Updating Physics Education

by Kelle on November 14, 2012

So, it seems physics education in America includes nothing new since 1865, unlike any other field of study, even geology. This is an open letter to Obama asking him to do something about it.

All faculty in Physics and Astro Departments need to start chipping away at this problem. (College has to change before high school will.) The physics curriculum is ridiculously outdated, not well preparing either our majors or non-majors for anything other than exams and coursework, and no one even seems to notice. I lose sleep over this.

Let’s hear it in the comments: What would you take out of the undergrad physics non-major course and what would you put in instead? What about for the physics major? I think the first things in the major that need to be addressed are the lack of statistics and programming training…and I bet people have been saying that for decades! (What is it about this problem that makes it so sticky and hard to address?)

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Josh Schroeder November 14, 2012 at 1:02 pm

I can’t decide.

When I was buddy youngster, I was told time and again that in order to learn about the stuff I thought was truly cool (relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, and the like) I would have to first conquer the truly uncool (Newtonian mechanics, electromagnetism, mathematics). While I agree that there is a certain amount of prerequisite building that must go on in physics pedagogy, the problem is that the truly cool tends not to be integrated into the truly uncool even when it might be possible to do so.

The third book of the Feynman Lectures is instructive in this regard. Feynman spends quite a bit of time working out the weirdness of quantum mechanics and presenting it as a series of challenges similar to the way that special relativity is often taught. I think this is the right way to approach things.

So, for example, when teaching students kinematics it is irresponsible for us not to teach them special relativity as well. When teaching students optics it is irresponsible for us not to teach them wave mechanics and quantum mechanics (even if such discussions are not complete and less rigorous than our current hierarchical system). When teaching students about electric fields it is irresponsible for us not to teach them about quantum field theory.


2 Jeremy Sepinsky November 14, 2012 at 1:07 pm

I’m not convinced that college is the place to start. I agree that it needs to start somewhere, and college is better than nowhere, but I’m still skeptical.

People NEED to know classical mechanics. Principles derived from studying something that we can see are fundamental to understanding what we can’t. But I would argue that, the reason you can teach modern concepts in, as the video mentions, biology and geology, is because there’s an expectation for people to learn it earlier in their careers as students. If people started college physics knowing the conservation of momentum and Newton’s Laws there would be SO MUCH more that we can do. But I can’t see teaching Quantum without a solid understanding of classical physics.

Just my two cents.


3 Corey Wood November 14, 2012 at 4:27 pm

I’d be for teaching more modern physics in high school, but I feel like this video is playing down classical physics too much. And I guess I view classical physics as fundamentally different than pre-1865 American history.

I think math is maybe a better comparison than history. Algebra is still vital, and there are a few steps you need to go through before you can tackle calculus. I don’t think Newton’s laws are any less important due to their age, but I’d consider them pretty fundamental building blocks to a good physics education.

Maybe we just ultimately need more than 1-2 physics classes available to students. I wouldn’t imagine trying to add calc to an algebra curriculum; it seems similarly inappropriate to add particle physics/relativity/etc. to a standard intro high school physics class.


4 Emily November 14, 2012 at 4:44 pm

The video had me until “these great men….” there’s another problem we need to solve in physics education!


5 Eilat November 14, 2012 at 6:46 pm

Me too, Emily! Same thought exactly.

6 Erin Bonning November 14, 2012 at 11:11 pm

I’m currently teaching an intro physics course for non-majors at Quest University Canada wherein I am explicity attempting to avoid this exact problem. I want my students to get some sense of [some of] the cool interesting stuff that’s happened post-1900. Not only is this more fun for me (I don’t have to grind through basic kinematics for dummies), but I like to think it leaves my students better informed citizens.

The curriculum for my course includes kinetic and potential energy, wave motion, the development of modern atomic theory, nuclear fission, and some random extra topics (quarks, etc). The course is quantitative (they have to solve actual problems for homework), although I will often avoid exact calculations in favor of dimensional analysis – which I would argue is a useful skill in itself.

