Physics petition for underclassmen should be passed

November 22, 2015 — by Caitlin Ju and Trevor Leung

The petition by a parent says students lack opportunities to take physics as underclassmen and are consequently limited in the amount of exposure they can have with the subject by the end of high school.

 

A petition, initiated by parent Felicia Deng on Oct. 28, aims to make regular algebra-based Physics an option for ninth and 10th graders in addition to the Biology and Chemistry courses that are prerequisites for taking some of the other science classes. As of Nov. 15, the petition had 128 signatures and is aiming to gather more than 1,000.

The petition says students lack opportunities to take physics as underclassmen and are consequently limited in the amount of exposure they can have with the subject by the end of high school.

It has always been strange that at such a STEM-focused school, physics is offered only to juniors and seniors. Students who are especially interested in the sciences often want to take advanced classes in all three of the core sciences: biology, chemistry and physics.

To accomplish this, these students have to double up on science courses in their junior or senior year, combining regular or AP Physics with another AP science. Of course, this course load (especially with the notoriously difficult AP Physics) is too heavy for many students to handle, and they are ultimately unable to complete all the sciences they want and maintain their sanity.

Defenders of the status quo may argue that freshmen and sophomores are not academically equipped to take physics, but that is not the problem. As a prerequisite, Regular Physics currently recommends only a C grade or higher in Algebra 1 and Geometry, courses that have been completed by most students by their freshman or sophomore year. The only thing preventing eager underclassmen from taking Physics is that it requires that a student have taken Chemistry.

Furthermore, the petition simply pushes for the offering of the class for students who are interested. Its purpose is not to force students to take Physics as underclassmen; students who do not yet feel comfortable delving into the subject can opt out of the class according to their own interests.

Saratoga High should learn from the approach of other schools such as Harker, where students are required to take physics freshman year, chemistry sophomore year and biology junior year. The school’s “Physics First” educational program allows students to build a better foundation for the difficult but important subject, and by junior and senior year, they can elect to take AP Physics C, the calculus-based physics class necessary for college credit. Currently, SHS only offers Algebra-based AP Physics 1 and 2, which do not qualify for college credit.

The “Physics First” program was started by educators in 1990, and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman, a proponent of the program, estimates that around 2,000 U.S. high schools have embraced some version of the program for their freshmen.

The idea behind “Physics First” is that physics provides a better foundation for chemistry, which in turn provides a better foundation for biology. The American Association of Physics Teachers agreed in 2007 that “mastery of the basic physics concepts of electrostatic and nuclear forces and the concept of energy storage and transfer are crucial to the understanding of chemical structures, atomic bonding, gas laws and the periodic table of the elements.”

Though biology may be viewed as more accessible to freshmen, the school  should not shy away from introducing more conceptual, math-based sciences like physics to underclassmen, as the early exposure would undoubtedly help students excel in later coursework.

Another advantage of taking Physics early on is that because the subject emphasizes logic, it helps students conceptualize how the world around them works. It requires less rote memorization than biology and is more focused on real-life applications.

There are no state specifications holding the administration back from instituting such a change. State graduation requirements dictate that students must have 10 credits of a biological science and 10 credits of a physical science. There is no requirement as to the order the classes must be taken in. In any case, Biology and Chemistry could remain required classes for freshmen and sophomores, respectively, but Physics should at least be an option to interested students of all grade levels.

 
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