Physics First? Anyone trying this?

Jeffrey Mays (of Novare science textbooks) wrote an article in their most recent newsletter describing the origin of the biology-chemistry-physics sequence in American education and arguing that changing to a physics first sequence makes much more pedagogical sense.

This is not the first time I have heard this recommendation, and it seems to make sense. I’m wondering if anyone has experience doing physics first (in 8th or 9th grade) instead of biology. What texts or programs have you found work well with this approach? Are there any downsides or disadvantages that you’ve noticed?


No. Not at my school, anyway. And I don’t mean that we’ve considered it and decided against it – what I mean is that this is the first I’ve paid attention to this, and have never really considered it before. Thanks for linking to the Novare article – I have a lot of respect for John Mays and his organization even if I haven’t been following recent (or even not-so-recent) trends on this.

That said, after reading his article, they would still have some work left to do convincing me to adopt this whether in the home-school front or in any regular school. I speak as a physical-sciences/math teacher who prizes being able to have physics students in their last year(s) of high school. So this may be a bit of a “physi-centric” view as opposed to somebody invested in the life-sciences.

The author makes it sound as if we just sort of drifted into this configuration by accident, and that any (apparently insufficient) advantages it may have are somewhat incidental to how the sequence has developed. The article does acknowledge, even if dismissively, the traditional motivation of preserving the more mathematically-demanding courses for the later years of school. Physics properly taught (IMO) is just such a course in spades. They may be correct that all the major concepts can still be taught without needing trigonometry or calculus, but only taught in a less robust sense. And they are absolutely correct that the basics of physics (measurement, dimensional analysis, basic math skills/precision) are needed earlier in a science curriculum (the presumed motivation for putting physics in this earlier, more ‘foundational’ slot, I gather). But that is why we teach a 9th/10th grade physical sciences course in the first place (as well as hitting these topics in junior high). And I repeat some of it again in our 11th grade chemistry course – not because they haven’t already seen it, but because they need the repetition for it to begin to sink in. Having my students in physics while I’m also teaching them trigonometry concurrently – or better yet for some of the advanced ones: taking calculus concurrently, helps tie so much of it beautifully together in ways that would be totally impoverished if I was forced to cripple the physics down to what most 9th graders would be ready for. Which brings up the next (probably valid) concern from the article.

The author(s) are critical that we have low expectations of our younger high school students who really could rise to the challenge above. They may be right – I haven’t done the studies they have --but if so, then I would want these exemplary young students concurrently rising to the same challenge on the mathematical side so that I can still teach the more mathematically demanding physics. In fact some of ours do exactly that (taking calculus 1 by their junior year) --and if they need physics that soon, I don’t stand in their way, but they are fine getting chemistry first and physics after.

Some of these motivations may carry the scent of physics-envy, and a competitive jostling for the “prime curricular spots” of a 4-year program. I doubt Novare would ever give short-shrift to any of the physical sciences, and I don’t doubt their motivations do include preserving preeminent spots. But (short of moving kids to an accelerated math track to keep up with their sciences --which I’m sure many can do) I would feel a need to revisit physics during some of the student’s most mathematically mature years, lest I send them away with remedial and long-faded exposure.

Biology (unless one delves more deeply into biochemistry or genetics than I imagine most high school courses will go) just does not bring in the same mathematical rigor, so it makes sense that students could launch into that more fully earlier. (spoken by somebody whose last biology class was in fact, in high school thirty years ago --so I’ll brace for any bluntly delivered corrections needed here).

All this said, homeschoolers have the advantage of nearly infinite flexibility. So if Johnny is a math-whiz, then sure! I’d bring on the physics early. But if math is a struggle --then beware! Or you can do like my wife and enjoy taking “physics for art majors” at college – a class she remembers positively and with apparent good benefit. It’s never too late. Maybe I should be looking for “biology for the mechanical-minded”.

That’s my initially-provoked ramble on all this. Sorry that it wasn’t the affirmation you may have been wanting. But I’m partially open to new developments and research – if it doesn’t fly in the face of experience too much.

