How much math is needed for a student to be prepared to learn physics? Do they need two years of algebra? Does the work in a chemistry class add to their preparation? Does none of it matter, and “physics-first” does just fine with a well designed curriculum?
A listener sent me these kinds of questions a few months ago, and I’ve been trying to include a segment in the podcast ever since. Episode 026 was going to be when we finally explored the topic. Then our conversation ended up on the editing room floor! Here’s what little we found in the literature, and what questions are left.
I sent my questions about what the research says for physics-first STEM education to several experts in related fields. I asked a university physicist, and he said…
‘We’re not sure about high school sequence, but we’re pretty sure some math preparation does matter.’Physics Instructor and Researcher in Kansas, my summary
I asked a STEM education researcher, and he said…
‘It’s super complicated! Course sequence doesn’t get studied much because so many other factors converge within that issue: instructional choices of the teachers, measures of student success, and the associated mathematics training.’STEM Researcher in Texas, my summary
As I spoke with people, the theme of math preparation seemed to emerge.
I went looking for research on how mathematics preparation impacted physics success. Again, I was stymied. I really wanted to look at math preparation in combination with physics-first science tracks. I didn’t find much.
‘Algebra matters.’The Professional Literature, my summary
How much algebra, or what we do with that knowledge… remained unclear. I began thinking about how middle school experiences could prepare students for the algebraic work of a potential physics course as a freshman. I found this article:
Nakakoji, Y., & Wilson, R. (2018). First-Year Mathematics and Its Application to Science: Evidence of Transfer of Learning to Physics and Engineering. Education Sciences, 8(1), 8.
The title appears relevant, so we queued it to discuss. As I was reading the paper the morning of the show, I began to have concerns about the quality of the paper. I did some searching for news related to the publisher, MDPI. I found articles like this, which suggest MDPI publications are not something Two Pint PLC should promote with our readership. There’s more to the MDPI story, as this paper describes, but I wasn’t ready to go to air without resolution on the issue. I had to do a quick scratch of the article.
What I found as a replacement in my hasty search was a practitioner’s article about how to teach university physics without the barrier of calculus-heavy mathematics.
Rizcallah, J. A. (2018). Projectile motion without calculus. Physics Education, 53(4), 045002.
The article is fine, but difficult to apply to a K-12 setting. It also doesn’t much address my original prompt from the listener about a physics-first course sequence in high school. Laurence and I discussed the article, but the tape wasn’t nearly as good as our time with the guest. It was cut.
Spencer, what I think the takeaways in my search must be is that you have to examine the goals of your teachers to find the sequence that will work for you. Do they want to conceptually explore physics ideas like energy and motion, or do they want to use the algebraic treatments common in junior/senior course examples? How strong is the math preparation of the students, with an emphasis on algebra/pre-algebra?
If you want to pursue physics-first, I’d suggest reading this article. It was my favorite find in my search. If it wasn’t a 2012 reference, it would’ve been the segment prompt.
Booth, J. L., & Newton, K. J. (2012). Fractions: Could they really be the gatekeeper’s doorman?. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 37(4), 247-253.
It suggests that you can work with your middle school STEM teachers to lay a strong foundation for students by working hard with their fraction reasoning. Get good at fractions in the early grades, which will prepare them for algebra success later, which will prepare them for physics success after that. When that happens seems to be secondary.
Edit 04/26/19: This piece lays out some of the history of Physics First.
Sheppard, K., & Robbins, D. M. (2009). The “first physics first” movement, 1880–1920. The Physics Teacher, 47(1), 46-50.
h/t Dr. Jen Gatz (@DrJenGatz)