Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Should we teach physics, not biology, first? | SciGuy | a Chron.com blog

Should we teach physics, not biology, first?

[...] We all know that science education in the United States is rather poor, and that the implications for our future are not good. The question is, what can we do about it?
Legendary physicist Leon Lederman (a personal hero of mine) offers one simple, fundamental and relatively painless fix that may give students a better idea of the bigger scientific picture. His advice? Teach physics first, not biology:
The vast majority of high schools start the study of science with biology. In America, the requirement is usually for three years of science study, and, today, most U.S. students take science in this order: biology, chemistry, physics. This sequence of study was devised in 1893. I believe that it is obsolete, pedagogically disastrous, and ignores the tremendous scientific advances of the twentieth century. Other industrial nations may cycle through pieces of the disciplines, missing the essential coherence of the P-C-B sequence.
Studying science should begin with physics, not biology. In studying physics, students study algebra simultaneously, motivating them with a sense of the power of mathematics. Moreover, physics begins with everyday phenomena requiring few new words (as opposed to conventional ninth-grade biology): motion, velocity, acceleration, falling objects, a sense of gravity as a force, and some new concepts, e.g. mass, momentum, and energy, but with crisp definitions.
Ninth-grade physics, unlike ninth-grade biology, illustrates the grand sweep of the laws of nature, and the power of an equation to describe a vast number of different phenomena can be taught at this level. Classroom experiments make use of simple laboratory devices: inclined planes, pulleys, springs, simple pendulums, but the rules that are revealed have validity out in the real world. The fall of a weight (or an apple!) can be connected to the moon’s orbit around the earth and even to the structure of galaxies holding billions of solar systems.
Further reading in Eric Berger's blog at http://blog.chron.com/sciguy/2008/10/should-we-teach-physics-not-biology-first/#comments