Should high school students planning on the health professions take physics?

A recent survey of FSU students taking the first-semester algebra-based physics course, which is filled with life and health science majors, showed that about half had taken a physics course in high school.

So who had made the right decision?  The half that did take physics in high school or the half that did not?

Here are three reasons why high school students planning on health professions should take physics:

Health professionals should know what force and energy are:  I’m starting with the basics here – why health professionals should know physics at all.  Health professionals talk about force and energy all the time (you know – those “calorie” things?).  And in fact college majors in fields like biology, exercise science and food science generally require two semesters of physics.  So the professors in those fields know that knowledge of physics is important.  And students generally don’t learn anything about energy in a high school biology class.  In fact, the National Academy of Education recommended that students take physics in 9th grade – before biology and chemistry classes – so that the biology and chemistry they learn in high school makes sense.

Students who take a high school physics course get better grades in college physics (and probably learn physics better, too):  In a 2007 paper in Science, Sadler and Tai demonstrated what should not come as any surprise to anybody – that taking high school physics is associated with earning a better grade in college physics.  But it’s worth noting this as well:  Even in the best-taught physics classes, students generally learn about half of what they didn’t know at the beginning of the course.  Two passes through the subject (in both high school and college) means better learning than one.

The new AP Physics 1 course gives a student’s college application that AP glitter for a first physics course:  When Honors Physics or regular physics courses were the only options for first physics courses, students could be (and often were) swayed away from taking physics with this argument:  “If you take Honors Physics instead of my AP Chemistry class, you will not get in to any good colleges.”  With the advent of AP Physics 1, that argument doesn’t work anymore.  In fact, Florida high school students who pass the AP Physics 1 exam receive credit for the first algebra-based college physics course and get to move right on to the second semester course.  And here’s another argument for AP Physics 1:  Would you rather take your first physics course in a friendly high school classroom with 30 others, or in a 200-student lecture hall with a professor you will probably never meet personally and with your medical school application on the line?

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