As in any class for non-majors, there is a range of aptitude, and all concepts will not be assimilated by all students. However, today I had a long conversation with one of my top students (a freshman) about the Stern-Gerlach experiment, fine structure splitting, the Zeeman effect, and how that all relates to solutions to the Schroedinger equation. [In class, I have only shown the equation and solution for the hydrogen atom – this is a non-calculus course for non-majors, so I really only want them to be aware that a) there is such a thing and b) it explains stuff about atoms and stuff.] This particular student, however, was able to take her understanding from class and apply it to a topic that interested her (and, if I may say so, a topic that’s a lot more interesting than inelastic collisions on an air track).

For me, any loss of rigor that is associated with discussing Stern-Gerlach with someone who can’t (yet) solve the Schroedinger equation for an infinite square well is more than made up for by the fact that my students are a) learning way way cool stuff about b) physics less than a century old whilst (and at the same time) being c) not necessarily interested in a physics-related career.

I’m not sure that my experience is generalizable to all situations, but it is a path forward for some.


7 nick November 15, 2012 at 12:52 am

College and high school seme like two different discussions. At the college level, it’s simply not true that nothing after 1865 is taught. Where I went at least, this was true for both majors and non-majors. Computation and statistics are good ideas, but I think those should be handled by their respective departments. I can’t think of what I would have dropped from my undergraduate curriculum- in retrospect maybe my electronics lab, but at the time I was working in instrumentation.

High school: if the point of high school physics is to instill a scientific way of thinking rather than a list of facts*, it’s not obvious to me that a cursory glance at quantum mechanics is going to help. And cursory is really all that it could be at a high school level- more a collection of strange seeming but poorly understood tidbits than any deep understanding.


*I’m certainly no expert in educational philosophy, but I’ve definitely heard this view expressed by more than one person.


8 Barry November 15, 2012 at 9:29 am

So, are we aiming for developing interest, understanding or both?

If interest alone, then yes, introducing kids to some whizz-bang modern stuff could be cool for them & pique their interest. In this case, I could imagine introducing e.g. the landing of Curiosity on Mars (play ‘7 minutes of terror’) & then get a class to break down the mission into parts (e.g. launch, travel, atmospheric entry, descent & landing) & then think about what you’d have to do at each stage..That would make an interesting modern intro to some basic (classical) physics.

And this is the thing- if you want to actually understand the later stuff & why we need it, you need to have context. The context comes from understanding what we observed/inferred & concluded before the later stuff. So you can’t avoid earlier stuff. Maybe the solution there is to introduce some basic classical observations, get the kids to conclude roughly the ‘appropriate’ classical model & then show them something that doesn’t agree with the classical model.

My final point is that classical & modern physics can be gripping, or it can be dull as ditchwater. It depends on how it’s presented & the narrative you’re given. Some sense of history can be a fantastic help. We’re always told ‘we don’t have time to follow how a theory developed historically..’; but why not? Science is not this relentless progression through a textbook from ‘boring’ stuff to present-day ‘knowledge’, it’s messy & sometimes involves re-thinking & backing-up. It’s how science *actually* works.

Giving kids a sense of *why* we think what we do is the most important point here, less the details, but the process. Details change, the process doesn’t.


9 Philip Chang November 15, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Well as a young faculty which serves a very diverse student population, I’m not sure that the problem is that there are “cool” versus “non-cool” areas of physics. I know that students want to talk about quantum mechanics or the higgs boson — here the “cool” topic is wormholes and time travel. But I’m hesistant to endorse the introduction of really “cool” physics before they get the basics down. For instance, how do you have a discussion about GR when x = 1/2 at^2 is something that students cannot do.

For instance, I don’t really hear this discussion in mathematics. For instance, I don’t hear, well trig is totally boring, let introduce them to differential forms or topology. Sometimes it is important to get students acquainted with the basics.

That being said, I think that the major issue is that physics and mathematics is hard for a great number of students and that when they struggle, it seems natural for them to question the relevance of their hardships. Physics and mathematics are skill areas, where the ability to do well involves cultivating some skills that are always easily cultivated. We can contrast this with literature or history, These too are skill areas, but as long as you can write reasonably well and work hard — you can do ok.

So I think the central question is how do we teach physics and mathematics so that it is not so frustratingly difficult for a large number of students. I have noticed that much of the discussion of physics and mathematics centers around how do we make physics more exciting or engaging so that students are motivated to study it more. However, I think that we should also think about what the right way of building mathematical skills in students so that physics and mathematics are quite so frustrating.


