Physics as the first Science Class

The teaching of mathematics progresses in a logical order. First students are taught algebra. Algebra is not really about equations and graphs and how to use them. Those are just the mechanics of it. Algebra is about problem-solving and learning how to begin with a problem in a way that will hopefully lead to a solution. For those who continue to take math classes, after algebra there is a logical procession to geometry, trigonometry, analytic geometry, calculus, and differential equations (although that subject is taught in very few high schools).

In science classes, though, we have been doing it all wrong. For many years students have taken biology, then some of those move on to chemistry, and some of those go on to physics. These courses should be taught in exactly the opposite order. A first course in physics does not require much in the way of prerequisites in order to grasp the concepts presented. There is some knowledge of mathematics required, even in the earliest stages of physics study, but it is minimal.

Chemistry, however, is more difficult to understand without some background knowledge of basic physics. Many processes in chemistry involve heat, and if you do not have a fundamental level of knowledge about thermodynamics, you will find it difficult to grasp how and why chemical processes happen. So a basic physics course should come before a student begins to study chemistry.

Biology is usually the first science course. In order to comprehend many of the subjects covered in a first biology course, however, it is necessary to have working knowledge of some of the basics of chemistry. Photosynthesis, genetics, and nutrition all require some knowledge of the chemical processes involved.

So it is clear the real order in which science classes should be taken by high school students is physics first, then chemistry, then biology. This is also true for other sciences, whether at the high school or college level. Astronomy, for example, requires an understanding of light, heat, motion, mass, and velocity, all of which are learned in basic physics. Geology uses concepts from physics and chemistry to examine things like radioactive decay (which is essential for dating events) and rates of erosion. Meteorology looks at movement of gases and fluids. The social sciences, like anthropology, psychology, and sociology, do not require a background in physics in order to be studied at the introductory level. All of what is called the “hard” sciences, however, begin with physics.

It all starts with physics. A basic understanding of the concepts of energy, motion, electricity and magnetism, dimensions, and accuracy of measurements is where science begins, and that is where the teaching of science should begin.