The Evolution of a Scientific Education? Local High Schools Teach Physics First

By Hart, Christie | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), April 13, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Evolution of a Scientific Education? Local High Schools Teach Physics First


Hart, Christie, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Christie Hart Daily Herald Staff Writer

The cry first went up three years ago.

It echoes now each spring in the homes of eighth-graders who have just signed up for classes at Naperville Central and Naperville North high schools.

"Physics? My kid's taking physics as a freshman?"

Yep.

A Nobel Prize-winning physicist thinks it's best that way.

And it seems to be working at the high schools in Naperville Unit District 203, one of the first school systems in the state to shuffle its science courses and put physics first in the line-up.

"We had a lot of parents who were afraid just because of that word, 'physics,' " said Bill Engler, science department head at Naperville North. "The kids say it's a giant word problem. They have more success than they think they will."

Traditionally, high school students take physics only after they've worked through biology and chemistry. It's usually a course that relies heavily on upper-level math skills students often don't learn until their junior or senior year.

But Nobel winner Leon Lederman believes the biology-chemistry-physics order is exactly backward.

The ideas in physics are fairly simple and easy to duplicate, Lederman reasons. With the knowledge of atomic motion gained in physics, students are ready to understand how particles combine in chemistry. Only then are they really ready to understand the complex chemical reactions that take place in living organisms they'll study in biology, he says.

Lederman, who headed Fermilab in the 1980s, and others of his viewpoint espoused their philosophy last week in a meeting with Chicago-area science teachers curious about changing curriculums.

Mary Williams, a teacher at Elk Grove High School and the math and science coordinator for Illinois Township High School District 214, attended the conference.

"I find it very interesting and I'd be in favor of it," Williams said. "I think we wind up not teaching physics to enough students because it comes in their senior year and not everyone takes it."

Naperville schools adopted the physics-first approach three years ago, Engler said. Teachers had heard Lederman's philosophy, and the district was redesigning its middle school science classes, freeing the district to do something different for its freshmen, he said. …

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