# Physics education in the US

by Amok
Tags: education, physics
P: 254
 Quote by Andy Resnick I was referring to videos like this: http://www.xvivo.net/the-inner-life-of-the-cell/ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIg1V...eature=related http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FWMk...eature=related Lots of sexy graphics, hardly any actual science.
Some of those videos aren't bad (the first two I should say) since concepts of the scientific understanding of the universe are explained by people who actually understand them. They are interesting and show people that science is not dead, and helps them get acquainted with some modern concepts of science. I'm just saying that kind of stuff should not be central to a scientific education.
 P: 139 I am student teacher now. We are considered a high needs school. But we are offering 1 AP Physics B class, 1 Honors Physics class, and 2 conceptual Physics classes. The conceptual is very math light, nothing more than F=ma, p=mv, g=10 m/s/s. But we get into good discussions of why the world behaves the way it does. It's a pretty interesting course, and one that I think should actually be taught at the middle school level. For the other, more traditional, classes, I find what trips up the kids, and turns other kids off from taking the course is the math. The trig and algebra tends to discourage a lot of students. And this is a non-calculus course. And maybe this is more a fault of their earlier math teachers, but half these kids have trouble just applying the distributive property of multiplication when trying to solve for a variable.
 P: 433 I sometimes wonder whether at least a part of the problem with the way science and math are taught in American (and Canadian) schools is that too little solid math taught between kindergarten to Grade 6 is actually taught and so when advanced concepts are introduced in later grades, students are simply overwhelmed. I recall ever so long ago from my childhood that many of my classmates in Grade 6 were still learning the advanced multiplication tables, while I was being taught by my parents (and teaching myself) advanced algebra through texts that they bought for me and through private tutoring. Perhaps a gradual but more in-depth introduction of mathematical concepts through the earlier years will enable students to better comprehend and learn the material, and thus concepts from physics and other sciences will be better taught. This also ties in to teacher training as well, since I suspect many elementary school teachers do not have any background in either math or science.
P: 5,396
 Quote by superdave For the other, more traditional, classes, I find what trips up the kids, and turns other kids off from taking the course is the math. The trig and algebra tends to discourage a lot of students.
My experience is exactly the same. Also, it's really hard to motivate the students since they truly believe they have no need to understand basic algebra and trig (except in the short term, for passing the class).

 Quote by StatGuy2000 I sometimes wonder whether at least a part of the problem with the way science and math are taught in American (and Canadian) schools is that too little solid math taught between kindergarten to Grade 6 is actually taught and so when advanced concepts are introduced in later grades, students are simply overwhelmed.
I agree that the way K-12 math is currently taught (in my limited geographical experience) is poor. Again, one possible reason is that the curriculum was developed by educators with little to no formal mathematics expertise. For a delightfully cynical discussion, I encourage you to read "A Mathematician's Lament":

http://www.maa.org/devlin/lockhartslament.pdf

FWIW, a major thrust of STEM reform is centered on STEM *educator* reform.
P: 254
 Quote by Andy Resnick My experience is exactly the same. Also, it's really hard to motivate the students since they truly believe they have no need to understand basic algebra and trig (except in the short term, for passing the class).
I think that's a problem faced by teachers in general, from biology to philosohpy, from physics to art. :D

When I took advanced math classes in high school, the focus of the classes shifted from a purely 'calculatory' approach to something with more demonstrations and abstract concepts. That made me struggle A LOT (but certainly more engaging). The same thing happens when people go from high school to college, especially if they're going for a physics/math degree (that's what I observed at least). Maybe it's ok that this happens in college, but maybe changing the way math is taught to little kids might help (I have no idea how this works in the US btw).
P: 5,396
 Quote by Amok I think that's a problem faced by teachers in general, from biology to philosohpy, from physics to art. :D .
Definitely- the challenge to motivate students is not limited to math and science class :)

However, there is a big difference in curricula for classes subject to standardized 'proficiency exams' (math, science, english) and those not tested- art, philosophy,etc. To paraphrase Lockhart's essay, No K-12 art teacher grades based on the expectation that the student will one day be a professional artist. No K-12 music teacher develops a curriculum based on the assumption that every student may become a professional musician. The same holds true for most subjects- the curriculum is based on providing a constructive learning experience, not rote memorization. The clear exceptions are reading, math and science. It is also no coincidence that reading and math are subject to a large number of standardized exams.

The argument for standardized exams goes like this: some school districts (primarily poor urban and poor rural) manage to only graduate a small fraction of kids, and of those that graduate, most are functional at the 4th grade level or so. This is clearly unacceptable, so standardized tests are required to ensure that all students graduate with a minimum amount of skill/knowledge. And to make sure schools take these tests seriously, today's test scores are correlated with tomorrow's funding levels.

