Compiled by Jane Jackson in 2009 and updated in Sept. 2010


Paul McElligott, science dept. chair at Fountain Hills High School in Fountain Hills, Arizona, calls 9th grade physics  “a no-brainer”. (Read his emails, below.)  He notes that

* when taught using Modeling Instruction, it enables students to pass the inquiry half of the 10th grade Arizona AIMS science test, 

* physics deals with the simplest systems. Physics is concrete, hands-on, and closely related to students' daily life.


A high school science teacher echoed Dr. McElligott’s statement in her post to the AAPT Physics First listserv. She wrote, "I don't think teaching a large freshmen class (say 30) Biology or Earth Science is any easier than teaching the same group basic Physics. In fact, I would think that Physics labs are much better suited to the average 9th grader than the typical (much more abstract and less hands-on) labs I've seen in Biology or Earth Science."


In metropolitan Phoenix, 9th grade physics is taught in public schools of low socioeconomic students (SES) (Dysart HS, Casa Grande HS, Bioscience HS in downtown Phoenix), middle class (Fountain Hills HS, Paradise Valley HS), and high SES (Desert Mountain HS, Pinnacle HS, and Horizon HS). All schools that have a few years' experience report success, although detailed planning and sustained administrative support are crucial.


In all schools listed above, at least one teacher of 9th grade physics has taken a Modeling Workshop.


Arizona state law requires that all Arizona public high school students have the opportunity to take biology by 10th grade. The AIMS science test is taken by all high school students as an end of course test in biology.


Below are emails about 9th grade physics in public schools in metropolitan Phoenix.



Modeling Instruction in 9th grade physics has been taught since 1994 at Dysart High School, a high-poverty school in El Mirage, a migrant farm worker community northwest of Phoenix.


>>Subject: Freshman Physics

>>Date: Fri, 31 Mar 2006

>>From: "Poland, Susan"


>>Dysart High School, El Mirage, AZ, has offered Freshman Physics using

>>the modeling method since 1994.


>>Dysart's population is 85% Hispanic, with 95% of the students on Free

>>or Reduced Lunches.


>>A majority of the parents 65% have not graduated from high school, and

>>only 4% have college degrees.


>>Freshman who are reading at grade level and are taking algebra or

>>geometry are eligible for this class.


>>During the 05-06 school year, there were 1600 students at our high

>>school and 50 freshman were in physics.


>>This is a modeling physics class - following the identical curriculum

>>that the upper level students follow - (deviating only if we need to

>>teach them math skills for the section) and only freshmen are in this



>>We have had great success with this class.

>>The students who take this class and receive a C or higher pass the

>>AIMS (state mandated test) math test the first time they take it.



Date: Fri, 14 Nov 2008

From: "Poland, Susan"

Physics first is the way Dysart high School has gone since 1994. But

only the freshman who would be in a freshman honors course are in the

freshman physics class  (they are also in honors alg) -- it is modeling

physics exactly the same as the juniors and seniors take.  The honors

freshmen take physics then biology  followed by Chem  -- they skip

traditional freshman science completely.  We used to have them take physics

then chemistry, then biology - but with the new AIMS  biology test, we have

changed it.  The students who take physics first have a better

understanding of the scientific method and how to reason thru problems,

so they do very well on the AIMS  science exam - but the extra benefit is

that they also pass the AIMS math test the first time they take it

because many of the questions require the math skills that they learned

in physics.

I have many many students that have only taken physics their freshman

year and gone on to college to major in engineering -- 3 having gone to

MIT, one to Berkeley  -- all cited the reasoning skills they learned in

modeling physics as the biggest help in college.



[Fritz Fisher posted the following e-mail on Nov. 6, 2008 to the modeling instruction listserv, a nationwide listserv of  high school physics teachers. Fritz taught physics to 130 9th graders in four sections in Casa Grande High School, a low-socioeconomic public high school in an agricultural region of Arizona, about 40 miles southeast of Phoenix.]


