Physics First Develops a Broad Set of Scientific Skills

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Ten years ago Loyola’s science department presciently restructured its curriculum to reflect a more modern, logical way of teaching its courses. Starting in 2007, Loyola taught physics to freshman, chemistry to sophomores and biology to juniors. This sequencing is formally known as Physics First.

Nationwide, the ordering of biology, chemistry, and physics was historically based on cost restraints for lab equipment (chemistry and physics needed more advanced equipment than biology), a lack of well-educated, motivated teachers and the current limited knowledge of science at the time.

Discoveries in recent decades—most notably the structure of DNA in the 1950s—called for a reassessment of the course material in biology classes. The rapid growth of molecular biology such as enzymes and proteins lent itself towards a fundamental need for first understanding the basics of chemistry. For successful comprehension of chemistry, educators now see the need for a foundation built from physics concepts.

With these new building blocks of sequential knowledge, the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) advocated in the early 1990s that scientific advancements in modern biology fundamentally caused a rethinking of the traditional curriculum, a curriculum that had been in place and taught for over a hundred years. A change that was not to be taken lightly, it then took another 15 years for the science programme to evolve into a Physics First order of physics, chemistry, then biology.

In 2007 science teachers Ms. Fawzia Qazi and Dr. Craig Bouma, were among those in Loyola’s science department who attended the National Science Teachers Association’s (NSTA) convention in Anaheim. Here, the NSTA introduced the Physics First method and formally encouraged its integration into science curriculums.

Bouma wrote his dissertation in 2013 on the effects of Physics First in an experiment at Matteo Ricci High School. The experiment found an unintended statistically-significant benefit. Taking physics, chemistry, biology in that order improved SAT scores, notably a 21.4 point average increase in the math section.

Qazi, the current science department chair, notes that she personally sees an improvement in Loyola students’ comprehension of chemistry because of the increase in the popularity of taking STEM classes. “After the onset, lots of student data collection in terms of test scores has been recorded, and we’ve seen positive results,” she said.

Because data is still being accumulated, Loyola has yet to publish quantitative statistics or trends from Physics First students; however, based on Bouma’s study and Qazi’s assessment, it seems that Loyola’s data will show student improvement. It remains to be seen how the lower quartile, middle 50% and upper quartile fare in terms of overall grades, science comprehension, SAT Math score improvement and desire to pursue a scientific career in the future.

Opponents argue to fully understand physics, students must have an understanding of complex, sophisticated math. While some concepts are advanced, the prominent ideas that need to be grasped for comprehension of chemistry mostly require basic Algebra 1. In turn, Loyola offers seniors AP Physics 1 & C, which entail the more rigorous and sophisticated math.

Loyola’s science department recognized the potential benefit of implementing Physics First and should be applauded as a vanguard of change. Our scientific knowledge of the world changes often, and the continuation of Physics First fully ensures all students the opportunity to reap the complete benefits of science, grounded in the logical order of physics, chemistry, biology.

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