Personally, I agree that graduating students need to be able to read, write, and compute at a grade-appropriate level. I disagree that the schools with the worst problems should drive the curriculum at successful schools (which is what happens because *all* schools have to deal with the same standardized exams).

Our school district is moving to the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, and while I know very little about the specifics, what I do know is encouraging- there is less emphasis on rote memorization and more emphasis on coherent integration of concepts across disciplines.
P: 433
It's interesting that you point out the issue of standardized testing as one of the major drivers in reducing the interest level of students in math and science. In the province of Ontario, Canada (where I live) standardized testing for reading and math had been introduced around the mid-1990s, and there have been reports indicating that students graduating from high school have struggled with university level courses.

So the question then becomes, would eliminating standardized testing for math and reading may actually improve overall proficiency in the subjects? That would be an interesting hypothesis to test.
 P: 699 I don't think it has anything to do with standardized testing. As a former physics hater in high school myself, it just comes down to being lazy and not wanting to learn it. Lets face it, physics and math are hard subjects, and can be rather boring. The average high school kid doesn't give a rats *** what the velocity of a ball rolling down an incline plane is at the bottom of the plane, atleast given the energy needed to understand the problem. The ratio of time it takes to understand the question relative to the significance of the question is rather high for many pupils.
P: 5,396
 Quote by StatGuy2000 So the question then becomes, would eliminating standardized testing for math and reading may actually improve overall proficiency in the subjects? That would be an interesting hypothesis to test.
It's unclear, because the relationship between standardized test content and 'subject proficiency' is not clear. AFAIK, the US K-12 educational system has not articulated a clear coherent standard of what a high-school graduate should know and be able to do- but that could be changing, at least in the STEM fields.

For example, I could decide that a high school student has demonstrated proficiency in Physics if the student, with prompting, can solve a particular equation for an unknown quantity and can recall basic factual information. This sort of proficiency lends itself well to standardized testing.

Alternatively, I could decide that a high school student has demonstrated proficiency in Physics if the student, with prompting, can provide quantitative evidence that supports or refutes a scientific claim. This sort of proficiency does not lend itself to standardized testing.

You (and others) correctly identify a 'bottleneck': the transition from K-12 science education to college/university science education is difficult for many students, even those who did very well in the K-12 system. Personally, I think it's because of the difference in what is thought of as 'proficiency'- K-12 students are rewarded for rote memorization, while college/university students are increasingly asked to apply conceptual information to new and unfamiliar problems. This 'problem-based learning' approach has been increasingly used in advanced classes for decades, but only recently has it been applied to general-science required classes.
P: 139
 Quote by Woopydalan I don't think it has anything to do with standardized testing. As a former physics hater in high school myself, it just comes down to being lazy and not wanting to learn it. Lets face it, physics and math are hard subjects, and can be rather boring. The average high school kid doesn't give a rats *** what the velocity of a ball rolling down an incline plane is at the bottom of the plane, atleast given the energy needed to understand the problem. The ratio of time it takes to understand the question relative to the significance of the question is rather high for many pupils.
The thing is, Phyics and Math are boring because of two reasons:

The first is the way they are tested. The standardized, 70-90 question multiple choice test with 5-10 constructed answer questions. The format of these tests dictate the way the content is taught.

The second reason is tradition. Physics has been taught using the same examples, the same way for many years. This is generally caused by professors who teach the way they've always taught. A Physics Professor is often a horrible teacher. I took my physics classes at one of the top Physics schools in New York (Stony Brook University). But the professors cared more about research than teaching and basically taught by writing out a proof or a derivation on the board for an hour.

Many high school teachers learn to teach physics from these professors, so they teach the same way. This is changing for younger teachers, as the theory behind learning and teaching is being emphasized more in education programs.

As for math, well, once you get past early algebra, it's very hard to see the point in learning. Some of my physics students have told me that takuing physics helped them to understand geometry and trig a lot better because they have something to help it make sense. And one of my AP students said the same about calc.

Math and Physics are often separated in schools, but it doesn't need to be so. We could start teaching physics in math classes as early as algebra. Why separate the subjects? Newton certainly didn't.
HW Helper
P: 2,692
superdave wrote:

 Math and Physics are often separated in schools, but it doesn't need to be so. We could start teaching physics in math classes as early as algebra. Why separate the subjects? Newton certainly didn't.
If the Algebra or Trigonometry book is any good, it will include many APPLICATIONS exercises, some of which are physics.
P: 139
 Quote by symbolipoint superdave wrote: If the Algebra or Trigonometry book is any good, it will include many APPLICATIONS exercises, some of which are physics.
Yeah, that's true. But even so, they are buried among a mountain of other problems, and those applications exercises tend to just be somewhat relevant word problems. They never have you actually get up and use geometry to figure out the height of a building.

