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Question:
How can I better prepare my students for both the physics aspects of the SAT and college physics in general? Many are concerned about the difficulty level of both.



Replies:
Dan,

The only thing that troubles me at all in what I've read is the refrain from some of you about the need to prepare students for SAT tests or state exams in physics. Agree..perhaps a second course (Algebra II or Calculus based) is called for the % of kids planning to major in physics related courses in college? So, if you forget about standardized tests and teach ninth-graders the best physics you can for their stage of development, what you get is young people who understand better what physics is all about, what it means to make a measurement and analyze it - and you get young people, including young female people and young minority people, with a favorable attitude toward physics, maybe even excited by it, feeling that it is fun, not torture, and that they might want to take more of it in the future. What more could we ask than that? Bingo! And, just perhaps, fewer students will be "scared" off to take more physics in high school and college?

Ken


I've been reading the exchanges with great interest. There's a lot going on out there, and a lot of teachers with good insights. The only thing that troubles me at all in what I've read is the refrain from some of you about the need to prepare students for SAT tests or state exams in physics. True, SOME ninth-graders can master enough "standard," problem-solving physics to do all right on such exams, but if we are talking about physics for ALL ninth graders, don't we have to abandon this idea of preparation for standardized tests? To forget about such tests is not to abandon one's duty as a physics teacher. On the contrary, it is to recognize that the best kind, the right kind of physics to teach to freshmen is not old-fashioned "standard" physics. Let the test writers catch up with you instead of you chasing them.

I am a big fan of conceptual physics, but I don't regard that as non-mathematical physics. What can happily be left out are derivations other than of the simplest variety, multi-step problem solving, and trigonometry. What can be left in, along with the concepts, are mathematics in the form of proportionalities (including inverse squares), numerical evaluations, measurement, graphing, and uncertainty. With the minimalist math, you have the time to really teach the MEANING of laws and concepts. The ninth-grade conceptual physics student has a chance to get a deeper understanding of Newton's laws, entropy, interference and diffraction, and the photon (for instance) than does the junior or senior in what we still call a conventional course.

So, if you forget about standardized tests and teach ninth-graders the best physics you can for their stage of development, what you get is young people who understand better what physics is all about, what it means to make a measurement and analyze it - and you get young people, including young female people and young minority people, with a favorable attitude toward physics, maybe even excited by it, feeling that it is fun, not torture, and that they might want to take more of it in the future. What more could we ask than that?

I cherish the hope that good ninth-grade physics will save college physics! Right now, college physics departments are kept alive by teaching chemistry, biology, and engineering majors. The number of physics majors, which has always been small, is getting smaller still, and is declining precipitously in relative terms. Moreover, the number of women majoring in physics is less than one quarter of the already tiny number of men in the subject, and the number of minorities is far less still. It's a scandal. How can ninth-grade physics help? Well, if you "get 'em early" before all the standard biases have kicked in, and if you imbue in your students the feeling that physics is really quite interesting, something to be enjoyed, not feared, you may send these kids off the college a few years later in a frame of mind to study a little more physics in a little more depth. That will be an achievement far more important than getting them through standardized tests. Of course, you may have a second crack at some of them while they are still in high school, in which case you can worry about the tests then.


Both Ken and Larry make some important points! I will just respond to one. The only thing that troubles me at all in what I've read is the refrain from some of you about the need to prepare students for SAT tests or state exams in physics. Bingo! And, just perhaps, fewer students will be "scared" off and take more physics in high school and college? Physics can be taught to ALL ninth graders and the course should not prepare them for the SAT II. If we are really trying to teach for understanding, some of the content of a SAT prep course will need to be skipped. The NY regents exam had core and optional sections. Less IS more provided that students not only know and are able to do, but also understand and are able to apply what they learn in physics! But, there is a second audience that would benefit from physics first. These are the most able students in our schools. For these an algebra/trig course that uses a Conceptual Physics approach as its base and problem solving is a good solution. Will they be prepared for the SAT II? Not in June, but with a few sessions before or after school in September they will do just fine on the Physics SAT II that is offered in October. They won't all get 800's but some will. There is plenty of data to support this! Some would claim that they will have forgotten too much by that time. If that IS the case it is the fault of the instruction not the student. There is no one "magic bullet" here. We need multiple solutions to meet the needs of all! It is clear that Physics first WILL get more students to take more science and that they will perform at higher levels than with the B-C-P sequence. Thank you, Ken and Larry for helping us to refocus on the students and our efforts to help them to appreciate the beauty and utility of physics as we do!

Paul



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