Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Physics for the Masses (PftM)

High school physics is changing. In many ways, for the better.

In the old days, physics was a class reserved for the 20 smartest boys at a given high school. A rigorous, trig-based textbook, such as PSSC Physics, was used. All lab activities were quantitative, and the use of higher-level algebra and trigonometry was expected. It mirrored the introductory, non-calculus college physics course.

And very few high school graduates ever took the course. PSSC's focus on rigor was a response to Sputnik. America was being beat by the Soviet Union in the Space Race. But the drive to put us on the moon closed the door on most students. And it's not like physics was a class for the masses in the pre-Sputnik years.

Since the 1960s, things have changed. Paul Hewitt's Conceptual Physics gained wider acceptance with each passing year. Physics enrollments seemed to rise step with the rising adoptions of Hewitt's text.

A nationwide, "grass roots," Physics First movement has been afoot for over twenty years. Where it's taken hold, all high school freshmen take physics before moving on to chemistry and finally biology. But that movement has been effectively banned from California public schools, so we'll set that topic aside for now.

With California's push to enroll all high school freshmen, sophomores, and seniors into standards-based science courses, there is some additional pressure to get students into a physics class.

I'm all for it. I think every college-bound high school student should take physics. I'll add posts from time to time with "PftM" (Physics for the Masses) in the title. They'll include some ideas on how to increase physics enrollment. You probably have better ideas than I do. That's what the comments are for!

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