Physics First with Modeling Instruction –

Arizona State University's program for teachers


Why Physics First with Modeling Instruction: The traditional high school science sequence of biology, chemistry and physics - in that order - is a vestige of the nineteenth century when the sciences were regarded as independent disciplines. The great scientific triumph of the twentieth century was unraveling the atomic composition of all matter, whether biological or inorganic. As observed by the National Research Council, “Because all essential biological mechanisms ultimately depend on physical interactions between molecules, physics lies at the heart of the most profound insights into biology.”

            It follows that, 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 drastic change has been most forcefully advocated by Nobelist Leon Lederman, who has led the way in mapping out its implications for the whole curriculum. We agree completely with Lederman’s rationale, but making the reform work requires the physics course to be thoroughly remodeled to make it a suitable introduction for chemistry, and the chemistry course to be revised to take advantage of the prerequisite physics. We have made significant progress in doing that. Since 2001, many teachers in nascent and established Physics First programs in public and private schools, most out of state, have taken modeling workshops at Arizona State University.


Description of Program: Modeling Instruction is grounded on the thesis that scientific activity is centered on modeling: the construction, validation, and application of conceptual models to understand and organize the physical world. The program uses computers and modeling methods to develop the content and pedagogical knowledge of high school physics, chemistry, and physical science teachers and cultivate them as leaders in science teaching reform and technology infusion in their schools and districts. The program relies on professional development workshops to equip teachers with a teaching methodology. Teachers learn to develop student abilities to make sense of physical experience, understand scientific claims, articulate coherent opinions of their own, and evaluate evidence in support of justified belief. For example, students analyze systems using graphical models, mathematical models, and pictorial diagrams called system schema.

The program's goals are explicit and reflect current research on learning theory. The content embedded in the units is fundamental to all science. The program utilizes experimental design, control of variables, and calls for reasoning and application of skills in solving problems. There is strong use of student discourse, as evidenced by the need for students to present and justify conclusions derived in the laboratory. Multiple strategies for problem-solving are encouraged, reflecting sensitivity to individual student differences and abilities. The program contains a rich, integral system of assessment that is one of its strongest features, and the multiple modalities it employs provide teachers with ample entry points into the students' learning processes. Many aspects of the teaching methodology can be successfully transferred to all school subjects.

The program offers a wide range of teacher support, including information on laboratory, extension, application, and deployment activities. The program is impressive in its awareness of and attention to the national content, teaching, and assessment standards. The program is exceptional in its modeling and emphasis on the skills, attitudes, and values of scientific inquiry. It addresses important individual and societal needs by providing constructivist pedagogy for the fundamental sciences that are crucial to understanding the physical world.


Professional Development Services Available: High school and pre-service teachers can participate in a series of intensive workshops. Modeling Workshops at Arizona State University in Tempe serve 75 to 100 teachers each summer from the state, the nation, and other nations. Workshops are held also at universities and high schools that volunteer nationwide, overseen by the American Modeling Teachers Association (AMTA). Three-week workshops thoroughly treat the pedagogy and content of an entire semester of (1) mechanics, (2) waves and sound, (3) light, (4) microscopic electricity and magnetism, (5) macroscopic models of electricity for middle school and high school, (6, 7) chemistry - first and second semester, (8, 9) junior high integrated physical science and mathematics, and (10) thermodynamics. Nine contemporary physics and integrated science-math courses are held. The program can culminate in a Master of Natural Science degree with concentration in physics.


Program Components (Current Availability):

            Teacher and Student Materials: model-based instructional materials for more than a year's physics course (and adapted materials for 9th grade physics), a year of chemistry and a year of junior high physical science are freely downloadable by workshop participants. Participants are given a password to access the materials, teacher notes, and assessment instruments.

Publisher: none. Curriculum is freely available to all participants.

Listservs: Participants are invited to subscribe to any of three modeling listservs for continuous professional development in Modeling Instruction. As of 2016, 3400 teachers subscribe to physics, 1700 to chemistry, 550 to 9th grade physics, and 850 to physical science.


Recognitions: 2001: recognized as an Exemplary K-12 Science Program by the U.S. Department of Education and the Expert Panel on Mathematics and Science Education.

2000: recognized as a Promising K-12 Educational Technology Program by the U.S. Department of Education and the Expert Panel on Educational Technology.

2014: the Excellence in Physics Education Award of the American Physical Society.

2015: designated an Accomplished STEM Program by Change the Equation, a coalition of Fortune 500 companies.


Implementation Costs: The minimal cost for an individual teacher to participate includes tuition for a three-week summer workshop, $150 for instructional materials, and travel/room/meal expenses. (Expenses are lower at funded workshops.) For a group of school districts to hold a three-week modeling workshop for 24 teachers, minimal workshop costs include fees of $1500 per week x two teacher-leaders, $125 x 24 teachers for instructional materials, and a negotiated administrative fee. Implementation in the classroom is best accomplished with computers that have laboratory interface and a few MBL probes specific to the content. One computer for every three students is recommended; the computers can be old.


Contact: Program Director: Jane C. Jackson, Department of Physics, Box 871504

Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-1504, (480) 965-8438; Fax: (480) 965-7565,,


Teachers say: This is the way I always wanted to teach but had been unable to figure out on my own after several years in the classroom!” “I'm a better teacher after modeling, I like my job more, I feel the kids walk away with real transferable skills.”  “It moves students in the direction of being independent learners, and it puts the responsibility for learning where it belongs - on the students.” “I love modeling!”


Resources: The ASU legacy modeling web site includes these specific Physics First resources.

Š      The "Physics First" section and Ph.D. dissertations by Kathy Malone and Douglas Mountz at

Š      FCI data in ninth grade physics using modeling instruction:

Ninth grade algebra/physics course for disadvantaged students (2003)

Physics First at Clayton High School (Rex Rice; FCI scores) (2003)


Š      Interviews with teachers:

 Physics First at Clayton High School (biology teachers like it!) (2003)

 Physics First at Clayton High School (chemistry teachers like it!) (2003)



Read a chapter by Earl Legleiter on Physics First in Exemplary Science in Grades 9-12: Standards-Based Success Stories, edited by Robert E. Yager. NSTA Press Book; Exemplary Science Monograph Series, 1/1/2005. Product #PB192X3. ISBN: 978-0-87355-257-8. At


The American Modeling Teachers Association web site,, includes two complete mechanics curricula for Physics First (on the password-protected web site for AMTA members). An action research team is refining and expanding the curriculum.