FEd Fall 2001 Newsletter - Physics First

Spring 2001



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Physics First

Leon M. Lederman

For the past five years I have been campaigning to change the way science is taught in U.S. high schools [1]. In the vast majority of high schools, students' introduction to disciplinary science starts in ninth grade with biology. About 50% of students go on to a year of chemistry and one in four will take a third year of sciencethe dreaded physics. The sequence goes back about 100 years and is based upon the notion that physics is the most abstract and mathematical of subjects and should wait for some intellectual maturity and mathematical experience.

With the advent of science standards as promulgated by NSES [2] and AAAS [3], there is a strong move towards installing a three-year science and three-year mathematics requirement.

Now it is my firm conviction that the existing situation is pedagogically dumb; the subjects are not connected, ninth grade biology is a turn-off with a huge number of new words to memorize, very descriptive with very little if any of the syntheses that characterize the way science works. If there is any doubt, please see the article by Professor Uri Haber-Schaim that analyzes a variety of high school textbooks [4].

With the existence of standards, we have the opportunity of rethinking this sequence and crafting a core science curriculum of three or four years, suitably blended with mathematics. The current political recognition of the importance of education and in particular of science education offers the opportunity of achieving substantial reforms in how we teach science.

There is no reason why ninth grade physics cannot be made into an exciting and influential gateway to the study of scienceall of science. If we truly love and feel passionate about physics, we should be proud to consider changing our style and accepting this obligation to introduce our subject to all high school students. Perhaps it would help to imagine that, in our freshman classes, there are future chemists, biologists, neurosurgeons, congressmen, journalists, TV anchors, voters . . . as well as future AP physics students who may be turned off from science by ninth grade biology.

I have been told by good high school physics teachers that, "we don't do freshmen!" Yet, physics teachers know that physics supplies the underpinning of much of chemistry and of molecular biology. Harold Varmus, Nobel Laureate, eminent biologist and former head of NIH, has continuously emphasized the need of modern biology for a strong physics [5].

We have organized ARISE [7] (American Renaissance In Science Education) to address the problem of a new curriculum. ARISE would suggest that the core sequence be arranged so that ninth grade is Conceptual Physics, using only the algebra that is being learned in eighth and ninth grade. Physics, largely mechanics, electricity and magnetism, is concrete, practical, dealing with issues and examples which may be drawn from real life just outside the classroom. As is well known, Conceptual Physics [6] is not easy to teach, but the degree of mathematics included is clearly adjustable and would depend on local circumstances.

However, the last month or so of physics would introduce atoms, their qualitative electrical structure, the relevant forces, and some introduction to the quantum nature of atomic structure. Molecules are studied as stable combinations of atoms, perhaps with reference to potential energy curves. The transition to tenth grade chemistry should be seamless with the productive repetition of atomic structure and binding from the chemistry point of view.

Chemistry is "the science of change," the study of the properties of substances and of the reactions that create new substances from old. Chemical change occurs constantly in the ordinary, visible world of daily life and has overwhelming practical importance. It is, however, best understood by reference to a rarely seen microscopic world of atoms and molecules. The two levels (macroscopic and microscopic) interact constantly in the modern practice of chemistry. The curriculum presents chemistry as a discipline that discovers, on the microscopic level, an underlying unity in the wildly diverse macroscopic changes that condition our lives [7].

Simple chemical bonding theory, electronegativity, electrons and electron dot structures lead to molecular geometries in three dimensions and the introduction to molecular biology. We are now in eleventh grade biology. In this physics-first approach, students are well grounded in the basics of atomic structure and molecular interactions. This enables the teacher to emphasize how structure naturally supports function. For example, many molecules form polymers: What differentiates one type of polymer from another? How are these fundamental components used in various combinations leading to the diversity of life? The appreciation of simple principles derived in physics and chemistry enables the students to understand the natural rise of complexity.

