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On Physics Education of the the 21st Century

  1. Mar 31, 2010 #1
    I don't have a question but wanted rather to start a conversation about the problem of our Physics Educational Program at all levels here in the US of A.

    Let's take a trip down my memory lane and see a the type of physics education a privileged citizen like myself received :

    Junior High School (Grades 6 - 8) : None.

    High School (Grades 9 -12) : Not required to take any physics courses although they were offered. This seems crazy to me. I attended a top 20 public high school in the US of A and we weren't required to take physics? In fact we weren't required to take chemistry! We just had to take 1 year of science which could be fulfilled by biology, physiology, etc. Seeing how I went to a top 20 high school, I'm wondering about the 99% of high schools below ours. I think it's a safe bet to say 90% of high school students graduate without every taking a physics course in their life...

    College : The small percentage who make it to college are, once again, not required to take any type of physics / chemistry course unless their major requires it. It's college! How do we not require everyone to take a basic physics / chem course?? I attended the #3 public undergrad engineering program and minored in physics. I didn't know F = ma until sophmore year. I was embarrassed to admit that for a while but now I've realize it's our instutionals that are to blame. If you think about it, all of our great theories and physicists' came from Europe? They are introduced to physics at a young age and those interested continue to pursue it.

    I, on the other hand, really learned physics (and fell in love) at the ripe age of 20. AND that was after attending the top public schools in the country.

    Anyway, thought I'd share my thoughts with anyone who cared. Some will agree, some with disagree, but it's probably a topic that needs to be addressed? Or maybe physics and science aren't that important and we should teach our kids about 'intelligent design' instead?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 31, 2010 #2
    You may be interested in the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physics_first" [Broken]. I can see aspects of both sides of that debate.

    Poor bet; http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0WMX/is_1_24/ai_n27164189/". Still too small, I'd agree.

    At the college level, I'm far more concerned that general education classes provide critical thinking/problem solving skills; the subject matter used to get there isn't all that important to me.

    And as far as this assertion:

    I'm thinking about it, and don't see it. To use the (admittedly imperfect) metric of Nobels, in the last 20 years there have been (by a rough count) 32 physics laureates affiliated with American institutions; 25 of those were born in the US, making up half of the 50 total winners. If you're looking to decades far past for examples, then they're irrelevant to discussions of modern education systems, not to mention the present state of physics knowledge and research.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  4. Mar 31, 2010 #3
    Wait, what!? You don't study any physics during your first 8 years?? Do you study any natural science at all during those years!?! If not, wth are you doing during those years? You don't even have to learn a second language... (English is compulsory in most non English speaking countries)

    To be fair, both of those arguments are totally irrelevant to this topic. Nobel laureates of the past 20 years got educated 30-50 years ago so it don't say anything of todays method, and Europes time of fame ended with the world wars so it is even more dated.
  5. Mar 31, 2010 #4
    I think if you want to have any kind of debate about any educational program in the US you need to start with the students and parents. We live in an age where many people have access to meaningful knowledge yet many of those people obtain it improperly or not at all; you also have parents that view the school system primarily as a free daycare center and secondarily as a learning place.

    Here's some anecdotal evidence. I overheard a conversation between two mothers complaining about how their young children only ask for videogames and how the mothers have to buy the videogames to appease the children; I kept asking myself, how about not buying them the games and giving them books instead? If you are old enough for a Nintendo DS, you are old enough to read a book! Those are probably among the same parents that later on complain to the school when their child gets a low grade.

    I think the reason private and charter schools outperform public ones is due to the parents caring about the child's education and said child becoming more interested in learning.
  6. Mar 31, 2010 #5
  7. Mar 31, 2010 #6
    But what's the point of improving the educational system if users' attitudes might remain the same? I would argue that irresponsible parents and indifferent students are the main reasons why the public education system is so terrible. Why invest $ on an advanced computer if many of the users will end up using to check facebook?

    If more parents and students took responsibility for their education you would see a better public education system. It seems the ones that do care gave up and decided to demand more charter schools or work extra to send their children to private schools.
  8. Mar 31, 2010 #7


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    Another point is that teaching is not really considered as a "sexy" profession. When compared to jobs in industry or business for example, people tend to get a lot more and their earning potential is a lot greater than that of a teacher. While its true that teachers get a lot of time off, if you factor in all the things that teachers have to do such as extra curricular activities, excursions, and other stuff when you compare it to other jobs the benefits offered don't seem as much as when you looked at from the point of "ohh they get 2-3 months off" kinda thing.

    When people are in business especially fortune 500, the culture is to reward high performers and give them options. While you can rise to higher roles in teaching its not like that you find in industry. I know in australia there was talk of having a performance system but the teachers were against it.