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I am following a “physics first” approach in my homeschool. We are at the beginning of our journey, however, so I don’t know that I can contribute much other than the fact that, yes, people do choose this path. My student is in 9th grade and is taking physics with an online provider, Derek Owens. It is an algebra-based program based on the Giancoli text; Mr. Owens teaches the limited trigonometry required for the class.

I chose this approach because physics is the most fundamental of the sciences. My student is very math-oriented and, I suspect, will take a calculus-based physics course in her senior year.


@Mervin_Bitikofer Thanks for the educator perspective.

There is one online class provider I know of that follows this physics first plan. (Incidentally, I think they use a Novare chemistry text) They require conceptual physics before chemistry and chemistry before biology. Then seniors take an AP level science of their choosing. AP Physics is a calculus -based senior level physics course.

It is my impression that biology texts are focusing more and more on molecular biology (as opposed to taxonomy and anatomy, which is more what I remember from freshman bio). In my daughter’s middle school life science textbook today, we read about RNA and protein synthesis in the ribosomes and how mutations are introduced into the genetic code. I definitely was not learning that kind of stuff in middle school.

You do have freedom and customizability when you are planning for an individual student that you don’t have when you are trying to make a program work for an entire school and take into consideration things like state testing standards and the needs of transfer students. But unless you are a science teacher, most homeschoolers are dependent to some degree on curriculum that lays it out for you.

I have Hewitt’s Conceptual Physical Science Explorations text and I was thinking of using it over two years (7th and 8th grade) with my daughter. (My son who will be 5th and 6th will beg to be included and has already read the chemistry unit out of curiosity. He is not a genius child or anything, but he is a little precocious in math and science. I don’t really know what to do with him.) My daughter is good at math and will be doing Art of Problem Solving Algebra in 7th grade. (My son has been doing AoPS Pre-Algebra with her this year. He gets the answers before my husband.) So it feels like it might be a little bit redundant to go from physical science to some kind of freshman physics. I’ll probably just have to see how it goes.

Sounds like your student will get the best of all worlds — a good foundation in science, and then the robust versions when ready for those as well. I’m not a homeschooling parent myself, but as a teacher at a Christian school I know lots of homeschooling families, some of whom I’ve had the privilege of teaching when they grab a class or two at our school. I don’t think any of us here feel like we are mainstream in our own communities. Hopefully you feel welcome here.

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You’ve probably gathered from other stuff I’ve written that I’m not too worried about “finding that magic curriculum”. Those parents / teachers whose hearts are in it will see their charges through with the help of, or sometimes despite their available curriculum. Something tells me your family is in good hands.

That precocious, impetuous curiosity is a beautiful thing.

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That kind of setup addresses all my concerns. I could be sold on that.

I provided some editing assistance for a lab manual for John a few years back. I was impressed by his philosophy of getting students away from the “canned lab reports” with their fill-in-the-blank style of activity. He was very much for having students do their own organizing, evaluating, and writing. That exposure was a good influence on me for how I handle my own classes – not that I have eradicated all my own bad habits. But it is always good to have that kind of cross-pollination.

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I’m hoping to run through a basic conceptual physics in 8th. But I’ve went far from my original plan. I planned to use Hewitt’s, purchased it, and think it’s a great text. However, I also wanted to cover some middle school science that we will miss in high school more in depth and didn’t feel I’d have time to get through Hewitt’s along with other materials. I finally decided that science enjoyment and engagement along with a basic understanding of labs and quality math foundation are my more important middle school science goals for us.

We are doing Physics first, using the Giancoli text and the Novare lab manual. Because I hit Bio in 8th grade, we then move to Physics, Chemistry or Honors Chem, then AP or Honors Bio (focusing much more on Biochemistry than the 8th grade bio), then AP Physics (because the physics with the calculus is the real deal, as Mervin said upthread:-).