And there are standards written like "Students will be able to use complex math ideas to solve every day problems."

But then on the standardized test, the questions go back to being "Prove triangle xyz is congruent to abc" and "Simplify [insert complex number with radical in denominator]" with never any explanation of why anyone would possibly want to do that.

There is a disconnect between the standards and the standardized tests. And now that more and more states are tying teacher pay to student performance on the test, teachers have less time to get creative and spend more time on the test.

If physics was no longer just a science seniors took, but an integral part of math class from early years, it might help with some of these issues.
 HW Helper P: 2,692 superdave, The reason why some/many of the OLDER textbooks are good (or great) is because they do have many and varied applications exercises and examples. Still, we do not need to wonder why physical science students develop a good sense for how to use their Mathematics to analyze and solve realistic word-described problems and numerical physical problems. First they spend several weeks learning Algebra and maybe some Trigonometry; then they see their physical science topics relying on Algebra and Trigonometry, where the topic is both contactable and very mathematical. The mathematics LIVES in the physical sciences.
P: 5,396
 Quote by superdave The thing is, Phyics and Math are boring because of two reasons: Some of my physics students
I've been thinking about your post because you raise good points. However, it appears that you are a teacher/instructor/educator- a fact that, if true, undermines your argument. Do you teach?
P: 139
 Quote by Andy Resnick I've been thinking about your post because you raise good points. However, it appears that you are a teacher/instructor/educator- a fact that, if true, undermines your argument. Do you teach?
I'm student teaching now, will be certified in 3 weeks. I'm not sure how that undermines my argument. I'm seeing classrooms first hand. And I'm fresh from taking physics college courses. As a student teacher, I am able to see things from the teachers side, but also from outside the system as I don't have the same politics to answer to, and as a one-on-one tutor, I see what students struggle with.
P: 5,396
 Quote by superdave I'm student teaching now, will be certified in 3 weeks. I'm not sure how that undermines my argument.
I was specifically referring to the following comments:

 Quote by superdave The format of these tests dictate the way the content is taught. Physics has been taught using the same examples, the same way for many years.
As an instructor, I write exams and I choose how to present the material. My tests, the order I present topics, and the examples I use in lecture/recitation differ in significant ways from the 'canonical' Intro Physics course design.

My point is that as an instructor, you can choose to update/refresh your course- stating 'physics is boring because the tests and example problems are no longer relevant' when you have the direct ability to change that is unfair.

That said, while it is certainly true that K-12 teachers have less latitude than college/university teachers (for a variety of reasons), I maintain it's still possible to make adjustments to the curriculum in an effort to be more effective. So here's my challenge: what specific changes would you make?
P: 139
 Quote by Andy Resnick I was specifically referring to the following comments: As an instructor, I write exams and I choose how to present the material. My tests, the order I present topics, and the examples I use in lecture/recitation differ in significant ways from the 'canonical' Intro Physics course design. My point is that as an instructor, you can choose to update/refresh your course- stating 'physics is boring because the tests and example problems are no longer relevant' when you have the direct ability to change that is unfair. That said, while it is certainly true that K-12 teachers have less latitude than college/university teachers (for a variety of reasons), I maintain it's still possible to make adjustments to the curriculum in an effort to be more effective. So here's my challenge: what specific changes would you make?
When it is up to me, I focus a lot on the concepts. I'll introduce the equations, and then spend a whole class having a discussing about what it really means. Not just quantitatively, but in reality. What does it really mean to do work? To convert energy from one type to another? I spent 25 minutes the other day having the kids detail the energy changes in different interactions.

Then for calculations, I tried to first do them with interesting examples. We calculated the change of kinetic energy during a pitch to find the work done, and then the power. Using ESPN's Sports science to get some of the details. Did a few other video calculations. The power of Iron Man's rocket boots, the spring constant in Spider-Man's webs, the kinetic energy, and then his velocity, at the bottom of his swing.

And the students did better on this unit test than they have on any of the ones their regular teacher taught. And actually found the material interesting. It's true, most of these changes could be made within the structure of the state curriculum. But there is nothing pushing for it. Boring teachers continue to be boring teachers. So you are right in the sense that you can't blame it all on the standardized test.
 Sci Advisor P: 5,396 Sounds excellent! I try and include 'physics of superheroes'-type material as well. Most of my intro students are health science majors, so I tend to use those applications- weight lifting and sports injuries (forces and torques), IV drips/hemodynamics (fluids), metabolism (thermodynamics), etc. etc. I'm contemplating a major revision to the course- introducing energy first, even before kinematics, since the students have an intuitive feel for energy and pressure but are seriously intimidated by vectors and trig. Unfortunately, I don't think any textbook would let me do that- the energy/waves/fluids/thermo chapters and homework problems all use jargon developed in previous chapters.