Out of order science?

I am no expert on science at all, I am, in fact, a math teacher. What is puzzling to me is the order we teach science in our schools. It seems to me that Physics offers the basic principles of how things in our surrounding world work, and then Chemistry teaches what the basic building blocks of matter are. Shouldn’t we then have these courses before we learn Biology? It makes more sense to me, which might not mean much. I understand that the mathematics required for each class might be part of the problem, but taken on thier own, I think the sciences have been taken out of order.

Newtonian Physics is just the macroscopic manifestation of Quantum Physics though, so we should start with that, probably at age 6 or 7.

Seriously though, you need a bit of chemistry to be able to understand some aspects of biology, but not much physics. You need a bit of physics to understand some aspects of chemistry and vice versa, but they are all reasonably distinct disciplines, which is why we don’t just lump them all into ‘science studies’

Physics is the only fundamental science.

Chemistry and biology are nothing more than physics addressed at a higher level of abstraction.

Try explaining that to a grade school student.


Basic biology is easy to grasp: We can show the little yahoos animals and plants and, with the help of simple optics, microbes, and we can use those visual aids to explain biological concepts like inheritance and classification. We don’t get into biochemistry in basic biology.

Physics is similarly simple, as we can perform most experiments inside the classroom. The equations require algebra, but that can be taught concurrently (once the students have mastered the concept of `variables,’ high school physics doesn’t require much else).

Biology and physics don’t intersect, at least at the high school level. You could teach them in either order and not have to worry about one class needing to borrow concepts from the other. Basic biology usually does not borrow concepts taught in a chemistry course, so teaching chemistry first isn’t required, either.

Chemistry itself is observable, due to the reactions, but we can’t show the students individual atoms and molecules, so we must teach them analytical methods (stoichiometry, for example) to expand upon concepts. That alone demands mental skills developed in a prior algebra course. Chemistry intersects with physics, as heat transfer and particle motion are needed concepts and are best taught by idealizing particles (molecules and atoms) as moving bodies. So teaching physics before chemistry is advisable. Chemistry can expand upon biology if it is advanced enough to differentiate between organic and inorganic chemistries, but it might not, depending on the school. So teaching chemistry before biology is dependent on how advanced the chemistry coursework is.

Quantum physics is generally not taught at the high school level. Advanced biology can be (it was called physiology in my school, and it focused on human biology), and that can depend on advanced chemistry.

Of course, this is just what I recall from my high school days. Are those classes an artifact of arbitrary decisions? I wouldn’t be surprised, but I don’t see any obvious failings in this specific aspect. It builds from observation (physics and biology) to the less observable and more analytic (chemistry) and then on to the advanced (physiology and advanced chemistry).

In science there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting.

If it means anything to you, my high school AP Physics Teacher felt exactly the same way.

Physics, Chemisty and Biology are all levels of abstraction about the world around us. Its not NECCASARY for a biologist to know about quantum theory because he does not need that level of detail. One of the fundamental concepts about learning is to be able to work at the level of detail required.

I think there is a program in the US called “Physics First.” Some high schools are involved. Try asking about it on the list server PHYS-L: http://amasci.com/scilists.html#lst

Chemistry and biology are emergent properties of physics. Physics on the other hand is just the ultimate result of reductionism.

At my son’s high school they teach Biology in 9th grade, Chemistry in 10th and Physics in 11th. I assume that the OP is referring to this sort of thing.

Personally, I see no reason to put them in any order. When I went to school in the UK, we did them all at the same time. That makes sense to me - you start with the easy stuff and get more complex over time. And if there is cross-over knowledge required, then at least you will have done the basics in each subject.

I think it was Leon Lederman, Nobel laureate, who came up with the concept. He’s been pushing it for years, at least, and he’s very involved in USAn high school education programs. Twenty years ago, he founded the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy at Aurora, Ill., and is a resident scholar there still, I think. I heard him talk on this very subject last month when he visited the NC School of Science and Math, which he used as a model for the Illinois school.

He said that physics-chemistry-biology is the way to go, and that a lot of the programs are calling them Science 1, Science 2, and Science 3. They build on each other, was his contention. The question I had for him, but didn’t find the place to ask, was what about Science 0 (math)? He talked on and on about mathematics, but I didn’t hear anything about integrating math with the science sequence. I’d think “word problems” are a notorious stumbling block in math classes, and integrating them with science questions would go a long ways to providing motivation for solving them.

