Barry Feierman, physics teacher at the Westtown School, where he has taught for 37 years.
Achievement: Feierman, 63, of West Chester, is one of the leaders of the physics first movement, an attempt to change the longtime order of how science classes are taught in high school (biology, chemistry, physics). He co-authored a pamphlet released by the American Association of Physics Teachers last fall explaining the advantages to rethinking how high schools order their science classes. The Westtown School is one of the few high schools in the county to embrace the physics-first methodology.
Question: What specific changes have occurred in the ways that the sciences are taught that, in your mind, necessitates reorganization?Answer: It's not that physics has become easier or harder, it's that biology has changed in the last 20 years. If you're looking at a biology class, and looking at cells and processes, you really need a background in chemistry. Most of the impetus for change is coming from bio teachers who are saying, "Please put chemistry in front of biology."
When you open the discussion a little wider and ask what is a good prerequisite for chemistry if it doesn't come first, well, that should be physics.
Q: What is the history behind the commonly accepted sequencing of science courses in high school?A: In 1900, or just before, there was a committee asked by the president to come up with a recommendation for sciences in high school. At that time biology was much more human health, first aid. We hardly knew anything about biology in 1900, and the thought was bio could come earliest. Chemistry was much more abstract, and that came second, and physics was thought of as the hardest.
Q: When did the idea of reordering the science courses become prominent?A: There were some articles written around 1998. The New York Times ran a first-page article by Leon Lederman, one of the physics Nobel Prize-winning laureates, and the organization (AAPT) started to hear "Why are we teaching physics last in America, it's not done that way in virtually the rest of the world?"
Q: How popular is physics first in the U.S. now?A: Less than 10 percent of American high schools have a physics-first program. Of the ones that have tried it, most are finding it to be a successful way to introduce students to science. A few have found it to be very, very difficult. This comes from having a shortage of qualified physics teachers in America.
Q: Do you anticipate a wider acceptance in the near future?A: That has yet to be seen, I'd have to be honest about that. The schools that I visited, after the first or second year, they know if it's working. The first year is always hard, with new teachers, new kids, and a new approach.
Math departments, mostly, love physics in ninth grade because the kids are working with algebra. In the old days, with bio first, the kids were never doing math in science.
There are a lot of by-products, side effects that are really also helping, besides catching a wider audience for physics. When you teach physics to freshman, you catch many more females, and many, many more minorities. When it's taught just as an elective to juniors and seniors, you have a fewer females, but much fewer minorities.