Issue 7, February 2003
Physics First in Science Education Reform
Biochemistry and Biophysics, University of Pennsylvania
first, chemistry second, physics third: The traditional American
high school science curriculum follows this order. Education reformers
do not believe this needs to be the case. In part due to poor student
performance in international science assessments, some educators
are rethinking the way science should be taught in the United States.
Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), conducted
in 1998, shows that while American fourth graders rank second in the
world in science, high school seniors rank third worst out of all
21 nations studied. Similarly, in 2000, the National Center for Education
Statistics conducted a study, the National Assessment of Educational
Progress (NAEP), which showed only one-fifth of high school seniors
meet proficiency standards - standards were set by NAEP administrators
with the help of science educators. These results suggest that American
high school science curricula could be more effective. Against this
backdrop, many educators are calling for science education reform.
Sample questions from the NAEP Science
Assessment run by the National Center for Education
Animals that reproduce sexually differ from animals
that reproduce asexually in that sexually reproducing
A) a larger number of offspring
B) more genetic variation among their offspring
C) offspring that are nearly identical to their parents
D) offspring that are perfectly adapted to their parents'
2. X --> Y + Z + energy
The equation above represents a nuclear decay, in which
nucleus X decays into particle Y and nucleus Z and releases
energy. Which of the following can explain why energy
is released in the decay?
A) The mass of X is less than the sum of the masses
Y and Z.
B) The mass of X is less than the difference between
the masses of Y and Z.
C) The mass of X is greater than the sum of the masses
Y and Z.
D) The mass of X is greater than the difference between
the masses of Y and Z.
3. Air in the atmosphere continuously moves by convection.
At the equator, air rises; at the poles, it sinks. This
A) the Earth's ozone layer is thinner at the equator
at the poles
B) the Earth's magnetic field is stronger at the poles
at the equator
C) warm air can hold less water vapor than can cold
D) warm air is less dense than cold air
Answers: 1. B; 2. C; 3. D
Support for the call to
call for reform is supported by more than just the results of the
TIMSS and NAEP studies. A leading science education reformer, Marge
Bardeen, manager of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory Education
Office, notes that what we learn in science courses could relate more
to everyday life.
"Generally, I think people do not understand that science is a way
of approaching problems, rather than a body of knowledge. As a result,
they are often unable to assess claims and counter claims as they
make choices on critical issues that face them as citizens," Bardeen
says. "This is what we need to be concerned about - as we call it,
scientific literacy for citizenship." Targeting high school science
curricula is a way to increase science literacy, since all students,
not just future scientists, must take high school science classes.
Many educators and administrators believe students' poor performance
on science assessments is a result of an incoherent science curriculum.
As William Schmidt, United States Research Coordinator for TIMSS,
wrote in a recent report, "Based on what has been learned from other
countries, the best policy option is the development of a single organizing
principle. This would in turn lead to a common coherent curriculum
for all U.S. students."
Improving science education
improve science education, Schmidt and others believe that high
schools need to overhaul their current curricula. One such plan
for reform is the physics-first curriculum, a strategic plan that
reverses the order in which schools teach science.
high school science curricula start off with one year of earth science
or biology, followed by a year of chemistry, and a year of physics.
Marge Bardeen and Leon Lederman, a Nobel laureate and former director
of Fermilab, are part of a group pushing science education reform
called Project ARISE (American Renaissance in Science Education).
In 1998, Bardeen and Lederman published a proposal in Science
based on ideas that came out of Project ARISE, which aimed at reforming
high school education through the physics-first curriculum. Not surprisingly,
their plan heavily emphasizes the scientific method.
believes a physics-first curriculum fosters coherence in education,
allowing students to build upon what they already know.
In the physics-first curriculum, high school students learn about
the scientific process and explore real-world phenomena such as photosynthesis
and gravity, giving them basic knowledge that will help them even
if they do not pursue a career in the sciences. In addition to emphasizing
the scientific process, as its name suggests, the physics-first curriculum
has students learn physics before chemistry and biology. Bardeen and
Lederman say true understanding of biology requires knowledge of chemistry,
which in turn requires physics knowledge.
Bardeen believes a physics-first curriculum fosters coherence in education,
allowing students to build upon what they already know. "Now chemistry
teachers teach some physics in their classes," she says. "They would
not have to do this with physics taught first."
