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Modern Physics in the Highschool Curriculum

  1. Mar 7, 2012 #1
    I don't know if this should go here exactly, excuse me if it goes in another place.

    So Im learning about Quantum Mechanics and Relativity in this moment. These ideas are 100 years old or less.

    This makes me think, when did this ideas got incorporated in the academic curriculum? Was it right away when they came out? probably not...so when is the moment when they become ''something important for the future generations?''

    This also makes me think, what is the next thing you think will be added to the physics hihgschool curriculum?

    Thanks and again, sorry if it doesn't go here.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 7, 2012 #2
    The odds are they won't be added in to the US one anyway. A brief introduction without a lot of maths would be max.

    I have a friend in Germany who is doing this, but the german curriculum is more advanced than that of the US and here in Ireland. It's because educators deem the mathematics too difficult. I would love to do it, but i'll have to wait till grad school...
  4. Mar 7, 2012 #3


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    Surely not that long! :eek:

    In the US, an "introduction to modern physics" course is common in the second year of university, after the introductory calculus-based physics which is mostly classical physics. It typically covers special relativity, basic quantum mechanics (particle in a box) and various applications like the hydrogen atom, some nuclear physics, etc. That's followed by a full-blown QM course in the third/fourth years.
  5. Mar 7, 2012 #4
    I don't think there is a moment that suddenly it gets added. It's probably something like this.

    Ok, there is a new theory/field that is being worked on by cutting edge researchers. Over time graduate students start doing research in said field. As time progresses enough graduate students are doing research to justify a class in the new field. Over time the field begins to take form and it is being learnt how to be taught such that it can be taught at an undergraduate upper division level. Over time, a theory is unpacked even more and taught at a lower division level.

    At this point, nothing new probably will be taught at a HS level really. There just isnt enough time.
  6. Mar 7, 2012 #5
    Quantum mechanics got added to the standard undergraduate curriculum in the 1950's by French and Taylor at MIT. It takes a surprisingly large amount of effort to get things to the point where it's teachable to undergraduates. I don't think it's possible to teach QM to high school students (although I'd be glad to be corrected on this). It's possible (and easy) to *mention* QM, but that's different from teaching it.

    Relativity got in much more quickly, since the math and concepts are easier.

    It can take a long time to figure out how to structure a course so that it's teachable to high school students and undergraduates. There's also the difficulties involved in teaching the new curriculum, which can take years to change.

    The basic US high school science curriculum was set in the early 20th century by the Committee of Ten.


    Computational physics.

    One problem with curriculum is that in order to put something in, you have to take something out, but with computers, those are getting added anyway, so there isn't as much of a need to take something out.
  7. Mar 7, 2012 #6
    The hard part is to figure out how to teach QM without a lot of math. I think that relativity can be taught without a lot of math, but I don't see how QM can be. The problem is that QM is weird. If you wanted to teach Newtonian mechanics without math, you can do it by analogy. There is a ball, throw the ball, watch the ball. You can't do that with QM, and efforts to teach QM by analogy end up being more confusing than helpful.

    That was the attitude of US educators until the 1950's when French and Taylor put together a course for undergraduates on QM at MIT. It takes a math education genius to make the math easy. A lot of the pressure was Cold War. If the US doesn't teach QM then we'll be waving red flags when the Russians do, and essentially the President and the generals ordered MIT to figure out how to teach QM quickly.

    Curiously the Russians were under similar pressures, and I've seen excellent educational material translated from Russian, and part of me is sad that the Cold War ended with a total US victory rather than a "friendly stalemate."

    A lot of the new techniques of physics education got started at MIT (undergraduate research and the trend away from lecture courses toward small interactive groups).

    MIT is pretty innovative as far as physics education goes because all MIT students have to take basic physics, and having a group of 1000 math-literate students gives you a lot of lab rats for new stuff.

    One fun thing is to go back to the mid-19th century and read William Barton Rogers. There is one essay in which he explains step by step the idea that the student will learn material from an instructor, and then be giving a written test at which he will be given a numerical score for that test. It looks silly, because it's so obvious, but then you realize that it's obvious today because everyone does it, and he was trying to explain the new system to people that had never seen it before.
  8. Mar 9, 2012 #7
    I think QM and relativity should be briefly discussed in school, just so that students have some basic ideas about them. They certainly should not spend more than a week or so on each.

    For QM there is just too much maths needed before you can get any sort of proper understanding of the subject even on a very elementary level. In SR you can do something with relatively elementary mathematics, but GR too requires quite a bit of maths that school students will not know.

    At any rate, it is my opinion that QM and relativity, even special relativity, should not be discussed in any detail until the student has a thorough understanding of classical physics, that is, Lagrangian mechanics and EM at the level of Griffiths. I remember as a first year student doing calculus-based general physics where SR was introduced eary in the course and it only confused me and many others greatly. How much detail can you go in to in school any way? Just keep it very brief. Nevertheles I do think it should be mentioned in school, after all, school is supposed to give a very general knowledge about the world.

    I still think that in school physics you should be able to work out problems on the material you are studying, rather than regurgitating material you are told, which is what will happen if students are taught QM and relativity in school. Now just look at the table of contents of this current school textbook for the UK:
    You will notice that it already covers these topics (modern physics) in quite some detail. In fact, from chapter 8 on students will basically just be memorising material to regurgitate in an exam, rather than understanding the physics and using it to solve problems. So these subjects are already being taught at school in the UK.
    Last edited: Mar 9, 2012
  9. Mar 9, 2012 #8


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    That looks pretty much the same syllabus that I took for A level physics in the UK back in the 1960s. Back then it was hardly "memorising material to regurgitate", considering most "maths and physics" students had already done 18 months or 2 years of calculus by that time.

    The focus was on explaining observable phenomena (atomic spectral lines, semiconductor PN junctions, etc) rather than deep philosophy, but it certainly wasn't math-free. You don't need to overdose on abstruse math notation to solve Shrodinger's equation in simple situations, by separating the variables. (Note for those with a vague sense of history: back there were no such things as personal computers, and the "high tech" way of doing calculations was to use a slide rule rather than log tables...)
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