Leon Lederman, a Nobel Prize winner in Physics and former director of Fermilab was a champion in 'Physics First', a principle in science education proposing Physics as the first course in science followed by chemistry, then biology. Makes sense right?

But I recall either in reading or discussion that there were pilot programs that tried Physics First, however the outcome was not so successful. Does anyone know where we are today with this approach? I know its not been adopted at schools in my community.

My guess is it's a very good principle, but that the bureaucrats spoiled the idea with poor planning.

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    $\begingroup$ My HS teachers all agreed physics -> chem -> bio made sense pedagogically, but that this was in reverse order of the amount of math required. You can teach bio without anything, you need algebra for chem, and you really should be at the calculus level for physics. So unless you also forced middle schoolers to be proficient at pre-calc, it just couldn't happen. $\endgroup$ – user10851 Oct 9 '14 at 20:44
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisWhite Leon offers example curricula for entire years of education, and you don't need algebra much less calculus to teach a useful introduction to physics (I'm doing that in our "Intro. to Physical Science" class for poets and art majors right now). They aren't going to pass the AP exam with it of course but the assumption is that they will take a more mathematical calculus once they get to college rather than hoping to place out. The goal is to unify, motivate and illuminate high school science much better than is done now. All that said, I've never been anywhere that has tried it. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Oct 9 '14 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ Here's an abstract I got today for a talk on a closely related topic. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Oman Oct 9 '14 at 22:08
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisWhite: you really should be at the calculus level for physics That's funny. I've spent most of the last 20 years of my professional life teaching physics without calculus, and I was under the illusion that this had been a productive use of my time. $\endgroup$ – Ben Crowell Oct 9 '14 at 23:29
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    $\begingroup$ If I were contemplating changing a high school over to physics first, my worry would not be about calculus, which is irrelevant. My worry would be about arithmetic and algebra. You can look at celery slices under a microscope without being able to add fractions or convert units. For physics, you need to understand grade-school math. Many high school freshman do not understand grade-school math. Another issue would be staffing. I suspect it's harder to hire high school teachers who can teach physics than it is to find ones who can teach biology. You'd have to hire a lot of physics teachers. $\endgroup$ – Ben Crowell Oct 9 '14 at 23:33

This is really not an answer to your question - just an elaborate comment, and opinion based rather than factual. I hope I will be forgiven...

The idea of breaking "science" into disciplines at an early age goes counter to the way exploration by young minds ought to work, in my mind. When I, as a four year old, was playing with a magnifying glass to burn bits of paper and occasionally ants, was I doing physics, chemistry, or biology? Answer - I was doing none of these. I was doing "natural science", exploring the world around me. Similarly, when I constructed an incubator for chicken eggs - was that biology, engineering, physics, environmental science? Exploration and curiousity knows no boundaries - and that exploration is what builds excitement and forms minds that can synthesize concepts to create breakthrough ideas. Instilling that "random walk through the natural world" approach can build intuition, and should come before the formalization of science into disciplines.

Interestingly, when I went to study physics in the university, there was no such course. We started in what was called "Natural Sciences" (even at that level) and took courses in a number of different branches before "majoring" in one field.

One final thought: don't blame it on "the bureaucrats". Amazing teachers always find a way, although that leaves progress only on the level of one class at a time - to make progress with an entire education system you need changes that go well beyond the bureaucracy. Small plug: "The smartest kids in the world, and how they got that way" . It's a book I recently saw in a store; I admit to picking it up and browsing only, but I think if you're interested in the future of education it will provide food for thought.

As I said: not really an answer. This whole Q&A probably belongs on a different SE site...

  • $\begingroup$ Honestly, I don't think the value judgement (implicit) in the second line is justified. It seems my personal experience is very different from yours: I never enjoyed experimenting and exploring in the sense that you describe it much at all. However, I'm very certain that I'm a physicist at heart. The main difference between you and me, it seems, is that I enjoy only physics, not (to any comparable extent) the other sciences, whereas your interests are broader. $\endgroup$ – Danu Oct 9 '14 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ I think I would've strongly benefited from a very specialized approach early on, with serious mathematics and physics at the forefront. I think no general statement on how things should be approached can be made. $\endgroup$ – Danu Oct 9 '14 at 21:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Danu - there are no doubt many people like you. I base my value judgement (I hope I made it abundantly clear that this is an opinion based answer, not fact-based) on my own experience, and on my experience raising and educating children. You have to "go where the enthusiasm takes you". The success of "Dora the explorer" as a TV show is no coincidence, I think. Which is why I think that empowering (and enabling) teachers to do what is best for their class - instead of imposing some rigid structure "from on high" - is most likely to succeed. $\endgroup$ – Floris Oct 9 '14 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ Leon never advocated for a discipline specific format for primary schools, only for secondary (which means starting in 6th or 7th grade in most places in the US) by which time they are already getting discipline specific instructions (again, in the US). $\endgroup$ – dmckee Oct 9 '14 at 21:58
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    $\begingroup$ I suppose my point is to first instill wonder and point out the connectedness before becoming more rigorous and differentiated. There's nothing that will turn off 80% of a class quicker than a scary looking equation. Play first, rigor later has worked for me. $\endgroup$ – Floris Oct 10 '14 at 0:44

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