Physics First

The New York Times picked up the torch that Richard and I were carrying on Friday:

Some experts on science education also point to the typical sequence of high school science instruction: biology, chemistry and then physics. It would make more sense in reverse, these people say, because the principles of physics underlie chemistry, which is crucial for an understanding of biology.

Perhaps the leading champion of this “physics first” approach is Leon M. Lederman, a particle physicist, Nobel laureate and former director of Fermilab whose focus lately has been on improving science and math education. He said the current biology-chemistry-physics sequence dates from the late 19th century, when “we didn’t know enough” and biology was considered a “descriptive” subject.

In fact, Dr. Lederman said, “biology is the most complicated of all subjects, and it is based on chemistry and physics.” And, he added, “there is nothing in chemistry, no fact of chemistry or process of chemistry that if you ask ‘Why does this happen?’ you don’t go back to physics.”

It’s interesting that biology was chosen as first because it is “descriptive” (and therefore, presumably, easier). Maybe that’s why they do Earth Sciences first at Bret Harte? Maybe it makes it more interesting for people who don’t like science?

Anyway, Richard and I are firmly in the physics first camp. You can’t understand the others properly without it and – for a kids who wants to know how things work – it’s by far the most interesting.

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Ragged Clown

Based in San Jose, California

4 thoughts on “Physics First”

  1. Another benefit of Physics first is that you learn how to turn your physical intuition in the every day world into something that can be applied in other situations.

    (Everyone understands that a car that is moving faster will collide harder into another object. Post-physics it is more obvious why some chemical reactions happen faster at a higher temperature.)

  2. I’d agree for college, but I’m not sure that they go into enough depth in HS to add much to the other subjects. That’s not to say the “traditional” progression offers anything better. I think what’s more obvious to Jeff isn’t more obvious to many.

  3. It’s not so much that they add to the other subjects – it’s that they encourage a different way of thinking.

    Early biology classes (and earth sciences) are mostly descriptive – you write down the names of things and types of things. In that regard they are not much different from history and geography and other subjects but with physics – and to a lesser extent chemistry – you very quickly get into asking questions, making predictions and finding out whether your prediction is accurate.

    That’s very unlike the other subject and – to a young enquiring mind – more interesting than naming things.

    At higher levels, biology is like that too…hence our recommendation (mine, Jeff’s Richard’s and the former director of Fermilab’s) that Physics be taught first.

    It also has the bonus side effect of making Maths real.

  4. Personally I did the odd thing in my own HS career and elected to take physics before chemistry. I thought it made the chemistry course almost trivial. (Perhaps more a reflection on the courses than the order.)

    But I’ll be able to see the experiment in action, as the HS my boys attend schedules physics in 9th, chemistry in 10th and biology later.

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