Why American Schools Need to Change the Way They Teach Physics

America has a physics problem.

Research shows that access to physics education varies by race, gender, sexuality, and disability. Physics courses are typically standard in suburban high schools, but not in urban and rural schools.

Even in places where physics is taught, attention is rarely paid to the application of physics in students’ everyday lives.

This approach can hinder students’ curiosity. In my work as a physics education researcher, I have encountered lessons that focus on memorizing formulas. This method fails to encourage critical thinking, which limits students’ ability to solve problems creatively.

Teachers sometimes assume that if a student can’t understand a physics concept, it’s the student’s problem. Teachers often don’t try to present the material in a way that can help students engage more deeply with the lessons. This contributes to the challenges that poorer, nonwhite students already face, including lower standards and fewer resources in the classroom.

Imagine if students could instead see how physics impacts their daily lives through sports, extreme weather, or baking and cooking. How might these connections to the real world spark curiosity and foster a deeper understanding of physics?

Making physics relevant

Failure to teach physics properly has consequences.

As the economy becomes more technology-driven, understanding physics is crucial. Yet the number of Americans with a solid grasp of physics is declining.

A shortage of candidates for jobs that require a basic knowledge of physics could jeopardize the U.S.’s competitive position in the global economy and force companies to outsource certain jobs to countries with better-educated workers.

Many students have a vague idea that they want to pursue a STEM career; they realize that these jobs usually pay well and can be interesting and fulfilling. But they don’t even realize that learning physics can better prepare you for a role as an aerospace engineer, software developer, or environmental scientist, to name a few.

Just understanding that relationship can increase their desire to learn the material.

But there is another way to increase motivation, which I have been studying and developing for years: ‘culturally relevant physics education’.

Physics is often taught in ways that do not cater to a diverse student population, leading to lower achievement and engagement, especially among poor and non-white students. This can lead to these populations placing low value on learning physics.

A traditional high school physics class teaches abstract equations and focuses on topics such as projectile motion and electrical circuits. The teacher might explain Newton’s laws of motion using examples from European history, such as firing cannonballs.

I wouldn’t blame students in, say, Raymond, Mississippi, if they wonder why on earth they are learning about the trajectory of 18th century guns.

Physics in racing, texting and farming

By shifting to teaching physics in culturally responsive ways, I believe it is possible to reverse this trend and cultivate a new generation of physics enthusiasts and professionals. There are many ways to do this.

I have worked with teachers in California to explore how the physics of wave motion affects the dynamics of earthquakes and how buildings are constructed. Other lessons include understanding how text messages are transmitted via wave motion and how the physics of firearms can be taught using the concepts of conservation of momentum and momentum.

In these ways, teachers can tap into students’ cultures and interests to make physics more relatable and engaging. There is no one-size-fits-all approach: while earthquake physics may resonate better in one region’s school district, hurricane physics may work better in another.

Especially in the rural south, there is a great need for more opportunities to learn physics.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that students in these areas have less access to advanced science courses, including physics, than their urban and suburban counterparts. And a 2021 report from the American Institute of Physics notes that fewer high schools in the rural South offer Advanced Placement physics courses, which could be partly due to the significant shortage of qualified physics teachers in these communities.

Fysica speelt een rol op de boerderij, vooral nu droogtes steeds vaker voorkomen in delen van de VS <a href=Brady Dennis/The Washington Post via Getty Images” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/QWk_hdVYMDD5QSeS0_kWoA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTcyMA–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/the_conversation_us_articles_815/e734a4cb4d018d8be8cd52cd56e26e1b”/>

Targeted interventions can help meet this need.

I have worked with teachers in the Southeast to develop activities using NASCAR, a hugely popular sport in the region, to teach students about engine types, acceleration, and thermal energy. I am also a principal investigator in a collaboration between Michigan State University and two HBCUs, Alabama A&M University and Winston-Salem State University, to implement culturally responsive physics instruction in the rural South.

Given the region’s rich agricultural history, the science of growing plants and crops can be another avenue for science instruction. Teachers can detail how light energy is converted into chemical energy; explain how fruits and vegetables have unique colors because of the way they absorb and reflect wavelengths of light; and share how physics concepts like fluid dynamics can be used to improve irrigation techniques.

By learning these practical applications, students from agricultural areas can contribute to their communities.

This project isn’t just about filling a gap in physics instruction; it’s also about unlocking the potential of students in the rural South. And we hope that, ultimately, they’ll feel confident enough in their physics background to one day pursue a career in STEM.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit organization that brings you facts and analysis to help you understand our complex world.

It is written by: Clausell Mathis, Michigan State University.

Read more:

Clausell Mathis receives funding from the U.S. Department of Education as Co-PI in the Education Innovation and Research Grant program.

Leave a Comment