10 Lia November 15, 2012 at 3:36 pm

[This post is regarding non-majors and high school level physics instruction.]
I remember that my high school physics experience was terrible. The instructor was uninspired and had us spend class room time reading the text book. Despite this, I had an overwhelming desire to pursue physics due to my obsession with books like “A Brief History of Time”. And, despite this terrible approach to class-room teaching, the book we used was cleverly designed. It was “Conceptual Physics” by Paul Hewitt. I do like his approach (see http://www.conceptualphysics.com/rainbows.html) — keep the big picture in mind before diving into the nitty-gritty and tools. Most people want to understand how stars and rainbows, not photometers or accelerometers, work.


11 Kevin November 15, 2012 at 4:52 pm

I certainly agree that there are many things we can and should do to reform how we typically teach physics. There are some things from modern physics that are more easily incorporated into intro-level courses than others. Some easier ones that come to mind are radioactive decay & dating techniques, maybe fusion/fission after energy conservation is covered, evidence for the finite speed of light, etc.

I like Corey’s point about math perhaps being a better analogy than history though. I can’t imagine people complaining about our math education arguing that we need to teach modern techniques discovered in the last century. Algebra, geometry, calculus are all immensely useful despite being around for centuries to millennia. The heart of the matter is the usefulness of a topic, not it being cutting-edge. We shouldn’t go out of our way to include modern physics for the sake of it being modern, we should include physics concepts that people can relate to and may encounter in their lives. This of course includes things from standard kinematics and conservation laws to nuclear physics and astronomy.

However, looking back on how my interest in physics developed, I was definitely influenced by books like A Brief History of Time and The Elegant Universe. I think discussing the concepts in those books in any meaningful way is beyond most high school teachers, but agree it would be nice to see them incorporated into intro physics classes in some way. I’d love to hear if anyone has ideas how to do this effectively.


12 Eilat November 15, 2012 at 5:34 pm

I think we need to get over the notion that if something doesn’t make you sweat it isn’t worth doing. This is a pervasive mentality in the physics community and I see it in the comments above.
Erin’s description of her no-calculus physics class is, in my opinion, a perfect model for the direction that we should be pursuing. And even though hers is a college course, its non-calculus nature could certainly be adapted into a high school curriculum.

No one is saying that students shouldn’t have to understand the basics or learn how to problem solve with math. In fact, the video says so explicitly. Phillip mentions that this concern raised by the video doesn’t arise in mathematics, but I think a more appropriate comparison is in the teaching of biology. Can you imagine high school students graduating from high school without an understanding of DNA or germ theory? These topics are common knowledge, yet I have no detailed understanding of what happens on a molecular level. That is OK. It is sufficient for me to follow what is happening in the field from a laypersons perspective, and to appreciate new discoveries.

We need to make learning about physics *relevant* to young people. We need to make high school physics be about the fundamental laws of nature that give us amazing things like iPods. We still need to teach about momentum and energy, but inelastic collisions on an air track (to cite Erin’s example) are about as abstract to students as collisions in a particle accelerator. But the latter is WAY cooler to teach about and much more relevant to our modern lives.


13 nick November 16, 2012 at 1:46 am

I think the greater relevance to everyday life of particle collisions versus developing intuition about momentum (even on an air track) is at least an arguable point…

I was going to leave this as a pointless aside, but actually I think it points to a part of the problem. I really enjoyed my old-school high school physics class- it’s part of the reason I went into physics. I would have glazed over (like I still kind of do…) if solid state physics or particles were brought up. Should high school science teach facts or set the base for a scientific way of thinking? That seems to be a divide. I would lean toward the former and let popularizers like Sagan, De Grasse Tyson, the multitude of science bloggers etc. take care of the latter.

I’ll stress again that I’m not particularly immersed in educational research, but I remember going to some talks pointing out via amusing-sad videos the poor grasp of basic material people take with them after intro science courses. The point of these talks was partly to focus on teaching a few fundamental concepts really well rather than cover a lot of ground. I don’t know if this is still in vogue, but maybe worth having in mind. It might be good to get an educator to weigh in here- I’m sure this is well-trod ground in some circles.

