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Everyday science

The awesome lack of modern physics in US schools

12 Nov 2012 Hamish Johnston

By Hamish Johnston

If you can get beyond the overuse of “awesome” and its derivatives, this video asks some important questions about how physics is taught in US schools – and in many other countries around the world.

Presented as a “letter” to President Barack Obama, the video claims that no physics developed after 1865 is included in standard curricula taught in American high schools. I say curricula, because education is the domain of the individual US states and not the responsibility of the president – but that’s a moot point.

Why 1865? The video doesn’t say, but my guess is that’s the year that James Clerk Maxwell published the first version of his famous equations.

The narrator points out that in other disciplines it would be ridiculous not to cover modern breakthroughs. Imagine a biology curriculum without DNA or geology without plate tectonics, for example.

The video rubbishes the idea that topics such as quantum mechanics and relativity cannot be taught without university-level mathematics. This, I agree with. Indeed, high-school students are taught aspects of quantum mechanics when they learn about chemical bonding without the need for advanced mathematics.

It also argues that pupils are missing out on making important connections between modern technology and modern physics – something that makes studying physics exciting and relevant.

Of course, if more high-school time is devoted to modern physics, then less will be spent on the “fundamentals”. This could lead to complaints from university educators that students are not prepared. But maybe that’s a price worth paying for more balanced and much more interesting high-school physics classes.

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