Physics First?

An article in the recent issue of American Biology Teacher revisits the idea of teaching physics first in high school, followed by chemisty and then biology, a reversal of most science curriculums. The Physics First movement, proposed by Leon Lederman in 1998, hasn't been quick to take hold, but is slowly growing. I admit that I've always felt it would benefit biology students to have some physics/chemistry background before tackling the molecular/biochemical/physiological concepts found in biology. Rather than introducing biology in an introductory fashion in 9th grade, provide a more rigorous course in 11th (though different from AP). There are several problems with this, however, as mentioned in the article:

  • the need for increased numbers of physics teachers,

  • the new curriculum and courses for biology teachers,

  • the graduation requirement for only two years of science in many states, and

  • the importance of other disciplines, for example Earth science

The third point is what bothers me. Under this new type of curriculum, students, in some states, could graduate without taking a biology whatsoever. This is certainly not a good idea as biological education is vital and will be moreso in coming years and decades.

The authors outline three possible schemes that incorporate the Physics First model. The first is a the straight-up physics-chemistry-biology model. A second model has students taking an integrated, year-long course that incorporates life science, physical science, and earth/space science. It would be a three year program in total, each year building off the next. Twelth grade would allow students to take AP or Honors courses, presumably in seperate subjects. Much of the science curriculum would focus on inquiry and the relationship with social and personal perspecitives.

The last model is similar to the second, with students learning each discipline in one year but with a graduated format. Students would obtain more physics in 9th grade and more life science in 11th. This would allow the instruction of certain concepts that require more rigorous mathematics after they have been developed earlier.

The latter two models definitely fit the trend of integration found in education today. There was, however, no discussion of the obstacles facing the implementation of these two models. Would a single teacher instruct each scientific discipline over the course of the year, or would the students revolve? Would students be able to weave together biology they learned early on in 9th grade into new material found in 10th? There are still many uncertainties but a dialogue over the issues is a good place to start. For all you science teachers out there, opinions?

Bybee, RW and AL Gardner. 2006. High School Biology & the Physics First Movement. The American Biology Teacher 68(3): 134-138.

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