    There are some really good teachers out there, but I think that the brightest and the best people will go into industry, business, or possibly tertiary education and research over teaching and if people want to recruit these kind of people they are essentially competing with Microsoft, GE, Google, BP and so forth.
  9. Apr 3, 2010 #8
    I signed up to ask a question which I'll ask in another thread but this caught my attention so I feel the need to respond. The OP says that there is no physics in the American elementary through high school education system. I am a fourth grade teacher in Chicago Public Schools (by FAR not one of the best education institutions in America I think only LA and New Jersey are worse but I could be wrong and probably am).

    Now it is true that students dont take "physics" in elementary through high school however to claim that they do not learn some of the concepts of physics is absolutely false. I teach math and science in 4th grade and for science we use the Full Option Science System (FOSS) as well as a science textbook (well... truth be told I've never opened that textbook but its there). I just finished up doing a unit on magnetism and electricity. In the middle school FOSS curriculum there are units on force and motion, planets, and electronics. All of those fall into the general realm of physics I believe.

    If you mean we dont teach students about relativity and quantum mechanics in school or any other advanced physics topics (those are really the only two that I know of) then obviously we dont. It's far too advanced for them. Now maybe some high schools offer AP classes and stuff like that for really bright students but for the majority of students that kind of stuff is too hard. That being said I did learn some stuff about Einstein and relativity E=mc2 kind of stuff in my sophomore "physical science".

    Anyway thats just my thoughts on it. True there are no or very few "physics" classes in elementary through high school but they DO learn some basic concepts in just about every area of science. To put more focus on one area would leave the other areas behind.

    Now if you want to talk about the time teachers are given in order to teach all of these concepts adequately then thats a different subject :p
  10. Apr 4, 2010 #9
    On the other hand, my parents let me play with computers all day long I was able to turn that into a very high paying career as a programmer. It's not clear to me that letting kids play video games a lot is such a bad thing. If I look at what I do at work, the fact that I played a lot of video games when I was a kid provided a lot of useful work skills.
  11. Apr 4, 2010 #10
    It also doesn't help when people ***** and moan about how incompetent they are all the time.

    Which leads to things like Lehman Brothers. Having seen the sausage being made, I'm not sure that it's a good idea to apply "business culture" to primary education, since a lot of things about business culture truly suck. Basically "high performance" in business means that you are better at office politics.
  12. Apr 4, 2010 #11
    One thing to remember is that there is no such thing as the American education system when it comes to primary/secondary schools. The US has a tremendously decentralized educational system, so it has some of the best schools in the world and some of the worst. I think it would be more useful if you focused on a *particular* school system in the United States.

    Also I don't think it's such a bad thing that kids play video games and go on face book a lot. Looking at what skills I've found useful at work. you end up learning a *lot* by playing video games and chatting on facebook. We live in a world in which all your money is in cyberspace, and if you look at what a bond trader does it's basically playing, global capitalism, which is the world's ultimate video game.
  13. Apr 4, 2010 #12
    I'm currently being forced to take a comparative literature class as a physics major. I very often wonder why I have to take such a class when I'm sure a literature major has probably never been forced to take even a basic physical science class, even in high school. P.S. I hate literature.
  14. Apr 4, 2010 #13
    You probably hate literature because you have rotten teachers. Personally, I don't believe in forcing students to take classes because if you force people to take the class rather than explain *why* the class is important, you'll end up just turning off the student to the subject.

    The reason that literature is important is that at some point in your life, your life is going to totally suck. You are going to be getting your physics Ph.D. in a bad economy, you are going to have relationship problems, you are just going to feel totally miserable. Or maybe it works the other way. You get everything you ever wanted, but you are *still* unhappy and you don't know why.

    At that point, it will help to read something. It might be history, it might be fiction, it might be tragedy. But knowing that literature is out there will help you think about what to do when life just sucks. Also universities have a weird idea about what is "great literature". Personally, one piece of great literature is "Batman". One thing I helped me a lot when my life sucks, is that I think of myself as Batman, and because I've had decent literature teachers, I know enough about literature to know why that "works." Star Wars doesn't. Because I had some literature background, I was able to figure out how "Batman" was brainwashing me and how "Star Wars" was brainwashing me, and I decided to accept "Batman" and reject "Star Wars."

    The Star Trek mythology is also another great piece of literature. As is Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica. One thing that you learn if you have a *good* literature teacher is that when Shakespeare was writing his plays or you had Sophocles or Aristophanes write their plays, they were doing what Gene Rodenberry, JJ Abrams, George Lucas, and Quinto Tarantino are doing today.

    I also think that "majors" are a stupid idea. You learn whatever it is that you need to learn.


    And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
    And you may find yourself in another part of the world
    And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
    And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
    And you may ask yourself-Well...How did I get here?

