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Facilitating Early Exposure to Physics

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One of the biggest challenges that college physics departments face is encouraging undergraduate students to consider a career in physics; this challenge is made especially difficult when many incoming students are not exposed to physics in high school. Only 36 percent of U.S. high school students take a physics course. The typical sequence of science courses is biology, followed by chemistry, and then physics, but many students elect not to take it. Physics First is an organized movement to reverse the typical sequence of courses so that physics is taught in ninth grade, and then students go on to take chemistry and biology. This shift introduces students to physics at an earlier age and helps them understand how the various scientific fields fit together. The principles of physics give students a good understanding of chemistry, and a solid foundation in chemistry helps students comprehend biology. But in order for ninth-grade students to understand introductory physics principles, the teaching method must change.

In 2006, the University of Missouri launched A TIME for Physics First, funded initially by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (2006–08) and later by the National Science Foundation (2009–14) through the Mathematics and Science Partnerships grant program. Through the program, MU provided professional development and leadership training to over 120 teachers from 53 participating Missouri school districts. The teachers attend an intensive courses for 10 weeks over three years at the University of Missouri so they can gather the necessary pedagogy, resources, and support to teach introductory physics principles effectively to ninth graders. The resulting curriculum is centered on hands-on inquiry and modeling-based learning. Students work on an experiment first and then present their findings to the class. After the experiment and presentations, the teacher further explains the concept. This methodology encourages active learning, discussion, and collaboration.

Since the program began, the number of high school students in Missouri taking ninth grade physics has increased from 1,200 to 13,000 over the past 10 years. 95 percent of surveyed district administrators say they are likely or very likely to continue with the curriculum five years from now.