Infamous for its quick pace and hours of work outside of class, many veterans of the honors freshman physics class say it’s doing more good than harm in the long term.
Although there have been four physics teachers over the last five years, most students will describe their teaching styles similarly. Honors physics is taught with a hands-off style where the students become the teachers, experimenting and discovering the science behind simple experiments with the teachers assisting students whenever necessary.
This teaching style comes with mixed reviews from students. Sophomore JiaLi Deck said, “It was incredibly difficult because he [David Schuster] wouldn’t tell you anything, but the chaos […] gave you an independence that I sort of enjoyed.”
This method of educating students does have its flaws. “[My teacher] assigned a lot but he didn’t check it. So I did it if I needed it,” said senior Miguel Buitrago.
I know other people that drowned in homework because they did all of it.”
— Miguel Buitrago
In recent years, due to the pandemic changing teaching and schedules and a recent turnover of teachers, students have increasing hope. Current Honors Physics student and CHS freshman Ivy Slen said, “The homework load is pretty reasonable. Usually, it’s a worksheet or a packet or reading.”
A constant in the course has been the teachers’ ability to accurately gauge student understanding and quantify it into an otherwise arbitrary percentage. Students attribute this to the grades being curved. Nevertheless, it is nearly impossible to consistently achieve this standard. “There are some things that are just really tedious and hard to remember, and it’s hard to reflect that in a grade,” said Slen.
At the end of freshman year, most veterans of the course don’t regret their decision. Although there are some rough patches and tears in their journey, the challenges and lessons outside of the mandatory physics material make their eighth-grade decision worthwhile.
CHS also offers AP Physics I and AP Physics I and II. After taking honors freshman physics, many students are still open to taking another physics course later in their high school career. “I haven’t decided if I’m gonna take AP Physics or not. I would consider it,” said Deck.
For middle school students and parents wondering if the course is right for them, the decision should be made on a case-by-case basis. “It’s a hard class. If you want that extra honors, and you think you can do well in it, do it. But, if you’re just not really looking for that, and you just want to have an easier year […] definitely don’t take it.” said Buitrago
The progression of science classes that Clayton implements is called the Physics First model; where freshmen take physics first, instead of biology. CHS is the minority when it comes to teaching this model. According to the American Physical Society, an organization dedicated to spreading knowledge of physics through academics, “8% of private schools had implemented Physics First in some form in 2005, as compared to only 3% of public schools.”
Although not very common across US high schools, the Physics First model is a more innovative and futuristic way of teaching the fundamentals of science. The American Institute of Physics says, “to prepare students for the emerging age of nanoscience and molecular biology, the traditional course sequence must be reversed to physics first, followed by chemistry and then biology.”
This new and drastic way of teaching science in terms of the curriculum was forcefully advocated by Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman. “Physics provides the underlying basis for chemical structure and atomic reactions,” said Lederman in a 1995 Physics Today column, “and chemistry supplies the knowledge of molecular structure that is the basis of much of modern biology.”
For Clayton students learning in the Physics First model, the course does not lose any of the material that would be covered in an upperclassman course at another district. The only clear difference is the additional time spent practicing math skills that freshmen have not had the opportunity to practice before.
This year is Mr. Joe Milliano’s first year teaching freshmen in physics. “Helping [freshmen] make that transition into being competent, strong scientists, as freshmen has been a lot of fun so far,” said Milliano.
Before teaching at Clayton, Milliano taught junior-level physics, AP Physics I and AP Physics II. Now, he teaches Honors Freshman Physics and AP Physics I. Milliano describes his classroom as student-directed. “I use the same teaching style that all the physics teachers in the high school use. It is called a modeling physics approach. The students are the scientists. They’re figuring out what’s going on, based on taking data, making graphs with their data, and discussing what those graphs mean with each other,” said Milliano.
This style did take a pause during the pandemic. Online learning forced Milliano to switch to giving the students more of the information, although simulations of experiments helped bring back the real, in-class feel.
Lessons from the height of virtual learning have slightly altered the flow of this year’s classes. “Some of the practice that we did virtually allowed me to get quick, immediate feedback on how everyone is doing because they’re submitting it digitally,” said Milliano.
Honors Freshman Physics prepares students for success in their high school careers. One crucial lesson of the course is time management and self-directed learning. “In the real world, no one really tells you what to do, and you just kind of have to do it yourself,” said Deck.
But, if you don’t learn these time management skills, the course becomes difficult and stressful. “It might have given some people the wrong image of how you should study for some classes […] Some people tried to cram everything and study the night before,” said Buitrago.
Looking to the future of Honors Freshman Physics, past students and teachers hope the course will continue to make freshmen independent learners without as much stress as in previous years.
“I think for the future, just keeping in mind that the goal is to live. We’re not trying to be robots […] We are people before we are students,” said Buitrago.
“It was difficult, but there was value in it. It definitely made me a better student and a better learner,” said Deck.
It was difficult, but there was value in it. It definitely made me a better student and a better learner. ”
— JiaLi Deck
Teachers reflect the same ideas. “My hope for the class over the next couple of years is looking at how do we make this course continue to do what it’s done for students that have been good while making sure that we’re not putting undue stress on them,” said Milliano.
Clayton’s Honors Freshman Physics prepares students for the velocity of high school and life. So, to those who would like to accept the challenge, understand that the work may be difficult but expect the reward to be much greater.