physics first

An Argument For Physics First in AZ

Mike Vargas Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Mathematics, Science, Teacher Leadership, Uncategorized

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Why in the world do we teach science the way we do?  Lets radically change the way we teach STEM in our schools in this state! Like most other states, we teach in a sequence that goes something like this:

Freshman- Earth Science or Physical Science
Sophomores – Biology
Juniors- Chemistry
Seniors – Depends on what’s offered

If there is room left in the schedule, and if your child is lucky enough to be at a school that offers it, maybe you can take a physics class as a senior. Some days I feel like physics is akin to trying to hire the A-Team. This model of how we teach science in high school has very little to do with solid research and scientific evidence around how science should be learned, but rather it’s a model made to fit into a standardized test framework/order of events/check and go sequence- so that someone, somewhere can check off that kids mastered something science related. As my fellow blogger Beth put it – an industrial era assembly line model of instruction.

Here in Arizona it is actually part of the law that students must take biology by Sophomore year. And why is it that way you ask? Very simply put, all the test questions for the main standardized tests sophomore year are biology related. Can you imagine what would happen if we changed the test? It would be quantum amounts of money to do so and anything that has the potential to drop already low and fragile test scores in the sciences is taboo.

I know what you are thinking. Who cares right? But let’s look at how we teach these classes. Freshman year you are usually taking some form of basic science class. This would include science fundamentals and more times than not there is math in these classes. Basically you are working out your left brain’s cognitive abilities. Then Sophomore year you are asked to change that paradigm and now use your right side of the brain. I say this because a lot of biology is memorization and learning systems, whereas in mathematics, we are doing computations. Then your junior year you take chemistry and now your back into computational left brain thought, however now you are struggling to recall the knowledge lost after freshman year and now you need to calculate some moles and sig figs.

It’s all very left right left….

Instead do what the science and research says we should do. Teach physics first during freshman year. This class, when done right, is a second algebra class. The research doesn’t lie. If you look at the 8 main schools in Arizona that do “physics first” they are all highly touted and in the top ranking for the USA News and World Report. And why is this?

In essence, kids get double algebra freshman year. They gain the skills from their math teachers and get to apply those new skills in science class. More importantly, they get a second math class freshman year. Did I mention they do math in physics class? The graphical analysis alone gives kids a huge edge over kids who don’t take physics freshman year.

Rex Rice a physics teacher who is the godfather of freshman physics. He explains why a full year of freshman physics, rather than a chem/phys split is beneficial. Rex says, “In a chem/phys course, there is not much chance of doing much more than a survey. This course should be about teaching students to “do” science. I know of no better training for this than a freshman course in physics taught using a “lower math” modeling method.”

To add to the argument, Rex’s scores are far above par and many people have paid close attention to the outcomes of his experiences with this the last few years. Of the 8 schools in metro valley phoenix that do physics 1st, all are highly touted. In an ideal situation you would have your kids take physics first, then chemistry, and them biochemistry. The reason being that the sequence makes sense, the story of how these sciences are all interrelated shows itself much more elegantly, and the content is more readily understandable.

Here is a sample of how these sciences build upon one another:

Physics usually ends with electricity and understanding the idea of charge and electrons. In chemistry the first thing you learn about is the idea of how atoms are put together and this idea of energy flow and charge go together like Peas and Carrots. Then you continue and advance the ideas of energy flow into systems of the body and ecosystems and now you have a story that flows. It is not so compartmentalized or herky jerky and it lends itself to a deeper understanding of science as a whole.

However, what a dream be without challenges?  The problems of making this idea happen are daunting. Right now there are only about 160 physics teachers left in AZ and only about 500 chemistry teachers still in the field. In order to change something of this magnitude, it would take years of planning and politicking and policy making.

Can you imagine what achievement could look like if we taught our kids the way scientists say we should? Call me crazy, but as a Science Guy, I trust data. Good thing I’m still young!


My name is Mike Vargas. I am a proud recipient of the 2014 ASTA Arizona HS Science Teacher of the Year award and I am a 2016 AEF Arizona Teacher of the Year Ambassador for Excellence. I earned my undergraduate degree from Northern Arizona University where I was Vice – President of the Associated Students, a recipient of the Gold Axe, and President’s Prize awards. I am an advocate for physics first instruction and I am leading a movement to double the current number of physics teachers in Arizona in the next 5 years. I teach high school physics at Pinnacle High School in the Paradise Valley Unified School District.

  • Jane C Jackson

    In Missouri, the standardized science test is taken in the ELEVENTH grade, thus opening the door to Physics First. A huge grant trained teachers of other sciences to become 9th grade physics teachers, in 3 years. As a result, test scores IMPROVED in that standardized science test, in the 35 or so high schools that switched to Physics First. How can we convince the Arizona legislature to follow Missouri’s lead, and move the AIMS science test to the 11th grade? and rescind the legislation that says that all Arizona high school students must take biology by the 10th grade?

  • Angela Buzan

    This is a great topic to share and stir, Mike. When I taught in India, I was stunned when my students in classes VIII and IX showed me their “copy books” of Physics homework. I can’t speak to the logic of this from a Science curriculum perspective, but I can testify that my students were much more open to mathematical and scientific challenges than what I’ve seen in the States.

  • Sandy Merz

    One great thing about physics is that it’s so present and much of it is intuitive. I think cause and effect are much more apparent than in biology or chemistry. Teaching physics taps into the prior knowledge of anyone who plays a sport, rides a bike, carries anything, drops anything and so forth. Plus, it operates at so many scales and dimensions.

  • Angelia

    Thank you for continuing to share the evidence that supports this Mike. I hope that if we continue to tell the story, policy makers will understand the interrelatedness of students achievement and global success. When students understand how concepts transfer between subjects and into the real world, abstract learning becomes real. Students need it to be real in order for it stick. Keep up the hard work Mike, we are listening!

  • Danielle Brown


    Thanks for sharing the research behind teaching science! I can see how how teaching physics in freshman year would make it more understandable for students. Also what a meaningful way to make a connection for students.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge! I look forward to learning more about your expertise.