14 Eilat November 17, 2012 at 9:07 am

I think the emphasis on relevance should be less about everyday life and more about our modern existence. We rely on major 20th century discoveries in physics every day all the time. That should be taught.

And I am not sure why there is an assumption that to teach advanced topics in physics we must forego math or problem solving skills and “dumb it down” somehow. For example, to teach cosmology to undergraduate non-majors, all you need is to cover potential and kinetic energy, which we teach anyway. We don’t skip the topic entirely because they haven’t taken GR yet. (In high-school physics the examples used are e.g., balls being tossed up in the air. To which a student might wonder: who cares?)

In a way, we are the exact wrong people to decide what works in terms of teaching physics at the high school level, where most students will never go on and take another physics course in their lives. As has been said in this thread: the current way of teaching physics is often attractive to people like us who go on to learn more. We are the tiny minority, and still, if someone who did enjoy their classical physics high school class but goes on to do something else, s/he ends up ignorant of anything that is relevant to modern life.

As for me, I liked the math part of physics too, but found the rest of it entirely uninspiring. It seemed pointless and dry and boring. This sentiment has been echoed by my very smart, professional, non-physicist friends and family. I chose to major in physics because (a) it seemed like the hardest possible thing to major in, and I like a challenge, and (b) a visit by an astronomer to my high school class showed pictures from the recently launched (and repaired) Hubble, and how we can use those images to learn about the formation of pro-toplanetary disks. THAT is how I got hooked.

15 Ben November 15, 2012 at 10:15 pm

I don’t think this is restricted to the high school level. As a first year physics GRAD STUDENT, I looked at my texts and thought, “Why are these textbooks all 15 to 30 years old?” That was for the standard mechanics, E&M, quantum, and even solid state physics classes. It was a sign of the ossification of the curriculum.

This is one of the reasons I switched into astronomy. The flip side to the problem that there are not always suitable comprehensive astronomy texts is that it’s partly because the field moves fast enough to make texts dated, and that’s good. One could argue that astronomy has more descriptive elements than physics – or at least astronomy classes have more descriptive elements than physics classes, which are very mathematical – and so it’s easier for astronomers to adapt the curriculum. I think this is an excuse. One does not need to work everything out from the fundamental math to teach material at an intro level. My upper undergrad nuclear and particle physics class did not include mathematical calculations of weak and strong forces, or even much formal QM, and I still managed to learn something about reactions, decays, and so on.


16 D December 2, 2012 at 7:48 pm

“Why are these textbooks all 15 to 30 years old?”

Because all the physics is? Pretty much everything covered in standard physics grad courses was worked out over 60 years ago, including basic QFT. Sure, changes in notation, philosophical perspective, new applications, all these can arise, which is why your texts aren’t 50-100 years old (although I do remember reading something in von Neumann’s quantum text when I was in grad school, not very long ago).

Astro texts aren’t in the same situation because a lot of the basics aren’t well worked out the way the physics basics are. It really has nothing to do with adopting new pedagogies.

17 Carolyn Brinkworth November 16, 2012 at 9:01 pm

I’d just like to note that a lot of the info in this video is out of date, as much of this has been addressed in the new K-12 National Science Framework that is under discussion right now. The new Framework includes sections on nuclear processes, technology for information transfer, Earth and space science, climate change, and engineering design. It also introduces cross-cutting concepts designed to tie all the sciences together through certain concepts like patterns, cycles, cause and effect, system modelling, conservations etc. Finally, the Framework is designed to try to teach students about *how* science is done, including the scientific method, the definitions of things like “theory” vs “law”, and to give them practical experience in experiment design.

Overall, I’m actually very impressed by the new Framework. My main reservation is that the Framework will be given out to states, who will create their own standards based on the national document. This is exceptionally frustrating to me – I can’t fathom why we’d want to take a truly national recommendation for science standards and then turn them over to the states to pick and choose. It just makes it exceptionally hard for those of us trying to help teachers to do it on a national scale.


18 Laura Trouille December 6, 2012 at 10:29 am

I’m working with a team of science education, computer science, and STEM faculty at Northwestern University to develop, implement, and assess curricular materials for high-school STEM teachers that address the computational thinking and computational modeling components of the Next Generation Science Standards. Check out http://ct-stem.northwestern.edu. If you have suggestions for computational tools we should consider or STEM concepts that would lend themselves to this project, please share!