    Also being able to write poetry is also a *very* useful skill. A few days ago, I was taking a twenty page report, and trying to summarize it into one paragraph for senior management. What I was doing was writing a poem.
    Last edited: Apr 4, 2010
  15. Apr 4, 2010 #14
    Similar story here. Playing with computers forever when I was younger has explicitly helped me at every career step so far, from school to my first job to promotions. I don't work as a programmer or in IT anymore, but still.

    I would venture a guess that the quantitative skills I practiced while programming and figuring out computers also helped me out significantly with problem solving skills, SAT scores, research ability, etc. I'll save the World of Warcraft guild leadership experience for another thread.

    For the record I've also played sports all my life etc. I also know some people who gave up on everything in life except video games... and that didn't end well. But video games and computers have been extremely helpful to me professionally.
  16. Apr 4, 2010 #15
    One other reason that physics is getting taught less is that the military-industrial complex (i.e. the people that run the United States) have decided that physics is less important than it once was. The main push for physics during the cold war was to create lots of physicists that could fight the Russians. Today, there is much, much higher priority in biotech and biological science than physics, since people in the military-industrial complex grow old and die too.

    curiousphoton: If you think about it, all of our great theories and physicists' came from Europe? They are introduced to physics at a young age and those interested continue to pursue it.

    One thing that you often here is how education is better in country X. One of the things about the internet is that you find out (sometimes from people in country X) that this isn't true. Also Europe (specifically Germany) *was* light-years ahead of the US in physics in 1920, but an insane dictator and the war he started put an end to that, so in the 1930's-1940's the best European physicists ended up in the United States.
  17. Apr 4, 2010 #16
    Also I *don't* think that it's a good idea to teach formal physics too early. The problem is that when you teach something, you teach not only content but attitudes, and for elementary schools some ideas that you *don't* want to teach are:

    1) the idea that scientific knowledge can be easily divided into different fields
    2) science is about repeating the answers that the teacher teaches you on the test
    3) if it's not on the test, it isn't important
    4) science is boring

    One other problem is that there is just *too much knowledge*. What I would like to see my kids do is to master core skills, and once they have those skills then they can figure out what they can do with them.
  18. Apr 10, 2010 #17


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    Well - I received most of my education in the 20th century, but from what I see, today's education system is pretty much unchanged from 30 or 40 years ago.

    I'd have to disagree with the above assessment as to what is available in JHS, HS, or college. Through 9th grade, I took 'Science' of which physics was a component. One had to learn chemistry, biology, geology and other areas. Simultaneously, one studies mathematics, which of course one needs to master to be proficient in physics and other sciences.

    The first physics course I took was during 12th grade. In 10th grade, the primary science class was Biology. In 11th grade the primary science class was Chemistry, although one could take physics. At the HS I attended, most students who took Physics, took it during 12th grade. However, we had two levels of classes - the basic level for most students, and the Major Works/Honors/AP levels for those qualified to take more rigorous classes.

    Physics was not required for the average student, but it was available. Probably most did not take it.
    I find school rankings rather dubious. I presume 'public school' refers to a public university.

    I would agree that the seems to be a lack of emphasis on teaching math and science in the primary schools.

    I think a big problem with education is the mass production or assembly line approach, much like GM and Ford apply to assembling cars. Education is done on an arbitrary schedule and on demand. Primary education systems are set up for the average student, but not really for the one's who exceptional, i.e., those too bright/advanced, or those with learning challenges.
  19. Feb 1, 2012 #18
    I teach in a school with around 300 students; it is my first year there and I was hired just a couple days before the school year began.

    Everyone takes Biology or Earth Science. (Enrollment about 60 in each.)

    Then there is a low-level Chem/Physics course that is more like a general science class. (Enrollment about 60.)

    There is a college prep first year Chemistry course and a college prep first year Physics course. (Chem enrollment: 12. Physics enrollment 6.)

    This year the interest was so low that they are not offering a Chem II or a Physics II or an AP course in either. (Enrollment therefore is zero.)

    Part of the problem is because the previous teacher made the Chem and Physics courses so hard that only the 6-10 "brightest" in the school wanted to take it. Colleagues tell me that the students in those classes were nearly always stressed.

    Everyone else was advised to avoid it, or personally selected not to take it. I had some extremely bright kids in my Chem/Phys survey course that should have been in Chemistry and would have gained a lot from it, but they weren't going to risk their GPA or their well-being.
  20. Feb 25, 2012 #19
    I remember in 4th grade learning about potential and kinetic energy. However, all I remember was the video with the roller coaster and the song ''Energy, energy!''. I had a hard enough time learning how when you add to one side of an equation, you have to add the same amount to the other side of the equation, so obviously I wasn't ready for anything physics, other than maybe some conceptual ideas, like the fact that maybe there are different types of energy, without reference to what they even mean. All I knew was kinetic and potential energy as two different words, without any meaning attached to them.
  21. Mar 19, 2012 #20
    Elementary and Middle School science = Bill Nye the Science guy
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