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Physics education in the US

  1. Nov 12, 2012 #1
    I'm not sure if this is the best forum for this post, but here we go. This guy (who usually makes great videos) posted this on youtube.


    First of all, is it true (I'm not American)? Second, do you agree? Any comments are welcome :D

    I personally think that some modern physics should be taught in high-school, but only to show students that physics didn't stop in time. I certainly do not think that a high-school physics curriculum should be centered around modern physics. I think modern physics is irrelevant (compared to classical physics) to most people who don't go into science and engineering (and even to a lot who do go into those domains). More importantly, I feel that one could only go so far into relativity or QM when talking to people who don't know what a gradient is. I'd rather have people learn the basics well than just learn a lot of trivia about lasers and how a gravitational field bends light. The guy makes a point about people like Carl Sagan. Fair enough, but I don't think Carl Sagan really taught physics (I'm a great admirer of the man, don't get all up in arms) as much as he talked about what wonders doing physics has enabled us to discover. This is great, it sparks interest for physics, but it doesn't really make people understand physics. If anything, people should learn more maths, and then learn physics more in-depth (without necerssarily going into modern developments).
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  3. Nov 12, 2012 #2
    I think everything that has been known since 1865 is still a lot of material to cover for one academic year in high school. They simply don't have time to go over modern physics in any appreciable manner.
  4. Nov 13, 2012 #3


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    You're right. Considering that Fundamental Physics in the college or university is three semesters, so much as that cannot be packaged into just one high-school year course. Schools wanting to put mechanics, electricity & magnetism, radiation-optics-quantum_mechamics all into one high school year would need to abbreviate many things. Most of the mechanics needs some focus. Using every-day observables that can be measured would serve as development for most beginning concepts. Waves and wave motion - this can be shown with springs , things that rotate, and mechanical things that oscillate, and extended to sound.

    Let experts give their comments.
  5. Nov 13, 2012 #4
    You guys have just one year of physics in high school?
  6. Nov 13, 2012 #5
    What I got from that video was:

    Let's teach high school students fake physics. If there was a way to make the math behind QM and GR simple, I think we would've already done it!

    I believe that we SHOULD teach SR in high school, but QM and GR is taking it too far, as most students wouldn't understand the Schrodinger equation, or the variational calculus needed for geodesics (as two examples).
  7. Nov 13, 2012 #6


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    Mostly, yes, usually in the last year. Actually, at many high schools it's possible to take two years of physics, but it's usually basically the same material without calculus and with calculus. The calculus-based courses are usually Advanced Placement courses that prepare students for AP exams that can lead to credit for college-level introductory courses.
  8. Nov 13, 2012 #7
    But is the study of calculus compulsory in high school?
  9. Nov 13, 2012 #8


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    No. Most students who are interested in science and math do take AP calculus in high school, again usually in the last year. They may or may not be able to skip taking calculus in college, based on that. It depends on their scores on the AP exam and on the college's policies.

    At the college where I work, some incoming students who plan to major in physics "place out" of part of the math department's calculus course sequence based on AP credit, and some have to take the entire calculus sequence.

    Our introductory calculus-based physics course is designed to allow for students who are taking calculus at the same time. Many colleges and universities do this. Some require students to complete one or two semesters of calculus (or have AP credit) before starting physics.
  10. Nov 13, 2012 #9

    I think that's a shame. I actually went through high-school twice in two different countries. First in Brazil, where calculus wasn't taught at all in high-school (in a regular curriculum). Then in Switzerland, where even the regular curriculum involves calculus. If you take advanced math classes (which is what I did) you even get to go beyond integral calculus of just polynomials and simple functions and learn integration by parts and all that good stuff, not to mention tons of linear algebra. This didn't give you any college credits, but it did give you an edge if you decided to major in some scientific area.

    If you guys don't have to learn calculus in the regular high-school curriculum, then I don't see how you could put more physics into it (at all), and especially modern physics.
  11. Nov 13, 2012 #10

    Andy Resnick

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    Thanks for posting the video- there are definitely some thought-provoking ideas in it. Personally, I tend to agree with the video- one way to make students more interested in Physics (all math and science, actually) is to make the material relevant to them and their experiences. The physical concepts underlying modern technology can and should be discussed in class. It is also appropriate to discuss 'current events' in science class.

    However, Physics is unique among the sciences in that it is a quantitative science, not a qualitative science. Thus, there is pedagogical tension between emphasizing the mathematical structure and the conceptual foundations. Many teachers firmly believe that until students perform a calculation, they cannot claim to understand the material. Personally, I believe that plenty of students master plug-and-chug calculations and still not know any physics.