19 Eilat November 17, 2012 at 9:11 am

In 2002 I read “A Survey of the Universe” (http://www.economist.com/node/922259) in The Economist and thought it would be a perfect outline for a cool introductory modern physics class. It would even make a good title for the course itself. Some of the topics covered in the survey need to be updated but it laid the problems and their solutions out so clearly and beautifully.


20 Will December 1, 2012 at 4:20 am

The way physics is taught now in American schools (high and college) has a specific history. There was a movement in education in the 1950’s and 60’s called Structure of the Disciplines, which said (loosely — I’m not an expert) that each subject/discipline should be taught in a way that represented how the experts understood and practiced the discipline. So, for example, English should be taught through writing and critique. And physics should be taught as a system of fundamental principles, investigated through experiment. Structure of the Disciplines caught on in a lot of subjects, but then faded in the 70s — except in physics, where it has stuck firmly.

My experience from teaching A.P. Physics three times is that very few high school students are able to understand the basic system of principles. I myself didn’t truly understand Newton’s Laws until the first time I taught them — which was after I had a college degree in physics. The idea that people need to understand the basics before they can understand the more complex stuff makes abstract sense, but it ignores the fact that most people don’t learn things that way. A lot of people learn about topics from the inside out, not from the bottom up. If you hear yourself saying, “we need to do this theory first so we can understand the application later,” remember a lot of your students are not going to understand the theory later, even though you explained it very clearly, because they’re just not wired that way.

I think the majority of students would learn more physics if classes were a series of large-scale problems, which included friction, air resistance, non-spherical cows, and all the messy stuff. Throw the students right into the problem-solving, without the “introduction to the topic” that most of them will not understand. Let them do a lot of observing and brainstorming. Help them distill some basic principles out of this.

I know that schools are unlikely to adopt courses like this, because it forces you to drop the expectation that you will cover a certain amount of material, and assessment would be messy. It also would force almost all the teachers and professors to do something they’ve never done or seen before. But if the point is to make physics understandable, we have to put a lot of focus on the minds of the people we’re teaching.


21 Salem December 7, 2012 at 1:01 pm

I love when astronomers and physicists grow all misty-eyed describing the physics curriculum of the future …

Some eloquent Sagan/Feynman/Tyson/Greene hybrid of a teacher is spinning up an enchanting monologue about the big bang theory, as purple and green uplights fill the room with a soft cosmic glow and eerie music plays. She throws up glossy photos of the crab nebula and bubble chambers and ferrofluids, all while eschewing brilliant, catchy truisms that magically endow these kids with fundamental principals of physics and the scientific method. The kids all sit there in awe of the Universe’s brilliance. Three years into their curriculum they’re debating intricate models of climate change and five years in, they’re solving infamous issues of magnetic confinement and room temperature superconductivity. All without once writing down an integral.

Except in reality the teacher is not Neil Degrasee Tyson, but some 40-something former engineer burnout, recently divorced, who realized one morning he really didn’t like science and thought he’d give teaching a try. At an inner city school “where they need people like me”. The kids will never be aware that their teacher has long forgotten what exactly newton’s third law was (isn’t F=ma the whole point anyways?). They’re too busy taking timed exams where they need to write down the names of every elementary particle.

The teacher occasionally throws an equation on the board. He’s eliminating from it things like “pi” and “2” and equating a derivative with an average change. “But that’s not how we do it in math class!” the kids protest. “Well, it’s what’s in this new physics text, so just go with me here” is his reply.

The reason I chose to study physics beyond high school had a lot to do with how it was presented. It wasn’t a collection of facts or phenomena pulled out of thin air. It didn’t involve memorizing a ton of vocabulary. It took mathematics (which I already found pretty cool) and some rather abstract basic assumptions (which I found rather intriguing) and used them to describe every day phenomena previously taken as “the way things are” (which I found awesometastic). This approach may have turned off a lot of people (some of whom may have gone on to revolutionize our field). But it surely piqued the interest of a fair share of students too.

I’m not advocating the status quo. I’m just highlighting some pitfalls of a curriculum revamp.


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