Physics First in Chattanooga: Turning high school science “upside down”

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports that the high schools in Hamilton County (which includes Chattanooga) are adopting a Physics First high school science curriculum.  As University of Tennessee-Chattanooga (UTC) Physics Professor Robert Marlowe says, “The physics is really the underlying science for biology and chemistry…The benefit for students is they will see how strongly physics is tied into biology and chemistry.  They will get a sense for how it is not the case that physics lies down one path and chemistry is behind a different door and biology is behind a different door. That’s nuts! It’s never been that way.”

The National Academy of Education agrees.  In a 2009 white paper, the NAE said that the standard high school science sequence of biology, chemistry and physics is scientifically “out of order.”  It continued,

In biology class, 9th graders are introduced to the complex molecules within cells and the structure of DNA even though they know little about atoms and next to nothing about the chemistry and physics that can help them make sense of these structures and their functions.  Furthermore, because of the limited course requirements in most states, standard science course sequence often means in practice that many high school students never study physics at all.

In Florida, we are not arguing for Physics First.  Instead, we are still trying to hold off “Physics Not At All.”  The 2010 Florida Legislature instituted a “chemistry or physics” high school graduation requirement over the howling protests of some in the K-12 education community.

Plenty of statistics support the importance of high school physics, but perhaps the UTC’s Professor Marlowe puts it best when he says, “if you don’t have good high school preparation in physics, then you are hurting.”

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3 Responses to Physics First in Chattanooga: Turning high school science “upside down”

  1. Jonathan Smith says:

    I have always considered the importance of teaching students basic physics before trying to engage them in the study of complex biology. This notion is summed up nicely by this quote (I don’t remember the author) “How does a water strider walk on water? How does a bat navigate through a cave or stay warm at night? How does a bumble bee fly? How does a gecko walk on the ceiling? How does a tree draw water up to its highest leaves? How do nutrients pass through the walls of a cell? What determines the form of a given species?
    The fact that all biology problems pertain to life is secondary to the application of physics for the purpose of solving them. Understanding physics properties, and in particular understanding how size determines which physics properties are most relevant, is the key to answering the majority of biology questions”.

  2. Doc Carr says:

    I thought the key quote from Marlowe was “But if you concentrate on the concepts, you can get away with just algebra and geometry”, which is made possible because “Tennessee’s academic standards have become more rigorous in the last year, ninth-graders are starting high school with more experience in math”. Have you ever taught physics without using algebra above the 7th-8th grade level (MAT0024), Paul? A large fraction of HS grads in Florida have to be taught at that level, and its not easy when students see F=ma and a=F/m as two different equations because of their weakness with “literal” equations in math. That, and their inability to calculate a slope from a graph, poses some fun challenges in the conceptual physical science class I teach in the summer.

    The other is the need to undo all of the State Planned curriculum to permit such innovations in a top-down system like Florida has. Logically, as I will elaborate in a separate comment, it makes little sense to teach the Krebs Cycle to bio students who don’t know any chemistry (or maybe even what an atom or element is), or chemistry to students who don’t know what holds an atom together. The Tennessee standards (Google “Physical World Concepts” and the pdf is the top link) indicate that they follow a progression like Hewitt’s book, selecting topics that does get them to basic atomic physics. However, sadly, there is no chemistry to lead into biology.

  3. Doc Carr says:

    I was taught in a long-lost world where biology was taught from the BSSC curriculum. I’m still amazed that we had the mechanisms of DNA (within 15 years of its discovery) and biochemistry like the Krebs cycle in that course. Our colleges and universities teach essentially the same class today. However, we had a more-than decent chemistry class (complete with wet lab experiments) in middle school so balancing equations and following reactions was not new to us.

    Seriously: Leaving aside all that I know about atomic physics and my freshman college chemistry classes, I can teach the basics of chemistry based on what I learned in middle school. (Except for re-dox reactions, where I need to rely on my HS and college classes.)

    I also benefited from the original Harvard Project physics program that was in a couple of our high schools via 1st generation (initial summer working group) and 2nd generation participants in the Harvard project. My teacher was finishing an MS in physics when I took the class. It was priceless compared to PSSC physics, but reminds me of the importance of a teacher who knows physics cold. As they noted, training is key.

    Only recently have people like Hewitt (Conceptual Physical Science) brought back that hands-on approach to elementary physics like is used in Chattanooga, plus chemistry. I think that book is still way too cluttered, but it is a start. Based on the 2-for-1 rule, you ought to be able to build a course that includes basic mechanics, Coulomb’s law, atomic physics and the reason for a periodic table, and basic chemistry (featuring carbon) in a one-year 9th grade class that leads into biology. Well, I know it can be done because Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State had a physics-chem-physics year followed by chem-physics-chem year curriculum that was similarly designed to link to a majors bio class before you had fully gotten into real organic chem. Its only failure was the inability to articulate with the other university courses if students left that program early, but that is not as much of an issue in HS. Gaps from HS are easily filled in college if you have the basic science (and math) skills.

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