cover for lower expectations is absolutely not what I meant nor what I have seen in the classroom."

A freshman physics course taken by ALL students, including those who haven't gotten to algebra yet, must lower expectations. It may be better to have kids take this course before getting to AP physics or college physics, but that does not address whether the schools are making every effort to prepare kids properly before that point. Physics First is a way for schools to pretend that they are improving while not addressing the real issues of education. You can take any course, conceptualize the subject matter, and then claim that students are better prepared to start the course you are replacing. You're inserting an extra course, not rearranging the order.

Your assumption is that this is just a curriculum fix. I say that it's lowering expectations. If there is a problem with the traditional physics course, the question is whether the kids are not ready for the material yet, or whether the schools are not preparing the kids properly. I say it's the latter.

Besides, I don't trust schools one bit to do any sort of in-class, group, discovery work effectively. I would be more impressed if the marble launching was done as individual homework. But their goal is really not rigorous discovery or conceptual understanding, it's about hands-on group work in class. At some point schools have to ditch the concepts and waste of class time and get down to the real work, preferably before high school.

SteveH said...

"I can't assume that students who have had high school chemistry actually know any chemistry!"

I agree 100%.

Perhaps what I don't like is the idea that Physics First is somehow better, when I know that they are not addressing the real problems of education. If you want to say that the typical junior level physics course is stinking lousy in most schools, then I might not disagree with that. But don't tell me that a conceptual physics course that all freshmen take fixes the problem. it just hides it.

EricH said...

"You are assuming that students are acquiring a strong conceptual understanding in these classes, as opposed to playing around five hours a week." I have no idyllic view of a typical high school education. I have two daughters in school and am constantly disappointed by the lack of challenge, low expectations and so forth.

What I do think, though, is that just because you are frustrated with schooling in general that you shouldn't claim that every change is automatically a bad idea, simply window dressing or an excuse to dumb things down. Physics First is a good idea. Yes, it means that you can't have as much math in the freshman physics course as you could have put in a traditional junior course. I claim that is good. Is it possible that such a course will be taught poorly? Sure, but the same is true of the traditional course, and frankly, with much worse consequences because students will not only learn no physics but they will learn that physics is just a bunch of math that is either boring or that they don't understand. (By the way, this is not to impugn math -- I love math, but know that for many students sadly this is all they get out of such a course).

SteveH: "At some point schools have to ditch the concepts and waste of class time and get down to the real work..." I'm not sure where you get the idea that "concepts" are bad. Concepts are at the heart of every subject. Sure, you can teach the mechanics of how to do many advanced subjects, but if the students don't understand what it is they are doing then it is worthless.

So, I stand by my previous statement. Assuming that each course is taught equally well (or equally terribly) I'd rather have a student come through a conceptual physics course of the type suggested by a Physics First curriculum. Maybe it doesn't "fix the problem" of high school science education. There are too many problems to think that any one initiative will solve them all. But it does address some important problems so I'd urge you not to deride it so quickly.

Anonymous said...

"... or one who took the typical junior physics course (say at a Halliday and Resnick type level common in many high schools) ..."

Are high schools actually teaching Halliday and Resnick to juniors????

I took an H&R sequence as a college Freshman/Sophomore and it was *tough*. Are the high school juniors taking a college paced calculus sequence along with the Halliday and Resnick physics as juniors?????

-Mark Roulo

SteveH said...

"Sure, you can teach the mechanics of how to do many advanced subjects, but if the students don't understand what it is they are doing then it is worthless."

Why is this an either/or proposition? Why do concepts have to be separated from content and skills? Why do classes have to waste precious class time on something that can be done as homework? Ultimately, this is not about concepts and understanding. It's about low expectation, hands-on group work in class.


"But it does address some important problems so I'd urge you not to deride it so quickly."

The important problem is that kids get to high school unprepared to tackle anything more rigorous than concepts. Physics First doesn't address that problem. It makes it OK. Just like our high school's algebra with lab course, it doesn't fix the problem, it makes it OK. You can claim this is better than what they had before, but don't expect me to hop on that train. It just means that the real problems will never get fixed.


KTM is all about parents providing the rigor at home in all subjects (phonics, reading, spelling, grammar, writing, history, geography, math, science, etc.) that our kids don't get in school.