Chad and Rob have already noted this piece of news about soon-to-be-published research indicating that the order in which high school students are taught physics, chemistry, and biology makes very little difference to their performance in science classes at the college level, while a rigorous math curriculum in high school gives their college science performance a significant boost.
I have a few things to say about this.
Good math instruction is good for students.
As Chad points out, it helps you build problem solving skills and think systematically. To the extent that these skills are useful in understanding science, of course they’re going to help.
Indeed, it’s my feeling that math instruction could get more rigorous in middle school and grade school than it seems to now. Getting over the idea that algebra is a foreign language (really, you’re just doing the same kind of number handling you’ve been doing with 2s and 7s and 9s, except you don’t necessarily know the value of the number your handling) would probably result in fewer kids convinced that they just don’t get math. And, if you can tackle algebra earlier, you have better prospects for introducing calculus during high school — maybe a couple years of calculus.
Physics makes less sense when it’s taught without calculus.
(This is an amplification of Rob’s point that you might as well set up the science sequence so you start with the course that requires the least mathematical sophistication and end up with the course that requires the most.)
Who wants to memorize separate equations to figure out the displacement, velocity, and acceleration of a projectile? If you can take derivatives, you know how to get the formula for velocity from the formula for displacement, and the formula for acceleration from the formula for velocity. More importantly, if you understand what taking a derivative means, you can really grasp how displacement, velocity, and acceleration are related to each other.
Teaching physics without calculus, to my mind, makes it less intuitive. So, leaving physics for last in the sequence makes it more likely that the students have the math they need to do it right.
Engagement with science needn’t always build upward from the smallest pieces.
Part of the rationale for the “physics first” movement was that physics deals with the stuff that underlies chemical phenomena, and chemistry deals with the stuff that underlies biological phenomena — so, to get the best intuitive grasp, you should start with physics, then do chemistry, then do biology.
Which is a nice theory, but somehow inclined planes (frictionless or not) didn’t come up in my high school chemistry class.
The physics that underlies chemistry is some pretty hardcore physics — not necessarily the stuff you learn the best in a high school physics course — and the same can be said for some of the chemistry that really makes sense of biological phenomena (which we didn’t really get into ’til the two semesters of biochemistry I took my senior year of college).
Besides, it’s not clear that students really grok the smallest bits of matter from which they’d be building up their picture of the world by starting with physics. There’s something to be said for starting on a level of engagement that seems more natural to them — perhaps organisms — then working downwards to organs, to cells, to molecules, to atoms, to subatomic particles.
Even better might be what sometimes happens already, where you start with the picture of the world you get from the high school biology class, then revisit it in the light of what you’ve learned about chemical reactions or thermodynamics, gradually adding layers of complexity to the account. After all, the accounts were constructed gradually. Do they need to be learned all at once?