APS News

“Physics First” Battles for Acceptance

By Gabriel Popkin

"Physics First" is a movement that encourages high schools to offer a full-year physics course to ninth-graders, before they take chemistry and biology. Also sometimes called “early high school physics,” the “physics-chemistry-biology (PCB)” sequence, or the “cornerstone to capstone (C-to-C) program,” Physics First has been gaining momentum as an organized movement of educators and physicists since around 1990, although the concept of teaching physics to ninth-graders goes back several decades before that. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman, Physics First’s most prominent proponent, estimates that around 2,000 US high schools have now adopted some version of the program for at least some of their freshmen.

One of the principal driving forces behind this effort is its supporters’ belief that the traditional biology-chemistry-physics course sequence, which has been the standard high school science sequence in the US since the late 1800s, needs to be updated to reflect a modern understanding of chemistry and biology. According to an informational guide published in 2007 by the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT): “1) in order to understand modern molecular biology and the biochemical processes in cells, students need a solid background in both physics and chemistry, and 2) mastery of the basic physics concepts of electrostatic and nuclear forces and the concept of energy storage and transfer are crucial to the understanding of chemical structures, atomic binding, gas laws, and the periodic table of the elements.”

A publication by the nonprofit Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, also known as BSCS, expresses a similar viewpoint: “Coherence, we argue, is the primary reason to consider the C-to-C approach.”

The History

Physics First began appearing in schools due to the efforts of individual teachers. Because of the greater leeway private school teachers have in determining their own curricula, the program is considerably more prevalent in private schools than public schools—the American Institute of Physics (AIP) estimates that 8% of private schools had implemented Physics First in some form in 2005, as compared to only 3% of public schools.

Consistent with this self-selection, teachers’ opinions on Physics First seem to depend strongly on whether or not they taught physics to ninth-graders classes, with over 70% of those teaching such classes expressing favorable opinions on the PCB sequence versus less than 25% of those not teaching physics to freshmen. Rose Young, an enthusiastic Physics First teacher at Liberty High School in Carroll County, Maryland, says “teaching physics to ninth-graders is great—they can engage in it and see it around them right away. We try to make it fun so they will come back to physics a second time later in high school.”

In the past decade, Physics First has also begun to see support at higher levels, such as at school district headquarters and even at the state level. Districts that have offered Physics First at most or all schools include Baltimore, Carroll, and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland; San Diego in California; Little Rock in Arkansas, and Boston and Cambridge in Massachusetts.

Wide-scale implementations of Physics First face challenges that individual schools may not. A principal challenge is finding teachers to teach the additional ninth-grade classes. Most districts are already grappling with physics teacher shortages. Thus, district-wide implementations have required a significant amount of professional development for the so-called “crossover teachers”—often biology teachers—who are now tasked with teaching a subject they may not be familiar with.

In addition, many experienced teachers may be accustomed to mathematically advanced, self-selected juniors and seniors, and may not welcome the challenge of teaching a conceptual physics course to ninth-graders. Lederman has pointed out that a number of veteran physics teachers say they “don’t do freshmen.”

The movement’s most significant setback occurred in the San Diego Unified School District. In 2001, the superintendent decided to implement Physics First in all of the district’s high schools. This effort was at the time, and apparently remains, the single largest-scale implementation of the program. On the strength of a large grant, the district selected Active Physics by Arthur Eisenkraft as their text, and embarked on a massive professional development effort to double their corps of around 40 physics teachers.

However, the effort was beset by complaints from teachers who felt the program was being forced upon them, and by parents who found the curriculum insufficiently rigorous. In addition, according to Dan Lavine, a resource teacher in the district’s High School Instructional Support Department, ninth-graders with inadequate backgrounds in math did poorly in the physics classes they were forced to take, which led to poorer outcomes in the future. “Students that lack algebra skills tend to perform poorly in ninth-grade physics,” says Lavine “and these failures are correlated with significantly lower graduation rates.”

The San Diego district stopped requiring schools to teach physics to ninth-graders in 2006. Now, 20 of the district’s 27 high schools offer physics to at least some ninth-graders, but of these, only one tracks all freshmen into a physics course. Nevertheless, according to Lavine, most students who enter high school with poor math skills do take physics in the 11th or 12th grade, for the unrelated reason that district officials recommend that these students take physics rather than chemistry to meet the state’s physical science graduation requirement. “Achieving a successful physics experience for all students does not necessarily mean limiting that experience to ninth grade,” says Lavine.

Is it Working?

One of the challenges in evaluating the success of Physics First is the difficulty in selecting the criteria by which to measure it. As Young, the Maryland teacher, puts it, “What constitutes success of the PCB sequence? Is it increased numbers of physics majors in college? Increased enrollment in science electives? Increased participation in physics competitions? More positive attitudes of students toward science? Some yet to be determined measure of ‘scientific literacy?’”

In fact, AIP data show that most schools implementing Physics First do not even follow the full PCB sequence, which supporters also sometimes call the “right-side-up” sequence. According to AIP data, only 37% of public schools and 57% of private schools implementing Physics First use the full PCB sequence. In addition, not all schools teaching physics to ninth-graders offer the subject to all ninth-graders—some offer it only to mathematically less advanced ninth-graders, others to more advanced students, and still others to a subset with a range of abilities.

Despite the great variety in implementations of Physics First, and the difficulty in determining how to evaluate it, some basic trends have emerged. The program does substantially increase the percentage of students at a school who take physics. In 2005, 73% students at public schools and 100% of students at private schools implementing Physics First took physics at some point in their high school careers, versus 31% of students at public schools and 57% of students at private schools not implementing the program, according to AIP data.

On the question of whether physics is beneficial for later chemistry and biology study, a recent study of college science students published by Phil Sadler and Robert Tai in Science found that students who had taken a high school course in one science subject did not perform significantly better in college science courses in another subject. The authors wrote, “With regard to the ‘Physics First’ movement, the lack of a relationship between the previous study of physics and later chemistry performance, or the previous study of chemistry and later biology performance, casts doubt on the impact of changing the traditional high-school science sequence.” However, Michael O’Brien and John Thompson point out in a recent Physics Teacher article that “the transition from high school to college courses is very different from the ninth-to-tenth-grade transition.

The Future

Recently Physics First has moved to a new level with two state-wide efforts—one that originated in the governor’s office in Rhode Island, and another that is a partnership between two universities and a number of high schools in Missouri. Both efforts are supported by large grants that provide professional development, curriculum, and lab equipment to the crossover teachers being recruited to teach the new physics classes. Although it is too early to fully assess the success of these efforts, representatives of these initiatives at a recent AAPT symposium devoted to “Early High School Physics” said they were encouraged by early progress.

About the future of Physics First generally, Lederman says, “the momentum is picking up,” but “we need more physics teachers and lots more data…It will take another decade to get our educational ‘system’  into the 21st century.”

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Editor: Alan Chodos