Monday, July 17, 2006

AP Physics is a second-year course

About ten years ago, I began plotting a significant change in the physics curriculum at my school. My plan was to change our AP Physics B course from a first-year course to a second-year course. The reasons for this change are detailed here.

Briefly, AP Physics (B or C) is a second-year course. All AP sciences are second-year courses. Your colleagues who teach AP Biology or AP Chemistry wouldn't think of teaching their courses to first-year students. The College Board describes AP Physics as a second-year course.

Still though, many schools offer AP Physics as a first-year course. Why? The most frequently cited reason I've heard is that there's not enough time for students to take a two-year physics sequence. Well, there's not enough time for students to take a two-year biology or chemistry sequence, either. Nevertheless, those courses remain as second-year offerings.

We should encourage our most enthusiastic and gifted science students to complete a year of biology, chemistry, and physics, followed by an AP science course of their choosing.

The most successful first-year AP Physics teachers I've had contact with confess they do not do labs in their classes. What? A science class--a science class for the best and the brightest--with no labs? They assure me that they do labs--after the AP exam. The AP exam happens the second week in May. Most schools are out the first week of June. At my school, the last week and a half of school are devoted to staggered final exam schedule. So there's not much of a window, and I would suggest students are not at their best in that particular window.

Later I'll post some info about the consequences this change at my school.


Anonymous said...

At Columbia High School in Maplewood NJ we teach the AP C course to seniors. All students take biology (9th), physics (10th) and chemistry (11th). But we do offer AP Chem as a first year class in chem to the 11th grade. BTW we also offer a "third" semester of physics called Physics Two for 12th grade students who want more than a 1 year class but can't handle the AP class.

Dean Baird said...

Sounds like a reasonable sequence in terms of AP Physics being a second-year experience. There is much buzz around the Physics First sequence (P-C-B); I've never heard of a school using the B-P-C sequence. I suppose I need to get out more. Is that sequence common in your area?

Anonymous said...

B-P-C is not common but we have had this sequence since WWII. (Long story) Since we offer both Senior Biology and AP biology you could say that we do have a B-P-C-B sequence of sorts.

Anonymous said...

You're having the same debate I had with a Bio teacher and the Principal at my school! We have the problem of competing for a limited pool of students, and if students take AP Bio or Chem and put off taking Physics I for their senior year, we have no pool of students for AP Physics.

The Bio teacher says "too bad", and I replied, well how about having students take AP Bio as a 1st year course? and he said that's not possible--Bio is TOO HARD!!!! Then why would we do that with Physics?!!!? (which is harder than Bio, imho).

My principal insists that AP Physics should be a 1st year course because the school district he lives in does it that way. (I wish he'd look at their "success" on the tests).

I totally agree that AP Physics is a 2nd year course, whether it's the B or C course. And high school students have the right to a good solid High School level course without being forced into another AP. We don't put students into AP Bio, APChem, APCalc, APLanguage, etc. without some first year or preparatory course. But with Physics, sure, just throw them in with no preparation!!

In my school, some students will take only Bio and Chem, and possibly never take Physics because they get recruited in the the AP or level II courses in those areas. I'd like to see my school require that students take all 3 of the areas before or concurrent with taking a 2nd level course. A student in my school could theoretically take Bio-Chem-AP Bio-Anatomy in their 4 years, and totally skip Physics or higher-level Chem. Of course, they'll pay for it in college.....

Having said that, I do admire teachers who do AP as a first-year course successfully. A number of them I talk to have very accelerated or magnet math and science programs, or are selective schools. But there are some who can do it. I guess I'm not one of them, and I'm not sure I would want to be---I like having a good 1st-year physics course, non-AP.

Dean Baird said...

It has been my experience that some bio teachers would be pefectly OK with the high-end students taking bio-chem-AP Bio and graduating. No need for physics. I fear they had a bad experience in their own physics education and imagine students would be better off without such an experience. Unfortunately, they tied the bad experience to the subject matter and allowed it to color their perception of the entire field.

Many people think AP Physics as a first-year course is OK because they feel physics is unimaginably difficult no matter how you slice it. So you may as well allow the brightest kids (who can smoke any coursework the school throws at them) the opportunity to pump up their transcript with the AP designation.

Marc "Zeke" Kossover said...

We teach physics to 9th graders and chemistry to 10th graders. 11th graders have the option of taking biology or AP Biology. We've found that this works pretty well as most of the students are able to do AP Biology easily enough if they already know much of the chemistry. A few students take regular biology and then take AP Biology in their senior year. Other options for seniors include AP Physics C, AP Chemistry, environmental science, and AP Environmental Science.

Dan Burns said...

I encountered all the problems you mention about having AP Physics B as a first year course. I have 250 minutes a week and the course had too much material to allow me to do as many labs and activities as I felt were necessary. After 2 years I switched to AP C Mechanics and have never looked back. Enrollment went from 2 sections to 4 and my students do very well on the test. My course feedback is nearly 100% positive. I would not suggest this approach would work for every school because every school is different. At my school the students want to have as many AP classes as they are capable of, especially in the crucial junior year. Having AP Physics Mechanics C on their transcript makes them stand out to elite colleges. We are lucky that AP Physics has options and we can choose what works for us. Some may criticize this approach because my students are "only" learning mechanics. I would counter that they are learning it rather than just being exposed to it. If I converted to a 2-year physics sequence, my enrollment would drop and the overall result would be less students learning less physics. I also would have problems with my colleagues who teach AP Chemistry and AP Biology.

Dean Baird said...

In your case, it helps that you're a physics-teaching rockstar (anyone who doesn't know Dan, take my word for it). You and I will get old and retire before we agree on this issue, but I don't see that as a problem. Having said that...

Back East, where the pace of life is, well, different from what it is here in California, most schools that teach AP Physics C do a semester of Mechanics and a semester of E&M. The students sit for both tests at the end of the year. At my school, AP Ecomomics students take both Micro and Macro Econ Exams. Come to think of it, though, your plan is a reasonable approach to AP as a first-year course, timewise at least. The College Board suggests that first-year AP courses involve something like 500 min per week of instruction. (That is, you use two-years of instructional time.) You've got "half" that time, so you teach "half" the course. Fair enough.

If someone didn't know how hard you worked and how well you did your job, they might think you were simply taking a whole year to teach a one-semester course.

I have no doubt that your students learn mechanics quite thoroughly. You've got numbers to back that up and I would concede every part of that argument to you. But do high school students need to know mechanics that thoroughly? They're only in high school. They haven't decided on a college major yet. I don't see the role of high school as producing specialists. They need a broad education in high school.

I also don't see the role of the high school as feeding ot catering to the perceived need to crank as many kids as possible through as many APs as possible.

I'd be happy to be pointed to some evidence that AP piling-on is more impressive to admissions directors than filling their time out with activities that show a well-rounded student. I fear that's more illusion than substance.

Anyway, I do endorse exposing students to a wider range of physics topics rather than having them master a few. The state of California feels the same way, as indicated by the breadth of the physics standards.

A first-year course can emphasize conceptual development and cover of the state standards. A second-year course allows some students to develop AP-level mastery if their up for it.

Like you said, every school is different. As teachers, we have to make the best decision for our own school. I think it's good to air out the arguments for the various models.

Julia (Cuny) Meyer said...

Hey Mr. B.!
If I had had two years of Physics, maybe I would have passed with a better grade! I actually like that idea better.
Warning - you're 4 years from my daughter. Luckily for you, she ADORES science.