This course begins with the molecule and progresses to the cell, on to the organism and finally to the ecosystem. Everything in the course is connected to survival (natural selection). Reproduction is explored at a genetic level, and then content moves to the environmental level.

Understanding the structure and function of the cellthe basic building block of lifeis the optimal way for students to understand life at and beyond the level of an organism. Treating cells as the fundamental unit, the curriculum asks: Why are cells useful? How do they respond to changes? What do they need to function properly? What consequences arise from improper functioning? Similar questions can be applied to the organism and the ecosystem. A high school biology course should also include enough human biology to equip students for making informed decisions about their lives.

Overall, this approach aims at enabling students to become decision-makers in an ever-changing world, a world where the tools of molecular biology are so powerful that humans have the unprecedented ability to alter both themselves and the environment that sustains them.

Issues connecting the disciplines are many, e.g. conservation of energy and energy states, vibrations from simple harmonic motion to microwave spectroscopy, photoelectric effect to photosynthesis, and, most importantly, the nature of science thinking. I believe this new, coherent curriculum can be made to blend in components of science process: how does it work, why is science different from other fields of learning, how do we know these things, some history and the need for skepticism, openness, the need for verification.

Societal issues should also be dispersed through the curriculum. Hands-on, experimental components, inquiry, the lessons of cognition science must also be blended in. Clearly fewer topics will be covered and subjects which link the sciences should receive priority.

The net result will be high school seniors with a respect and enthusiasm for science, equipped for lifetime with a science way of thinking. Senior year can have a rich offering of the applications of their core knowledge, especially to earth and space science, but also to environmental science, to science, technology and society (STS), or to the array of AP courses in each of the core disciplines. In general, the senior year should be a year in which the three years of high school work are integrated and applied in interdisciplinary projects. In a more ideal world, college admissions, usually done in December, would be conditional to the successful completion of the senior year program.

The new sequence has large requirements for new resources: new teaching materials, extensive and continuous professional development, regular meetings of the teachers of sciences to coordinate their course work, enrich examples, seek connections and, perhaps most visionary, include in these conferences the teachers of the arts, humanities and social sciences to present the future citizen with a sense of the unity of knowledge.

Implementing this program faces very impressive obstacles. However, we have located over 100 high schools around the nation that have installed various versions of "physics first". Many of these schools have very positive experiences with this "kinder, gentler (and more logical)" introduction to science. The crucial issue is: Can we get schools to change? It is fortunate that physicists suffer the genetic defect of optimism.

What can physics teachers do? I believe they should join this campaign for a rational science sequence as part of a science core curriculum. There are clearly all kinds of variations on the scheme I outlined. The act of fixing this glaring defect in our schools may well permit even more dramatic reforms in our schools. It should propagate change down into middle schools and up to college science courses. In this 21st century, we need a seamless science education, internally coherent and in harmony with the social sciences and the humanities, stretching from pre-K to grade 16.

Suggestions and advice from the physics community would be very welcome.


1. Leon M. Lederman, "A Science Way of Thinking" Education Week Vol. XVIII, No. 40 June 16, 1999.

2. National Science Education Standards, NRC (National Academy Press, Washington DC 1996)

3. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Project 2061, Benchmarks for Science Literacy

4. U. Haber-Schaim, "In My OpinionHigh School Physics Should be Taught Before Chemistry and Biology," The Physics Teacher, Vol .22, p. 330, 1984

5. The Impact of Physics on Biology and Medicine, APS News-The Back Page, August/September 1999

6. Conceptual Physics textbooks include: (1) Conceptual Physics, Hewitt; (2) Concepts in Physics, Hobson; (3) Physics, A World View, Kirkpatrick and Wheeler

7. Framework, ARISE, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (1998)

Leon M. Lederman is the Director Emeritus of Fermilab, and holds an appointment as Pritzker Professor of Science at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist is a founder and resident scholar at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Ill., a public residential high school for the gifted. He is also a founder and the Chairman of the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science in Chicago.