For example, to fully understand chemical topics such as atomic structure,
students need some grounding in electrostatics, a topic taught in
physics. However, if they learn physics first, they already know about
electrostatics, and can apply their knowledge of physics to chemistry.
This can also help teachers since they do not need to teach subjects
with which they are not as familiar. In this spirit, Bardeen and Lederman
suggest a three-year integrated science curriculum, along with three
years of mathematics.
In their first year, Science 1, students take courses centered on
physics, concentrating on the topics that will help them most in later
science courses. In Science 2, they build upon their physics knowledge
and learn chemistry. Then, in Science 3, students use their knowledge
of physics and chemistry to understand biology. Once they finish biology,
they are ready for a possible fourth year of science at the Advanced
A different educational mindset
physics-first curriculum is more than a cosmetic change to the structure
of the curriculum. It represents a different educational mindset.
"Correctly done, it is a coherent three-year program where connections
are drawn from one science to another," Bardeen said, "where concepts
a student needs for year 2 are presented in year 1 where appropriate."
In order to increase science literacy, the physics-first curriculum
tries to present students with a logical approach to learning science
that builds upon a foundation from previous courses.
this proposal looks good on paper, the question is, is it effective
in the classroom? In June 2001, Project ARISE released a report on
the state of physics-first programs. The report cited data from surveys
of 58 public and private schools that employed a curriculum similar
to the one described by Bardeen and Lederman in Science. Most had
many positive things to say about the curriculum. Students generally
enjoyed the new courses, and chemistry and biology teachers were excited
that their students had some fundamental knowledge of physics before
coming into their classes. This enthusiasm should translate to scientific
literacy; Bardeen cites this as a reason for reform. "We have anecdotal
reports that more students take more science with this approach,"
she said, "so we should end up with more students who are more scientifically
literate." So far, it seems the physics-first curriculum is meeting
its goals and creating student interest in science.
have anecdotal reports that more students take more science
with this approach so we should end up with more students who
are more scientifically literate."
The need for well-controlled studies
evidence alone, however, cannot confirm the success of the physics-first
curriculum. Richard Feynman, renowned physicist and Nobel laureate,
spoke of this lack of credible studies in science education almost
40 years ago. "There is an enormous number of studies and a great
deal of statistics," he said in a speech about education at the
Galileo Symposium in Italy in 1964, "…but they are mixtures of anecdotes,
uncontrolled experiments, and very poorly controlled experiments,
so that there is very little information as a result." Following
this logic, the physics-first curriculum cannot be declared a complete
success without well-controlled studies showing its utility in raising
The Project ARISE report notes the lack of hard data to test the
new system, stating, "Interviewees had numerous anecdotes to support
their efforts, but most of their schools had collected no numerical
data for evaluative purposes." Some schools are collecting data
but do not have enough to draw any conclusions yet.
in general, when schools and districts choose to make this change,
they do not do it as an experiment," Bardeen said. "They do not
necessarily have baseline data so that they cannot document the
change with test scores, enrollment figures, etc. And for the most
part, they don't see the need to do so for their own purposes."
Since schools do not study their curricula changes as controlled
experiments, it will be hard to quantify the success of the physics-first
Due to funding reasons, Bardeen's office has no plans to do a study
on the curriculum's impact. Despite the lack of hard supporting
data, the physics-first curriculum seems to be winning over some
school districts. If this continues, it may become the new standard
for science education with success measured when the next international
science study is conducted.
M.G., L.M. Lederman (1998) Coherence in Science Education. Science.
281: 178 179.
R.P. (1999) The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Perseus Publishing,
National Center of Education Statistics. Pursuing Excellence: Initial
Findings from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.
February 1998. http://nces.ed.gov/pubs98/twelfth/index.html
[Link current as of 28 January 2003]
National Center of Education Statistics. The Nation's Report Card:
Science. July 2002. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/science/
[Link current as of 28 January 2003] Pasero,
S. [Project Arise] The State of Physics-First Programs. June 2001.
[Link current as of 28 January 2003]
Schmidt, W.H. The Quest for a Coherent School Science Curriculum.
September 2002. http://ustimss.msu.edu/coherentscience.pdf
[Link current as of 28 January 2003]
Journal of Young
Investigators. 2003. Volume Six.
Copyright © 2003 by Vikram Pattanayak and JYI. All rights reserved.