    Since the mathematical structure of 'modern' physics is decisively more abstract than classical physics, it is correct to argue that high school students (and most college students, for that matter) can't hope to understand any 'modern' physics. (side note- I say 'modern', since those topics are approaching 100 years of age!). On the other hand, it's correct to argue that a (generic) well-educated citizen doesn't need to know how to perform detailed calculations, either.

    Don't forget about the role of the teacher in this- until recently, K-12 math and science teachers had degrees in *education*, not a science. So it is not surprising that most science teachers don't know science well enough to enrich the curriculum- holding them to the standards of Sagan, Feynman, and deGrasse Tyson isn't really fair. Fortunately, there *is* a national-level push to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teachers by exposing them to actual laboratory science.
  12. Nov 13, 2012 #11
    In some states, not even that. A lot of states require a number of science classes, but don't specifically require any physics so many students elect not to take it.

    After my phd, I was discouraged to find that there isn't very high demand for highschool physics teachers because so few students take the courses.
  13. Nov 13, 2012 #12
    Not sure about relativity, but the math for quantum physics isn't just more advanced and abstract, it's the science itself that is abstract. The math is therefore a more important and integral part of those theories: as abstract as it may be, it is was brings the science down to our level of understanding.

    I think that high-school physics classes tend to be pretty boring. Maybe teaching more modern subjects might help with that, but I don't think they should be at the center of the curriculum, lest people end up learning only trivia about physics. I remember I only really got intersted in physics during college, when I had to study the subject a bit more in depth and the equations started seeming a bit less random.

    From the replies I got here, I see that your main problem is that you simply don't have enough physics in school. That said, besides all the criticism, American still produces some of the best physics out there.
  14. Nov 13, 2012 #13


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    At many or most high schools, the person who teaches physics also teaches something else, probably either math or chemistry, and probably actually has his degree in the other field. When I came to teach at a college in South Carolina, 27 years ago, my department chairman told me that (at that time) as far as he knew, there was one high school in the whole state with a physics teacher that actually had a degree in physics. I don't know what the situation is now.
  15. Nov 13, 2012 #14
    back in highschool(2 years ago) the physics teacher was a biology teacher... i didn't take the class but according to my cousin half the time this asian kid taught the class and the teacher always asked him for reassurance... i am very glad i did not take that class. ( i'm from canada )
  16. Nov 14, 2012 #15

    Andy Resnick

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    This is the central concept of this thread- I think everyone here is in agreement that the current curriculum is turning students off from physics/math/science. I think everyone here also agrees that increasing the scientific literacy of the general population is a worthy goal, so in the end, we are all discussing alternative approaches to the current (US) curriculum.

    It's a tricky problem- on one hand there are scientist-educators who want the curriculum to provide instruction in 'problem-solving' and on the other, (again, in the US) administrator-educators who prefer to focus on improving skill- something measurable by standardized tests.

    Edit: What do you folks think of online lectures like Khan Academy, freesciencelectures.com, etc. that emphasize 'gee-whiz' stuff rather than rigor? Is there a place for them in 'official' curricula? The current buzzword in academia is "massive open online courses" (MOOC).
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2012
  17. Nov 14, 2012 #16


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    Does modern physics include atoms?

    Is "classical physics" more important than atoms? OTOH, they can learn that in chemistry ....

    I think one can learn physics like "water flows downhill", "light travels in straight lines", "light can bend around a corner" in primary or secondary school, because there are experiments that one can easily do to show these things. So if there were some experiment that can be easily done to show that gravity bends light, I think that could be taught in elementary school. I have to admit that an experiment demonstrating atoms doesn't come to mind immediately ....
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2012
  18. Nov 15, 2012 #17
    I don't think physics is ever going to be unversally liked subject. There's a reason people tend to like social/human sciences better. It's because they're social/human! They're closer to what (most) people are and what they have been taught to be since they were kids. I honestly think that one solution is to introduce science/physics should be introduced earlier in school curricula, so people get used to it. Also, science is still associated to ''geekism'' in a way. Maybe there's something we can do about that too.

    Personally, I think that having less subjects covered in more depth would make physics more interesting. But that would have to be accompanied by better math skills.

    It's funny, some of my professors even mentioned MOOCs in the speeches they made at my graduation and made a big deal about it. I've watched some Khan academy lectures, and they're pretty good. I've also watched some online lectures by Leonard Susskind and they seem to be pretty rigorous. What do you mean by the 'gee-whiz' stuff?

    I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.

    Yes, I think we're covered on that subject.
    Last edited: Nov 15, 2012
  19. Nov 15, 2012 #18

    Andy Resnick

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  20. Nov 15, 2012 #19
    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.
    Last edited: Nov 15, 2012
  21. Nov 15, 2012 #20
    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.
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