Sequencing Upper School Science and Math Curriculum Part 1: Putting Physics First

by John Mays

One of Novare’s objectives in creating a science curriculum is the development of a program that gives not just the top students, but all students a solid introduction to physics.

Part 1 topics:

  • Putting Physics First Overview
  • The Benefits of Putting Physics First

Part 2 topics:

  • Dual Science and Math Pathways
  • Science and Math Linkage
  • The Complete Science-Math Course Sequence
  • Considerations for Middle School
  • Summary

Read Part 2 here!

Putting Physics First

For several reasons, physics is the best choice in 9th grade for all students. This claim frequently surprises educators, especially those more familiar with the biology-chemistry-physics sequence. In this article, I will unpack this claim and also discuss the placement of chemistry and biology in a science curriculum.When considering where to place physics in the high school science program, it is important to keep in mind the distinction between an introductory physics course and a more advanced course that incorporates vector cal- culations and trigonometry into problem solutions. I will refer to these two courses as the introductory course and the vector/trig course. It is also important to note that I reference two different groups of 9th graders: grade-level students who do not specifically excel in the study of science, and accelerated students who do. The assumption here is that your program is stratified into two different pathways (a.k.a., tracks): a grade-level pathway and an accelerated pathway. I will address this idea of stratification briefly later in this article.

One of Novare’s objectives in creating a science curriculum is the development
of a program that gives not just the top students, but all students a solid introduction to physics. Knowing full well that some states are insisting that all students take a vector/trig course, it is my opinion that vector/ trig physics is very difficult and is not for everyone. As an educator who has taught physics for more than 20 years in public schools, private schools, and colleges,
I can attest that making it a requirement for all students is a mistake. Private schools and homeschoolers should consider carefully whether they will follow the public schools or instead adopt sensible, logical programming that can serve the needs of all students.

To begin, there are essentially three options for placing physics in the high-school science sequence. The first is to offer only vector/trig physics to upper-level students (11th or 12th graders). This is the way it was when I was in high school. The problem with this option is that only a small percentage of a typical student body has the math skills to handle a course like this. When the vector/trig course is offered as an elective, typically about 10%–20% of the students will elect to take it, and those who do will have their work cut out for them. But if the vector/trig elective is the only choice, some 80%–90% of the students will not have a physics course in high school at all. This is not an acceptable scenario because any modern-day high school education should include a grounding in the study of physics, which is the study of how the world around us works.

The second and most common option is to require all students to take a vector/trig physics course in 11th grade. As I noted earlier, less than a quarter of a typical student body can handle a vector/trig course, even if it is watered down. From my own classroom observations, I have concluded that this approach is a significant mistake. When the class average on an exam in April is 63, and students are making pitiable jokes about their scores in the 40s (an actual example), you know that there is a problem.

The third option is known as the “physics-first” approach. In this approach, an Algebra I–based physics course is provided to all 9th graders, and then a vector/ trig physics course is offered as an elective, along with other upper-level science electives. This option works very well and appropriately addresses the needs of all students. Students in 9th grade should take an intro- ductory course that focuses on the basic principles of physics. The course should incorporate plenty of math- ematics but restrict the math to what students concurrently taking Algebra I can handle.

The mathematics component is very important, and for this reason, I do not recommend so-called “conceptual physics”—a physics course without mathematics.

Even students with modest ability can solve basic problems in motion, force, energy, density, and so on, and such computations should definitely be part of the introductory course.

The course for accelerated or honors-level students should incorporate introductory chemistry as well and grade- level students should take an introductory physics course. These two pathways correspond to the Novare Science texts Introductory Physics and Accelerated Studies in Physics and Chemistry (ASPC), respectively. Our vector/trig physics text is Physics: Modeling Nature.

Benefits of Physics First

So far, we have seen that placing a physics-based course in 9th grade provides all students with an introduction to the subject while allowing students who so desire to take a more advanced vector/trig course later as an elective. A key justification for this sequence is the educational benefit of having a background in physics prior to taking chemistry or biology. The physics curriculum will include several topics important for chemistry, such as energy, heat, energy transfer, phases of matter, electrostatic attraction, temperature scales, light, types of substances, and the internal structure of the atom. Covering these topics in physics as 9th graders will pay large dividends when students encounter them later in chemistry.

A well-designed physics course should also provide students with a significant amount of practice in basic scientific mathematical skills. Two skills of supreme importance in science are performing unit conversions and using scientific notation, which all students should master as 9th graders. Additionally, the course should introduce students to the roles of accuracy and precision in scientific measurements and give students considerable practice working with significant digits.

With a background in these important skills, students will be better prepared to tackle topics in chemistry. Chemistry is often perceived as difficult because students usually have to learn chemical principles and mathematical skills simultaneously. But when students arrive in chemistry having already mastered unit conversions, scientific notation, and significant digits, a lot of the perceived difficulty of chemistry simply disappears.

In summary, placing Algebra 1–based physics in 9th grade provides all students the best access to an appropriate introduction to physics.

It also introduces all students to important fundamental topics that play major roles in chemistry. Finally, studying physics in 9th grade gives all students an opportunity to master the critical skills of performing unit conversions, using scientific notation, and dealing with significant digits. With these skills in their toolbox prior to taking chemistry, students will be equipped to tackle the basic topics in chemistry without getting tangled up in learning the math skills at the same time. The Novare Science text that students would use after taking introductory physics is General Chemistry.

Keep Reading! Check out Part 2: Linking Science and Math here

Novare Science, now available from Classical Academic Press!

About the Author

John Mays

John Mays holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from Texas A&M University, a Master of Education degree in Secondary Education from the University of Houston, and a Master of Liberal Arts degree from St. Edwards University. He also has completed 36 hours of graduate study in the field of Physics. John worked as an engineer and engineering manager for 14 years from 1982 to 1999, with a break for graduate study and teaching appointments.

John entered the field of education in 1985 teaching math in the public school system. Since then he has also taught science and math professionally in various Christian high schools. He was an instructor of math and 20th Century American Literature at St. Edwards University for 10 years and Concordia University. He taught full-time at Regents School of Austin from 1999-2012, serving as Math-Science Department Chair for eight years, and established the Regents Laser Optics Lab. John is the author of Novare’s physics and chemistry textbooks plus many resources including The Student Lab Report Handbook, Teaching Science so that Students Learn Science and Science for Every Teacher.

He has three adult children and lives with his wife in Seguin, Texas.

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