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11 March 2014

Here's how we are adjusting our physics curriculum for AP Physics 1 and 2

Probably the most frequently asked question of physics teachers over the next six months will be, "How are you adjusting your curriculum to handle the new AP Physics 1 and 2 courses?"  After extensive thought and conversation, we at Woodberry finally have an answer.  I'll share our solution with you now.

But first, the critical caveat -- our solution is not "right," "best," "ideal," or even "guaranteed to be good."  I've talked to my own department, I've talked to other physics teachers around the country, I've read what the College Board has to say.  Most importantly, I and my colleagues have considered how the new AP courses fit within our school's existing structure, philosophy, and goals.  Your school can't escape the same process.  I'm letting you know our solution not because you should adapt it whole-hog, but because you can use our thoughts as one more informed idea for your own brainstorming.

To us, the purpose of the first-year course is twofold: foremost, to teach students how to learn physics at the college level, establishing habits and skills that will serve them well in any future science course.  Secondarily, we want to expose students to a survey of topics, so that those who never see physics again have a broad background in the subject, but those who move on to further study have seen as much as possible.  (After all, a physics topic isn't mastered until the third time a student sees that topic -- we want to get that first exposure in to as many things as we think reasonable.)

We very much like the new AP exams, and we want to teach to them.  We, like many folks, are faced with the issue that it is not reasonable to teach both AP Physics 1 and 2 in the same year; however, we want our first-year college-level course to be broader than just the mechanics, circuits, and waves included in AP Physics 1.  The College Board has thoughtfully designed AP Physics 1 to be limited enough in scope that there's plenty of time to integrate other topics beyond those on the exam.*

*The reason for this limited scope is that some schools are required to meet state standards that don't match those tested by the AP exam.

We will continue to teach an "Honors Physics 1" course, which will evolve to cover everything on the AP Physics 1 exam, and a bit more.  Students will be required to take the AP Physics 1 exam in May.  Our approach to Honors Physics will be to spend about two-thirds of the year teaching a variety of topics in AP Physics B style... then restarting from the beginning, demanding the deep descriptive responses that we'll see on the AP Physics 1 exams.  We'll do AP Physics 1-level laboratory work throughout, along with quantitative demonstrations and other ways of integrating experiment with problem solving.  

I'm going to rework the topic sequence from what I used to do in AP B and the previous iteration of Honors Physics.  The re-ordering groups the Three Major Mechanics Approaches of Newton's laws, energy, and momentum together; while that's nice and neat, the real reason for the sequencing listed below is that I teach seniors.  I want them to be responsible for topics beyond the AP exam early in the year, before college acceptances and senior slide.  Then the second part of the course can downplay or ignore extracurricular topics in preparation for the AP Physics 1 exam.

My topic sequence, where an asterisk indicates material not on the AP Physics 1 exam:

Newton's Laws
*Buoyant foraces
*Electric fields and forces (just F=qE to start with)
*Magnetic Fields and forces (just F=qvB)
Uniform circular motion
Coulomb's Law
Harmonic motion

Work-energy theorem (i.e. conservation of energy)
*Ideal gas law
*Thermodynamic processes and PV diagrams

[Linear] Momentum
Impulse-momentum theorem
Collisions and conservation of linear momentum

Rotational dynamics
Rotational kinematics
Rotational inertia
Newton's second law for rotation
Rotational kinetic energy
Angular momentum and its conservation

My gut feeling is that I can get through the material listed above before the end of the second trimester, i.e. approximately March 1.  When I say the first approach is at the AP Physics B level, I don't mean the 1980s version (i.e. "shut up and calculate").  Certainly students will be asked from day one to present thoroughly annotated solutions to problems, to justify answers in words, to explain correct approaches.  But I'll save the full-fledged AP Physics 1 treatment, with quantitative-qualitative translations and paragraph responses and problems designed to take 25 minutes to answer -- for after spring break.   That's when we'll go back to the beginning of the course, simultaneously reviewing previous topics and extending my students' ability to describe, explain, argue about, and write about physics.  

The hope is that the few underclassmen in AP Physics 1, along with those who had a rigorous college-level physics course previously, can advance to AP Physics 2.  That will be a second-year course, aimed toward students who already know how to learn physics, and who thus don't need nearly the amount of guidance* that first-year college physics students do.  Since students will be familiar already with how deeply they will be asked to communicate their understanding of each topic, we can be less structured.

* i.e. whip cracking

In the summer of 2015 I'll post again to describe how our approach worked (or didn't work).  Let's hope it's the former.

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