Hey, cool. I just got an email from Dr. Lederman: “But they have been using algebra, geometry, trig for hundreds of years and the sequence is self organized so that THEY would never make the mistake of teaching calculus before addition and subtraction. That is what we do in science with Biology before Physics.”

Mentock Great job! Thanks for getting in touch with the “big guy”. I think if Lederman says it is out of order then the rest of us might want to take a long look at this thing. I do think the properties of physics play a role in what we can teach in Biology, and that we are doing a disservice to our students in teaching it in the order that we do.

I currently teach high school physics to 11th and 12th graders, and if you guys have your way then I would be teaching freshmen? :eek:

(runs screaming into the night)

Just remember that both Darwin and Mendel were well before the discovery of DNA and the double helix. Which shows that you can do a lot of biology without knowing much chemistry or any physics. In Darwin’s day, not much chemistry was known and physics was mechanics and thermodynamics. Things were improved by Mendel’s era, but not much. Since they are not teaching molecular biology in HS (and probably most HSs are not teaching Darwin either), it is pure descriptive biology and requires no chemistry or physics. Much better to try to get them to teach evolution than to worry about esoteric things like physics early.

And anyway I could make a strong case that it is silly to teach physics without calculus anyway. And maybe partial differential equations, boundary value problems and Fourier series while you are at it. Maybe some manifold theory and differential geometry too. Then you can teach physics from the ground up.

I sincerely hope that you are wrong. I was taught molecular biology at high school (in the UK), primitive as it was in the mid-70s. It should most definitely be part of standard high school curricula by now.

Thanks, moejuck, I’d actually intended on sending him something, it was your post that got me motivated.

Wouldn’t that be from the top down?

But, seriously, you folks should at least check out Lederman’s proposals. He’s not a kook. He’s managed to convince a number of schools to switch. The curriculum seems to work for them. Sorry, Tangent. :slight_smile:

I think that part of this debate lies in the ongoing unwillingness for educators in this country to realize that our students are capable of most anything that we can throw at them, as long as we teach the principles and have patience. Amarone proves this point. We don’t need to get started on the advanced curriculum of schools outside the U.S. Some schools have made the switch, as Mentock has pointed out. Change can be a good thing you know.

When I was in high school I was told not to sign up for Physics, because I had not taken Pre-Calc. I did so anyhow, and nobody noticed until about half way through the year. I was pulling A’s in Physics, and C’s in Algebra II. Anyone want to explain that one? They let me finish, and I feel that the reason I succeeded was because my Physics teacher was so good. The math seems to make more sense when you are applying it to science anyway, so I picked it up rather easily.

If we overhaul the entire system, starting in the middle school, then freshman would not be shocked to be taking Physics when they are freshman, Tangent. I am pretty sure that some Molecular Biology is being taught in most classes in high school(God, I hope so). If we want to advance our students understanding of science in general, then making this switch would be very benificial in the end. I think it is time for the U.S. to step up their expectations in Science and Math.

While I can see a logical basis for teaching physics before chem and bio, I think the strong element of math in physics is justification enough to put it off. Ideally, one should have at least a rudimentary grasp of calculus before one tackles things like dynamics. The idea that velocity is the rate of change (ie, derivative) of position, and acceleration is the rate of change of velocity can be much better understood if you actually know what a derivative is. Also, concepts like relativity are fairly complicated in execution if not in concept, and are probably better suited for an older audience.

Conversely, bio and chem - as has been mentioned - are much less math-dependent. Ideas like heredity, evolution, cellular development (for biology), chemical reactions, the basics of ions (for chemistry), and such can be understood with almost no math background.

Like I said, I can see a certain appeal with starting with physics, but I think that the order of sciences is fine as-is.

I haven’t looked into the curriculum closely, ElJeffe, but I suspect that part of the reason bio and chem in the USAn high schools are less math-dependent is because they are taught early in the sequence. A lot of physics texts leave out the calculus entirely–just look at some of the popularizations that Einstein himself wrote.

Perhaps Lederman is mostly advocating a physical understanding of chemistry and biology, rather than memorization of facts. That is certainly necessary, sometimes, and a lot of students would respond well to that. Others, wouldn’t. Either system seems to leave some behind.