Fall 2003


Letters to the Editor

Physics First

The lack of science literacy is a serious national problem. All citizens have to be more scientifically literate in order to be able to make informed decisions on matters that could directly influence their lives. In addition, we will need an increasing number of scientists, engineers and mathematicians in order to maintain our technological and hence economic
position in the world. The U.S. congress has recognized this and, among other things, has mandated the various scientific funding agencies be involved in trying to improve the situation. The Laboratory for Elementary Particle Physics(LEPP) at Cornell is funded by the National Science Foundation. Our research goals are to study the fundamental building blocks of matter. In addition, education and outreach is an important part of our mission. We felt is was appropriate to host the first workshop of its kind devoted to the Physics First movement which has the potential of having a profound influence on science literacy.

The majority of us learn most of our science content in high school. So, it is only logical to look at the way science is taught there. The present sequence of Biology, Chemistry and Physics was instituted at the end of the 19th century based on the notion that physics is the most abstract and mathematical of subjects while biology is entirely descriptive and, thus should be taught first. Today, in the 21st century, this makes no pedagogical sense. One of the main goals of Physics First is to put the high school science sequence in a rational order. Physics is the foundation of all the sciences, hence it is the basis for understanding important concepts in both chemistry and biology. For example, how can students understand modern molecular biology without some understanding of both physics and chemistry? Yet, they now encounter these topics only after they have finished their biology course, if they see them at all.

Also, presently, in this country, only 30% of all high school students ever take physics. If physics was the first course in the science sequence, then all students would be exposed to the concepts and methodology of this most fundamental science. We fully realize that any time there is an attempt to make a revolutionary change, especially in something as far-reaching as the entire high school science curriculum, there are many logistic, cultural and pedagogic challenges.
The purpose of the Physics First workshop was to gather high school science educators together to explore the nature of these challenges and the possibility of overcoming them with the hopeful outcome being a much more scientifically literate citizenry.

One of these challenges is to answer the arguments of the opponents that if physics is

taught too early then students do not have the math background and hence get a "watered-down" course. It seems to us there are two fallacies with this:
1) It assumes physics and math are inseparable. Math is indeed a very valuable tool for the professional physicist but math is not physics. In the present high school courses, too many students lose sight of the concepts because there is so much emphasis on problem solving. Mathematics should be used to enhance the physics concepts, not obscure them.
2) It assumes that students who take the present problem solving based course come away with a good understanding of the physics taught. (Otherwise, why insist that this type of course be maintained?) While there is not enough space to go into the details here, national statistics and the experience of college instructors who teach these students in their physics courses seem to belie this.

Finally, it might be of interest to note that the Physics First idea is becoming a national movement. Over 250 individual high schools plus entire public school districts have already adopted it. For example, the San Diego district with 10,000 students completely switched to the physics first sequence 2 years ago; Prince Georges County school district with 13,000 students is adopting it as well as the Cambridge, Mass. district. For those of you who think that it would be difficult in New York because of the regents, the North Babylon school district on Long Island is also adopting the Physics First sequence. Of course, since we are here in Ithaca, we would hope the Ithaca School system and/or districts in the surrounding area would seriously consider it.

Ahren Sadoff, Professor of Physics, Cornell University

Lora Hine, LEPP Education and Outreach Coordinator, Cornell University

Random thoughts on the summer newsletter

I enjoyed reading the 'Summer Newsletter' so much that I thought I must share some 'random thoughts' of my own about the issues raised in this online forum.

In the spirit of the title of this letter, I will start with the 'Random Thoughts' of Stan Jones and in particular the critical question (Thought #2): 'Why don’t we reform the way we teach physics majors courses?'

I think this is a question that needs dedicated discussion, research and ACTION! Along with the technological applications suggested, I think we should also review content and content focus to address this issue and perhaps its close relation to Random Thought # 4 about physics degrees. Physics knowledge and facts have grown exponentially over the last few decades and our undergraduates today participate in meaningful research programs. Do they have to learn everything we tried to and everything we now know? Which part should we emphasize and which part should we perhaps edit?

I do not have answers to the above questions, - and I have to confess that I have not kept up with current work on this, - but most curricula I see haven't really evolved that much! All I can say is that as a community, we should be involved in thinking about this for the long-term health of our field and its growth. References to the international scene have been made elsewhere in the newsletter. As physics research and development becomes increasingly global and collaborative, discussions on course content in undergraduate degrees should transcend geographical boundaries. I hope our forum might be a venue to foster this.

The article by Stan Jones about "No child left behind" also alerts us to a serious situation that we would do well to address from two perspectives. First we should explore 'workable alternatives' that could be implemented. I understand the "Institute of Physics, U.K" has initiated some programs to help alleviate a similar problem in the U.K. Secondly, if and when we have a plan, perhaps we could work at representative level to include this alternative in the legislation? Maybe we could liase with the APS Public Affairs Office and take advantage of the very effective modes they have developed to implement changes. Again, I hope our forum can take some leadership in this.

It was very interesting to learn from Art Hobson' article about the increase in science literacy in our country. I am glad we did something right and have a global edge on this! I hope too that other nations will take heed of this.

The update on the "Saturday Morning Physics' program at Fermilab and the excerpts from Gino Segre's 'A Matter of Degrees' reminded me about these valuable references for non-science students and general readers and Thomas D. Rossing’s very interesting selections in 'Browsing Through Journals' did this research effectively for us

In closing, I would like to share my personal view on 'lectures', the subject of the ‘Letter’ in the summer issue. Like most educational tools, lectures can be useful if they are used in conjunction with other methods and if they are good and riveting. Unfortunately the majority of class lectures are neither of these!

I did not mean this to be a 'Review of the Newsletter'. It is intended to be a participation in the forum by sharing my reactions, comments and intentions to be more involved in the future.

Lali Chatterjee. Principal Physicist/Editor, - Journals, North America, Institute of Physics Publishing, Philadelphia, PA

Guest Scientist, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, TN &Adjunct Professor, University of Maryland University College, MD