Thursday, December 19, 2002

New science curriculum puts physics first

Published in the Current

This year, freshmen at Cape Elizabeth High School have started their science learning with physics rather than earth and physical science – a new trend in education that says the way science has traditionally been taught is backward.

The science faculty have had to work hard to restructure the physics curriculum to depend less on math and more on the concepts of physics itself, but so far the project seems to be a success. The idea is that physics offers a big picture look at how the universe works and is therefore the most logical starting point in science education.

Department head and physics teacher, Michael Efron, said some tweaking has been required. The year started with four sections of honors and five sections of college prep classes. Three of the college prep sections had stronger students and two sections were of what Efron called students with a “weaker background,” not only in science but also in math and English.

“We struggled with how best to handle that,” Efron said. In the end, two sub-levels of college prep were set up, and some students, with the permission of their parents and other teachers, were rearranged to make the classes of more equal abilities.

“Then we could teach everybody at a better pace,” Efron said.

It has presaged a change in the science curriculum across the grades.

“We really want to offer three levels in all the base courses,” Efron said. That way, the department will be able to meet more students’ needs.

Other changes have been as significant and with good educational payoff.

Physics teacher Michael O’Brien said teaching physics to ninth-graders rather than seniors doesn’t mean teaching any different subject matter, though it does mean using less math. “It’s not the physics that people think of, with all the formulas and equations,” O’Brien said.

Instead, students learn the concepts relating to the way the world works. “Physics explains the natural world,” O’Brien said.

In the honors classes, students do use more math than in the college prep level, but while most of the students have finished the Algebra I course, none have had calculus or other advanced mathematics.

Next year, there may be a requirement for students in the honors level to have completed Algebra I, Efron said, but that remains under discussion.

But this year’s honors freshmen are doing just fine.

“They’re stepping up to the plate,” said teacher Courtney Ferrell, who was hired this year specifically with the transition in mind. She can teach both physics and chemistry.

The book the students use doesn’t involve much math. On a recent test supplied with the class’s textbook, Ferrell said, the average score was a 92, indicating, she said, that they can handle the work just fine.

Physics teacher Kerry Kertes teaches freshman honors classes, too. “The math we give them is the same math I give my seniors,” he said. “The bar’s pretty high, but I’d rather have kids reach up.”

During class time, Kertes meets with students who are taking the Algebra I class this year, to make sure they are keeping up.

The class includes as many as three or four demonstrations each week, plus two lab classes. There is also group work in small and large groups.

“The world of physics is a natural, everyday thing,” Kertes said. But not everything is as easy to explain to a freshman as to a senior. Examples using cars were common for senior physics students. That has to change for freshmen, who haven’t yet gotten their licenses.

Also changing is the level of independence students have. Where seniors taking physics would be able to read the text on their own as homework, Efron now reads the text along with some of his classes, discussing the questions that come up along the way.

Looking to next year, Kertes, who also teaches chemistry, sees that physics will lay a strong foundation for chemistry, which will be followed by biology junior year.

Doug Worthley, who teaches chemistry, said there will be new concepts next year, but the same process.

Having the ideas on a larger scale is better to do first. With the students’ experience in physics, he will be able to show that the same thing that happens between two balls hitting each other happens to two atoms hitting each other.

“The biology teachers just finished chemistry,” Worthley said, setting up the cellular basis for this year’s biology. When the freshmen get to biology in two years, that won’t be necessary.

“The sciences aren’t really separate,” Worthley said.

The opportunities don’t stop there. The new order of science classes allows for new electives in science for seniors. Not only will the marine biology and anatomy and genetics classes be available, but others are under development as well.

Efron said he may have found one class idea, looking at the philosophical implications of physics in terms of where humans fit in the scheme of things.

“If the world really works this way, where does that leave us,” Efron asked. Most of the freshmen, he said, seem uninterested, while his seniors are fascinated by it.

The students, too, are enjoying it, though they are not in a position to see the overall picture just yet. Freshmen Casey Pearson and Caroline Etnier said they are enjoying the class. Both had been wary of not knowing enough math, but it hasn’t been a problem so far, they said.