Physics First

Scientific actions and reactions

Minnehaha adopts a new science curriculum, teaching physics as a foundation for other courses

As freshmen enter high school they already have a lot to worry about: upperclassmen, new teachers, a new working environment and new expectations. So why should freshmen would have to worry about physics, a class many schools offer to seniors? Minnehaha decided they could handle it.

This year, Minnehaha Academy adopted the Physics First curriculum, which states the best sequence for science is some form of physics during freshman year, chemistry) sophomore year, biology junior year and any elective senior year, which would include Environmental Science I and II, Honors Anatomy and Physiology, Oceanography I and II or AP Physics. Juniors may also take a second science course as an elective.

The Physics First approach is used by 10 percent of school districts nationwide, while 72 percent offered biology first, chemistry second and physics last, according to a survey taken by members of The National Science Teachers Association in April 2012.

For years freshmen at Minnehaha have taken a fundamentals course called Foundations of Chemistry and Physics (whereas now they take Foundations of Physics) or  chemistry. Sophomores would take biology (or AP biology) and juniors would take chemistry or AP Chemistry. Seniors were left with the many science elective choices.

So why did Minnehaha change?

In 1990 Physics First was promoted by Leon Lederman, recipient of the 1988 Nobel Prize in physics.  Lederman believes that Physics First is beneficial because it follows a successive science formula, that teaches the knowledge of nature and leads into observing it [nature] then experimenting.

“The sense of science is to seek for underlying order in apparent chaos, to see connections and hidden likenesses,” wrote Lederman to the leaders of the Physics First movement. “It is to change the graduate forever: to install an intuition as to how things work, an attitude of expectation and skepticism, a habit of thought, an encouragement of curiosity, and a respect for innovation and imagination.” Physics First was later dubbed “Right Side Up Science.”

Once students know the basic components of the objects used daily and the laws of the universe (motion, energy, waves), biology and chemistry build on that  knowledge.

Science teachers Sam Terfa and Sam Meyers felt Physics First was compelling. After researching, Terfa and Meyers proposed the idea.

After overcoming some “small hurdle[s],” such as incorporating trigonometry into the physics curriculum for freshmen who may not have taken it yet, and losing biology for the 2012-2013 school year, Physics First became a possibility.

“Physics is a safe place [in terms of experimental design],” said Terfa. “In chemistry you can’t just mix two chemicals and see what happens.”

Meyers agreed.

“Physics is more tactile, more hands on, and so it keeps freshmen more engaged in the experiments,” Meyers said.

Science teacher Nancy Cripe can see some of the benefits of the change. One important aspect of the change is the switch to chemistry before biology. Cripe knows that as students build their molecular knowledge there will be more opportunity to teach biochemistry, and to teach biology, as well as Honors Anatomy and Physiology more in depth. A win-win for all.

Chemistry teacher and science department chair Carmella Whaley also believes Physics First will enhance biochemistry because students will have a better grasp on experimental design and the scientific method.

“I think that the change that we’ve made, although it seems like a big one, isn’t as big as at first glance,” said Whaley. “Freshmen traditionally took this foundations of chemistry and physics class which worked out to be a semester of physics and a semester of chemistry. So now what we’ve done is expanded both of those semesters into one year.”

Another example of its usefulness is in extracurricular activities. Minnehaha recently welcomed the International Space Station program and hopes to gain a robotics team. In these activities Physics First may encourage younger students. Lastly many colleges like to enroll students who are well rounded in the sciences, having taken  a full year of physics, chemistry and biology by the time they apply as seniors.

Chaska High School adopted the curriculum four years ago.

“We went through quite a bit to change it,” said physics and chemistry teacher Jamie Crannell.

Chaska spent lots of time and money to train and certify teachers to teach physics and offered paid time for them to attend physics classes. Other costs included buying new textbooks and lab equipment for both physics and chemistry. The time used, and the cost of Physics First was worth it. Crannell noticed that before Physicas First Chaska “was sort of in the middle pack” when it came to the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) science test scores, but moved closer to the top with Physics First implemented.

One important aspect of the Physics First science curriculum at Chaska is that it incorporates  subject mastery. Students have a list of things they need to know and be able to pass a test on for physics, chemistry and biology.

“It’s a big gain for kids, because they actually have to learn the fundamentals,” said Cranell.

Last year Minnehaha freshmen were launched into physics basics, and teachers could see that they could handle physics as well as seniors.

“Seniors have been trained [to ask or look for] where is this in the book? What’s the equation?” said Terfa. “Freshmen will actually change their perspective of how the world works. They are much more able to change.”

Erik Hadland, who teaches AP Chemistry and Foundations of Physics, agrees.

“I think freshmen are catching on to the concepts well, which is important,” said Hadland.

Freshman Natalie Dixon enjoys Foundations of Physics because it’s engaging.

“I find learning easier when I get to try things out,” said Dixon. “I like working in the lab and getting to test things out [because] I like seeing how things work.”

For freshman Tori Roloff physics can be a challenge, but understands putting in time and work matters.

“Physics is kinda hard, but it’s going pretty well for me,” said Roloff. “You just have to take the time to study extra at home.”

With the change already in progress science teacher Sam Meyers hopes students will take to it as much as the faculty has.

“It’s still so new, I don’t know what to expect from it,” said Meyers. “I’m excited that students will graduate from MA with a stronger science background now than they did before. I think this order of curriculum will allow a more in depth progression that will have more substance, mean more [and] stay with them longer.”

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About Pauline Ojambo

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