Thursday, March 28, 2002

Cape high realigns the science curriculum

Published in the Current

Starting next year, the high school science curriculum will change completely, reversing the traditional order of teaching earth science first to the youngest students, then biology, chemistry and physics, to a new order said by school officials to be more logical and better suited to the Maine Learning Results.

Next year’s ninth graders will take physics. The class also will include earth science material related to physics, such as plate tectonics. In tenth grade the students will take chemistry, with relevant earth, environmental and space science material integrated. And in their junior year, students will take biology, also including relevant concepts from earth science.

In their senior year, students will have a choice of science electives, including advanced physics and chemistry, geosciences, environmental science, marine biology and genetics.

The new structure solves several problems the high school’s science department has been wrestling with, and also provides more opportunities for seniors to take electives.

A major philosophical issue is that physics is often seen as the basis for all sciences, with chemistry dealing with the physics of interactions of various substances, and biology the chemistry of life. The three then are combined in various ways to address earth, environmental and space sciences.

“The current sequence puts the conceptual cart before the horse,” high school Principal Jeff Shedd told a School Board workshop Tuesday.

The science department, he said, now finds that earth science teachers have to introduce physics to explain some concepts, while biology teachers introduce chemistry. The new program will remove that reversal, Shedd said.

The Maine Learning Results, he said, have a physical science component students cannot pass without studying physics. At present, about three-quarters of the high school students take physics, Shedd said.

Also, based on what he hears from the school’s guidance department, “colleges like to see physics on a transcript,” Shedd said.

One concern Shedd said had been voiced by several teachers and parents was the math-intensive nature of physics. But, he said, about 300 schools around the country, including some of the country’s top science and technology schools, have been teaching science in this order with good success.

Science teacher Michael Efron said the planned curriculum will allow him and his colleagues to teach physics with no math, some math, or a lot of math, depending on the ability of the students and the plan for the course. He gave the board a demonstration of how he could introduce the concept of acceleration of a ball on an incline without using any math at all.

Efron said this also will help reinforce concepts students learn in math class. Shedd also said the physics class would reach more students more easily, with an emphasis on visual and hands-on learning.

Shedd said parents of current eighth-graders were asked to comment on the change in February and were receptive to it.

Also coming down the pike may be increasing the science requirement at the high school, from two classes to three. About 95 percent of students already take three science courses, Shedd said, so staffing would not be significantly impacted.

He said he would ask the School Board to discuss increasing the graduation requirement at some point in the future.