Physics first

Physics first

December 21st, 2010 by Kelli Gauthier in News

Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts ninth-grade students Ronnie Hanson, left, and Casey Haynes study during Jack Pickett's physical world concepts class.

Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts ninth-grade students Ronnie...

Educators are starting to turn the way they teach high school science in Hamilton County upside down.

Rather than starting off in ninth and 10th grades with biology and chemistry, they are going to begin teaching physics first. The idea is to teach physics -- normally a course for later grades -- to freshmen in an effort to get them familiar with scientific concepts.

Teachers then will help students apply those concepts as they teach chemistry and biology.

"The physics is really the underlying science for biology and chemistry," said Robert Marlowe, a professor of physics at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, who is helping secure grant money from the National Science Foundation to certify more local teachers in physics and chemistry.

"The benefit for students is they will see how strongly physics is tied into biology and chemistry," he said. "They will get a sense for how it is not the case that physics lies down one path and chemistry is behind a different door and biology is behind a different door. That's nuts! It's never been that way."

The National Science Foundation grant involves eight universities and 30 school districts as well as the Tennessee Department of Education. Regardless of whether Hamilton County receives $875,000 of the $10 million total grant, officials say local teachers still will move toward offering an inverted curriculum.

The money partly would go toward summer institutes to get more science teachers certified in chemistry and physics, one of which is required to teach the new freshman-level physics class.

The physical world concepts class, which a handful of schools already have begun teaching to ninth- graders, is a lower-level conceptual class, Marlowe said, which still leaves room for a senior-level physics class in 12th grade.

Since Tennessee's academic standards have become more rigorous in the last year, ninth-graders are starting high school with more experience in math, which, in turn, makes conceptual physics easier to understand, he said.

"It's always been that physics is more abstract than chemistry and biology and has laid a heavier emphasis on math, so the students gear up with chemistry and biology and take physics their senior year, when they can better handle the math," Marlowe said. "But if you concentrate on the concepts, you can get away with just algebra and geometry."

Jamie Parris, Hamilton County Schools' director of secondary math and science, said the new freshman class will be very hands-on.

"They will be doing more experimentation instead of being told what to do," he said.

For instance, rather than studying a two-day lesson on the motion of a pendulum, students may spend an entire week investigating the concept, Marlowe said.

"They would ask ... 'What influences the motion of a pendulum? What kind of data do we need to gather to learn about pendulums?' They'll analyze and graph their results," he said. "This is going to take a little time. It could be taught faster, but what would students walk away with? Typically not much. They're developing a method to study all types of scientific phenomenon."

In the classroom

Jack Pickett teaches physical world concepts at Chattanooga Center for the Creative Arts, one of the few Hamilton County schools that already has made the switch to an inverted science curriculum. The ninth-graders are not ready for some of the more complex physics concepts, he said, so he picks and chooses the ones he thinks are important.

The class includes lessons on electricity, Newton's law of gravity and the properties of light and sound.

Kelley Kuhn, head of the science department at Chattanooga Center for the Creative Arts, said she is particularly excited to teach biology next year to upperclassmen for the first time.

"Biology is tough, but we've tended to water it down so we could teach it to freshmen," she said.

In addition to offering students what many teachers consider a more natural progression through the sciences, officials said they're also hoping to get more students to take physics in high school and possibly later in college.

"There haven't been many students [majoring] in physics or physics education, especially," Marlowe said. "We have been almost wholly focused on research-based physics and not getting them into the work force as teachers. And if you don't have good high school preparation in physics, then you are hurting."

Whether or not she decides to pursue a career in physics, Chattanooga Center for the Creative Arts freshman Caitlyn Clear, 14, said she's learned more in physical world concepts than in traditional science classes.

"We use models and things. It's more visual and more hands-on," she said. "You can only learn so much with notes."

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