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Courses Is HS Physics Too Easy?

  • Thread starter bhobba
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Quantum physicist, Dr Simmons from UNSW, Australian Of The Year, is very concerned about the level of physics taught at HS. I am just watching a program now interviewing her, and after looking at typical HS physics exams, such as those in the Australian and the IB syllabus, she is very concerned it has a very low level of math, or in some case none at all, such as exams just having questions like describe in general terms how an atomic reactor works. She didn't say it outright, but to me it was more or less saying why no calculus. It has always worried me - if you are science minded you generally do calculus in grade 11 and 12 in HS in Aus but not in physics.

What do others think - is HS physics too low level and these days needs to be calculus based. It certainly would allow a deeper first year physics course at university.

Thanks
Bill
 
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scottdave

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That's interesting. I'm in the United States. I took Calculus in 12th grade. I can see how having a knowledge of derivatives and integrals helps to understand the equations of motion. I took Physics in 11th grade.
We learn other formulas having to do with area and rates before Calculus, so I guess Physics is Ok to learns some before Calculus. Perhaps an introduction to the derivative and integrals would be nice. I am not familiar with what the curriculum is right now though.
 

jtbell

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The US has a wide range of high schools, and a wide range of students with different backgrounds, You can find three general types of physics courses (not in all high schools, however):

  • "Descriptive physics" courses with minimal math, using e.g. the book of that name by Paul Hewitt
  • Algebra/trig based courses which I think are the most common (I took one of these nearly 50 years ago when I was in HS); this includes AP Physics 1 & 2 which are supposed to be equivalent to a university-level algebra/trig based course
  • Calculus-based courses, usually AP Physics B & C.

In some parts of the country, e.g. suburbs of large cities, students who plan to go to college/university (here they're both bachelor's level institutions) normally study calculus in HS. Elsewhere they often stop at the trigonometry or pre-calculus level in HS, and don't start calculus until university. This was common at the college in the South where I taught for many years.
 
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I have noticed in the US things are more varied than Aus. We are more like England. Some offer starting 11 and 12 math B and C, which taken together are equivalent to US Calculus BC plus some extra stuff on things like Markov chains and mechanics, in grade 10, then first year uni math in grade 12 - together it would be equivalent to US Calc 1, 2 and 3 plus a subject that covers half a differential equations/linear algebra double course. For me that's great, but my feeling is a calculus based physics course in 11 and 12 would complement the more advanced math better, plus would have an introduction to calculus going into it. Instead they do either IB physics or the similar Australian Curriculum which is of your algebra trig based type.

Dr Simmons thought, and I have thought for a long time as well, at least our better more motivated students are being sold short. She readily admits the PhD students she gets are good - but all felt they were not challenged with physics at HS, instead pushed to get high marks on material that wasn't that challenging. That's something that really got me about HS - at least in math and science when I did it, it was dull and boring but you still had to know it backwards to get the marks necessary for university. It turned me off and I suspect others as well - we are doing a disservice to students IMHO, not keeping good students motivated with challenging/interesting material. I basically tuned out in 11 and 12 and studied what I wanted which was all over the place. Something structured and interesting would have been more to my liking eg:
http://www.physics2000.com/

In Australia we are stuck with this thing called an OP score that determines university entrance. It will soon be done away with - which I think is good. Encouraging people to just go over and over material without challenge simply to get high marks for university acceptance is not a good way to motivate students.

We will see what eventuates.

Thanks
Bill
 
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jtbell

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I have noticed in the US things are more varied than Aus.
The US doesn't have a national educational system. Control and funding are mostly in the hands of the states and the local school districts, in varying proportions depending on the state. Much of the funding comes from local property taxes which depend on support from local residents via the ballot box; if not by direct vote on specific funding measures, then by voting for representatives on the local school board.

The results depend a lot on the relative wealth of the voters and their political leanings.

I'm in a rural area of the South. In the next town over from me, just last year, there was a ballot proposal to fund a new high school and other improvements to the school system. It went down to a 70% defeat, and there is talk about voting in a new slate of (presumably more frugal) school board members at the next election.
 

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