Physics first!

08/21/2013
STEM Education
Greg Dick

Physics is often the last science taught in schools.

It really should be the first.

Obviously, I’m biased. I work at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, where I’m in charge of educational outreach. Basically, I spend all day, every day, in the service of the idea that physics is for everyone. But I’m also a former high school physics teacher, and I’ve spent a lot of time in all kinds of classrooms.

And in those classrooms, I’ve learned something. Kids, even little kids, love physics.

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They love it because it’s all around them. The bounce of balls on the playground, the light through the window, the way the top floor gets hotter than the basement — that’s all physics. In physics, kids can ask questions about their everyday life, and get good, meaningful, interesting answers.

At Perimeter, we run a “Kids’ Questions” column in our magazine and we routinely get questions from very young kids. Recently, a four year old named Nora asked us why she couldn’t mix her paint colors together to get white. What a great question! The answer touches on the nature of light — how you can break white light into a rainbow of colors, and how when you mix colored lights together, you can get white —something you can actually try with colored flashlights. It touches on what it means for objects to have color.

“Paint isn’t like a flashlight,” we told young Nora. “It doesn’t give off light. It’s like a mirror. It bounces light back to you. If something looks blue, it’s bouncing only the blue light black to you. All the other colors of light are being absorbed — sucked up by the paint and turned into heat. If something looks black, it’s actually sucking up all the light and turning it into heat. That’s why, for example, a black shirt gets hotter in the sunshine than a white one.”

So why can’t you mix your paint together and get white? “It’s because every color of paint takes away some of the light. Keep mixing all the colors together and you’ll take away all the light and you’ll get black.”

I think all grade school classrooms should be filled with physics questions like Nora’s. I think teachers should be free to follow through on these good questions with wacky, hands-on experiments involving black t-shirts and thermometers, or flashlights, colored cellophane, and rubber bands. What better way is there to inspire kids about science than to let them know that the questions they ask are good questions, and to show them that science gives them the tools to grapple with those questions?

You’ll notice a couple of things about how we answered Nora’s question. The first is that there’s no math in it. People often think that you need pretty sophisticated math to teach physics, but that’s simply not true. Second graders who are just mastering subtraction can’t cope with F=ma, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn that it’s harder to steer a heavy box-on-wheels than a light one.

The second thing to notice about Nora’s question is that there is no specialized vocabulary in it, or in the answer we provided. This, I think, is what makes physics perfect as a first science. It can be hard to explain, for example, how cells get energy without first teaching about the electron transport chain, while it’s quite possible to explain black holes to fourth graders.

I’m not saying that introducing good physics to grade school classrooms is easy. It needs fearless, fantastic teaching. It is best taught as play, as mucking around with flashlights and thermometers — but to get somewhere by mucking about in a classroom, you need a well-designed, thoughtful experiment, something that’s designed to lay ideas bare. Fortunately, there are many such experiments designed and ready to go.

In the end, though, it’s worth it. It’s easy enough to tell kids that there are no dumb questions — the problem is that they don’t believe you when you say it. They need you to prove it to them, and physics is one way to do that.

When I’d been at Perimeter for a month, I had an experience that will stay with me all my life. We were working on a resource for high schools on wave/particle duality. I asked one of the researchers what I thought was a simple question: “What is a particle, anyway?”

The next week, a handful of our faculty members — some of the best minds in the world — held a four-hour debate on what a particle is. I sat in on the whole thing, and I didn’t understand a lick of it. But I guess it wasn’t a stupid question.

That passion, I knew immediately, needed to be captured, and bottled, and put into every resource Perimeter makes. How beautiful it is to know that the mystery is alive and well. We routinely get questions from kids that we can’t answer. What is time? We don’t know. What is space? We don’t know. If you’re wondering about something, chances are that scientists are still wondering to.

And that’s wonderful.

Greg Dick is the Director of Educational Outreach at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. For more information visit www.perimeterinstitute.ca.
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