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25 July 2011

AP Physics 1 and 2 Redesign (as it stands now) and Honors Physics I

So, you may have heard that the College Board has been working on a revolutionary change to the algebra-based AP Physics course.  In its current form, AP Physics B requires an enormous breadth of material.   As it stands, teaching AP Physics B well is as much about organization, scheduling, and pace as it is about presenting the overly-numerous physics topics themselves. 

The College Board's plan, as they have discussed at their annual conference and with readers, is essentially to split AP Physics B into two courses, AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2.  In principle, each of these separate courses would mimic a semester's worth of college physics, in the style of AP Physics C and its two independent exams.  The overall combined AP Physics 1 and 2 curriculum would allow even more broad coverage of physics; but since the material is intended to be spread over two years, a single course will cover *less* breadth and thus be manageble for a wider student population.

Although the curriculum is still in considerable flux, a few general principles have been released. 

Topics / "Big Ideas": The specific topics to be taught in each year, and the depth to which those topics should be taught, are currently unclear.  Partially this is because the redesign committee has chosen to prioritize "big ideas" of physics that cross topic areas.  For example, Newton's three laws and the relationship between forces, fields, and motion can be applied to more than just blocks on inclines; so, this "big idea" will be revisited in covering static fluids, electrostatic forces, magnetic forces, and so on.  Similarly, conservation laws can be applied across topics, at the introductory level including even (or especially) nuclear physics.  Topics will be chosen to fit the "big ideas" model of learning introductory physics.

Writing:  If you look back at Physics B exams from the 1970s and 80s, you'll see a lot of problems testing algebraic manipulative ability as much as conceptual understanding.  That focus changed substantially in the mid 1990s.  Laboratory-based questions, along with the proliferation of "justify your answer" items became regular features of the free response exam.  Everything I've heard about the new Physics 1 and 2 courses indicates that this emphasis on justifications and explanations will not merely continue, but will dominate the exams.  That doesn't mean that derivations and calculations will disappear, since those are part of physics, too.  However, you can expect that those who consider physics merely as the process of plugging numbers into an equation will be at an even more significant disadvantage than they already are.  Students will need to develop the skill of communicating understanding verbally, and concisely.

The redesign into two separate algebra-based courses provokes ideological struggle amongst physics teachers that sometimes approach Burr-Hamilton levels.  I will not get into the pro and con arguments here, at least not yet.  It's too early to panic or rejoice.  Physics 1 and Physics 2 will not begin for at least three years, and likely more.  The College Board is still in the process of getting buy-in from colleges, designing and norming the curriculum and the exam; then they understand that they need to provide significant lead time so schools can figure out how these new courses fit into widely varying science programs.

My message to teachers is not to worry about the redesign yet.  AP Physics B, in its current incarnation, will continue for a while. 

One great advantage of the upcoming Physics 1 course is the potential to truly serve a broad portion of your college bound population with a first-year AP course.  Those who teach "honors physics" or "college prep physics" will likely find that AP Physics 1 meets their needs beautifully. 

I and my department, we didn't want to wait.  We are teaching "Honors Physics 1" next year.  (Not "AP Physics 1," because that AP course doesn't exist yet, and we can't use the College Board's trademark on an unofficial course.)  In my next post I'll describe my school's course, which is intended to be my own version of what I hope AP Physics 1 might become.  I'll even provide some course materials if you're interested... read on.

1 comment:

  1. Just a random question what is the difference between honors physics and regular physics?