To me, it makes sense because so much of biology is biochem/molecular now. I think it can be done well the traditional way as well. As a homeschooler, relearning physics at any level has been a bit painful, lol. I have about 4 texts that I consult to make sure I understand the concept well enough to teach it clearly. Unless you have a savant child, Physics is not a good candidate for self-teaching.

Derek Owens has an excellent reputation. I seriously considered using him this year. Being the glutton for punishment that I am, and wanting to stretch my brain, I decided to just relearn the subject and do a lab class for my son and a friend’s daughter.:tired_face:

I am using Hewitt’s Conceptual Physical Science Expl. with my 7th grader. I love Hewitt… because he helps the kids love science. If you need a resource for videos and exams, check out He and John Suchocki have created a membership type site with resources. They are very responsive to questions, etc.

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Do you know anywhere I could find a weekly schedule or suggested assignments type document?

Here is the link to the “self-study” course they have developed for Phys Sci Explorations. I may buy the course, seeing that I found the textbook, teachers manual, and lab manual at a thrift store and only paid $7 for the set. Introduction to Physical Science - Homeschool Jr High Grades 7 - 9 I have a bunch of non-homeschool things I need to work on next year, so I would like to get out of being the main science teacher if I can. It was going to be my last year before finding online classes anyway.

And in case anyone is interested, here is the link to Derek Owen’s site. He provides online math and physics classes. It looks like they are not real time classes, but video sessions.

I think I have one somewhere. I am at a debate tournament through the weekend. I can look when I get home. If I forget, tag me back early next week.

Have I mentioned that debate competitions are not for the faint of heart? :laughing: I am sooo tired, lol.

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Apparently, I didn’t read down far enough. It looks like you found the site and the info:-)

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Sorry for the late response. The problem with the Physics first approach is the math required. Newton had to invent calculus to figure out the equations of motion. In the 8th or 9th grade, the math skills simply are not there yet. Biology, on the other hand, doesn’t require any math. So biology first, followed by Chemistry (arithmetic required), and then Physics once Algebra II is reached.

When you do physics first, it is conceptual not calculus-based. And the idea is it preps you for a more advanced intro to chemistry course, which preps you for a biology course that is heavier on biochemistry. Then you can do AP Physics last, when you have the calculus for it. You have to use curricula designed for this approach, not just switch the order of more traditional texts. As of now, I’m going to do it.

The conceptual is fine but measurements are needed and formulas must be used to understand it You might be able to do it one on one introducing the math as you go but it would be impossible to do in a classroom setting with lots of students.

AP Physics requires calculus. no other way to do it.

Right, you aren’t starting with calculus-based physics, you are starting with physics that requires only algebra. Lots of private schools are moving to this approach, it’s not unheard of in a classroom setting.

Ok I hope it works as I teach electrical engineering at the university undergraduate level that requires quantum physics knowledge. I am finding weak physics background especially in optics, electromagnetism and quantum mechanics.

Once upon a time I was in high school and got physics my senior year. But I started reading science fiction in 4th grade. I was building and launching rockets in 7th grade.

I got straight A’s in math and sciences through high school though I actually found physics disappointing my senior year.

I would suggest Newtonian physics freshman year, then chemistry, biology and Einsteinian/quantum physics. And some recommended reading outside school.

Omnilingual (Feb 1957) by H. Beam Piper

Teach Yourself Electricity and Electronics (2006) by Stan Gibilisco

EveryCircuit by Igor Vytyaz

You teachers need to get out of your EdBiz rut. Classrooms may be obsolete.

So couldn’t you write a computer program simulating 109 masses floating in air to do a time lapse calculation at 1/1000th of a second intervals using gravitational acceleration and the conservation of momentum to compute collapse time for the north tower on 9/11 without using calculus?

Math and calculus are useful but it often seems to be used to make things more difficult as if the objective is to prove that you are smart to the teacher.

If David Chandler is wrong shouldn’t lots of high school physics teachers say so? If he is right shouldn’t they be saying that? What does this silence say about educators.

And then there are experiments: