About what you teach to develop scientists

Chad Orzel asks Uncomfortable Questions: Physics Curriculum. The stimulus was how very few introductory physics students went on to study physics. Here is one response.

re “just about any reform is good, as long as it doesn’t look like high school physics” — perhaps high school physics is a problem?

re “the material is presented in a manner that’s much closer to the way practicing physicists think about physics.” and “The engineering departments run an intro class that’s based around projects and real problem-solving” — it may be that current teaching is too much a collection of facts and not meaning, values, and context.

One of the greatest concepts of the PSSC physics and introductory physical science projects was that of a theme and a context. The problem was that this did not meet ‘market expectations’. Those were for definitive content instruction, weekly tests with a 70% passing standard, and teacher as lecturer instruction mode.

At the introductory level there is much to be said for an effective utilization of the history of the development of ideas, a clear theme of the course, and a solid plot line that connects course ideas together. In the small this is experiments and projects that follow a progression and build a context. In the large it is seeing how we know about the nature of light or the composition of matter.

What physics education all too often becomes is a topical math class. The techniques become the focus and not the ideas and concepts. ‘Education’ becomes ‘training’ and skills get precedence over understanding. We get what we measure.

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