EO Report - Winter 2004

Bernard V. Khoury
Announcer, Vol. 34, Iss. 4

Physics for All: An Attitude, Not a Curriculum

The number of high school graduates who have taken a physics course has been steadily increasing for almost 20 years. About 30% or some 900,000 high school graduates now take physics each year.

One of the notable things about this steady growth is that many of these students newly discovering physics are doing so with non-traditional courses. The availability of conceptually-oriented courses has induced many students to study physics, especially when their interests and mathematical sophistication would have made the standard-mode physics course quite inappropriate. Just as the number of students in these conceptual courses has been growing rapidly, the numbers in advanced or second-year physics courses has also been growing steadily. While the numbers in the traditional physics course are larger than those in conceptual or advanced courses, it is these latter two that are attracting growing percentages of students.

One of the more wonderful aspects of this growth in physics at our secondary schools is that almost half of the students in physics classes are female. What a wonderful shift from the era when I was in high school. Although my high school was an all-boys school, my physics class had about the same number of girls as did the physics class in the mixed-sex high school a mile away—none. To see now that girls are as likely to study physics at the secondary level as are boys is strong evidence that ‘physics for all’ is being accepted as an appropriate educational objective.

Physics for all does not mean that every person takes the same physics course. It does not mean that physics is the final science course in high school. It does not mean that physics is the first science course in high school. It means simply that physics needs to be a part and parcel of every student’s education. For some students and schools, taking physics as the first science course might be the best arrangement; for others the traditional course in the 11th or 12th grade is the best option; still others will take more than one physics course in high school.

Just as it is appropriate that different courses be presented to different students, we need to be sure we don’t take a course intended and successfully implemented for one purpose or one group of students and then move it to serve the different needs of another set of students. A traditional physics course, designed for the 11th or 12th grade, should not simply be re-labeled as a physics first curriculum. An AP physics class is hardly appropriate for any but the most capable and dedicated of our students and in most cases it should not be the first formal physics class.

While I celebrate the fact that 30% of high school students take physics, I see an incredible opportunity and challenge for us to work to get most of the remaining 70% into our classes. Physics for all is a philosophy that applies not only to our secondary schools. It is an attitude that expects physics, as the most fundamental of the sciences, to pervade our science curricula at every level from the early primary grades, through secondary schools, and into college.

Physics for all is not a single course taken by all students. Physics for all means that we assess a student’s ability and interests, and then we present physics at the level most appropriate to that student. We don’t force every student to meet the entry objectives of the physics course we intend to teach. Instead, we design the physics course to meet the needs of the students to whom it is being presented.

This initial focus on the needs and interests of the students contrasts with an initial focus on the content of the course. Instead of acting like "content is king," we should act like "learning is king." If a course is designed and taught in a way that most students don’t learn very much, then we have wasted valuable student and teacher time, to say nothing of missing a chance to inspire and inform students about physics, the most fundamental of the sciences.

This readiness by the physics community to see more and more students study physics at every level imposes a concomitant responsibility on all of us. We need to assure that we have teachers at all of these levels who are well-prepared to meet the varied educational needs of this growing number of physics students. Not all the physics students will become physicists, and not all of the teachers will need to be physicists. But every teacher, especially those who will be in the formative elementary and middle grades, needs to be comfortable with the methods and the basic concepts of our discipline. This means that university physics departments need to step up to the table and live up to our responsibilities for the science education of all prospective teachers in our institutions. If our university has a teacher preparation program of any kind, our physics department needs to participate in the education of those teachers.