Thursday, November 26, 2015

Biology, Chemistry, Physics: Why this order?

I've often wondered why do schools in the US force students to take science in this order:  Biology, Chemistry, Physics?  I'm not a subject matter snob.  I think each of these courses are super important for students to learn, but what is the research backed rationale for this order?


  • I've been told the order is because of the alphabet:  Biology, Chemisty, Physics. If this is the case, then this is just stupid.  S.t.u.p.i.d.

  • I've been told the order is because advanced math is required for chemistry and physics.  Hmmmmm.  I teach physics and the math is manageable by kids who are taking Algebra.  Sure, it helps that kids have a richer understanding of math, but where better to appreciate and see how math can work for them than by doing Physics!?  And secondary teachers, if you are approaching chemistry or physics with math more complex than basic Algebra, why are you doing that?  Stop it.  Naughty.  Who made you the gate keeper of science?  Stop trying to make your class non-equitable.  If we make our science classes equitable, then kids will want to take science, learn science, and see how AWESOME science really is!  That doesn't mean you have to water down curriculum.  It means you are teaching CONCEPTS for application, sprinkling in math to support understanding.  Sigh.  Don't be a science a science facilitator!!!!

  • I've been told the order is because the sciences build upon each other.  Logical....but what a load of steaming poo.  I've taught biology and there is a TON of molecular concepts in there. In my freshman biology class I taught atomics structure, electronegativity, polarity, bonding, balancing equations, etc. That's chemistry and none, I mean ZERO of my students had taken chemistry. The kids ate it up and could better appreciate how the STRUCTURE of a molecule determines its FUNCTION.  They could literally see how an enzyme would stop working if denatured.  
    Image credit Michael Knowles
    So, Bio before Chem????  Um, maybe 100 years ago, prior to identification of DNA and the central dogma.    So why physics last?  I have been blessed with the opportunity to teach physics and I can comfortably state that physics is the foundation by which all science builds, so....yeh, the logic here is flawed.  Physics is the Lego pieces by which we need to understand all science.  I would comfortably invite the debate on this topic.

All 3 ideas listed above could be the reason the order is B-C-P, but I wanted to know WHY!?!?!?!  So, I turned to the ol' internet and did some research.  Apparently back in the 1890s a group of men was formed: The Committee of Ten.  These guys were educators that were tasked to recommend the curriculum for American high school education.  Heck, prior to the 1890s, science was NOT routinely taught in schools at all.  Essentially the Committee of Ten released a report and in it they suggested the three sciences, but believe it or not, they encouraged that physics be taught before chemistry!  But let's go ahead an agree, that maybe something that is over 100 years old could be revisited, at least for the sake of making sure that it is still relevant.  Read this article here by Keith Sheppard and Dennis Robbins.  Great article, guys, freakin' awesome.

Let's see where American education has gotten us.  Take a look at some data from the National Center for Education Statistics:

Image credit:  National Center for Education Statistics

It is appalling that one of the most useful science classes (physics) is only taken by approximately 36% of all high school students.  That is NOT ok....and science peeps, if we truly love science and want our students to appreciate it, then we need respect all the sciences for what they can offer and either change the order or require all 3:  Bio, Chem and Physics.  I know, I know...but there are no physics teachers out there.  I hear ya...but I'm a bio nerd turned physics teacher and I'm loving me some physics now.

One could easily argue that with the advances in the biological sciences, the order that the sciences should be taught is  Physics-Chemistry-Biology.  Just sayin'.  And for all of you Physics teachers that are poo-pooing the idea of Physics first because you are math snobs, read this article then comment or email me.  I would love to hear your perspective as to why only kids in Calculus can take and appreciate physics.

Imagine the explosion that could occur in the life sciences if all kids had to take Physics and Chemistry first!  Holy Cow!  Diseases you had better run and hide, because American students are about to kick some biological baddies asses!

But, let's look at some more info to see if you think we need to be shaking some stuff up.  The US is not #1 in science and technology.  Japan has that spot.  And according to Bloomberg, the US is #6 on the list of most innovative countries.  #6!!!!  ACK!  We were beat out by Israel, Finland, German, Japan and South Korea.  South Korea?!  I now have my sad/angry face on.

Science teachers...we know this is a problem.  Stop allowing the counseling department and district offices decide what is best for kids.  WE ARE THE EXPERTS!  We need to put our voices out there, with the research to back up WHY B-C-P is NOT what is best for kids....because, it simply is not.

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