I want to share my eight year experience with Physics First which we at Casa

Grande call Pre-AP Physics. Our Physics First program was started by my

former principal Dr. Randy Wortman who had fifteen years of Physics teaching

experience in the PSSC tradition. He guessed that success in Algebra was the

best filter for choosing Physics first students and this has certainly been

proved beyond any doubt in my experience.


Almost all of my current students have taken Algebra in 8th grade and they

are, for the first time this year, taking Geometry concurrently with their

Pre-AP Physics course. (Using the name Pre-AP Physics saves you grief

because you don't get complaints from well-meaning parents who confuse

Physics with Mathematics. You just say you are preparing your students for

AP Physics. If the administrators had used this course name in San Diego, I

think it would have defused most of the opposition from the parents.) My

students used to complain about their algebra classes being all review; with

Geometry now they complain about how hard it is to understand proofs ----

definitely a great improvement.


I teach four freshmen classes with class size between 30 and 36 students.

These are the best students in our school. We tried teaching Physics to all

our students, but it didn't work very well, mostly due to the lack of

trained teachers and due to the concrete thinking and short attention spans

of freshmen. We currently teach the rest of our freshmen students, those not

taking Physics, using the ASU Physical Science modeling materials designed

for 8th and 9th grade students.


Let me talk briefly about my curriculum. I spend one full semester teaching

Mel Steinberg's CASTLE electricity curriculum which I learned about from

Jane Jackson, Rich McNamara, and Rex Rice. I follow a slightly modified

version of the ASU CASTLE Modeling Materials. Some parts of the CASTLE

materials are very popular with the students: They are very impressed by the

use of dueling syringes to show that water is incompressible and they

clearly understand that if charge is modeled like water, then it cannot push

back during capacitor charging. Compressed air gives a better model. (Bruce

Sherwood and others object to saying that charge can be compressed, but I

think you need only mention this "problem" to your brightest students ---

the type that remember everything you say; the type who will listen

attentively to a five minute tour of future extensions of the curriculum.)


The use of colors to represent electric pressure (electric potential) and

electric pressure differences is very effective and the students get excited

about coloring circuits. The level of excitement is only equaled by the

their cries of joy when they finally figure out how to light a bulb with one

D-cell and one wire. They enjoy feeling superior to the Harvard students in

the Private Universe video.


This year for the first time I gave all my students the Matter Concept

Inventory which you can find on the ASU modeling website. Their scores and

their answers are still a continuing shock ---- a 39% average;  many of

them think that a tank with air in it weighs less than a tank with no air!

I'm still trying to parse that. It certainly will have implications for how

I teach the charge is air model next year.


In the second semester, I use the modeling materials with some of Rex

Rice's modifications for force and motion and evaluate my progress using the

TUG-K, suggested to me by Dr. Dave Hestenes, and the Force Concept Inventory

which you all know about. Although I have had three freshman students get a

perfect score on the TUG-K, in general, my students have a difficult time

with this test. I try to model their difficulties, but I am not quite there yet.


In my first two years, I had two classes of very strong freshmen students

who did as well and sometimes outperformed my three classes of juniors and

seniors. In my second year, my TUG-K freshmen scores averaged 62%; that was

above the 58% level attained by College Engineering Physics Students

(Calculus-based course) after they had taken their kinematics. However, in

my third year I had four classes of freshmen and scores went down and the

next year they went down again. My demographics have shifted and my students

now are more like seventh graders in their knowledge of science and

mathematics so I have adapted and become more concrete. I have them make

five-step staircases out of stiff paper and color the steps. This gives what

Edward Hutchins calls a material anchor. I give them practice with finding

the two-step and the three-step differences. They like making these concept



After the force and motion, I teach a mix of introduction to the atomic

hypothesis and energy technology. I use Victor F. Weisskopf's model of the

atom's electrons as standing waves -- See the book "Knowledge and Wonder".

My students who have trouble reading somehow seem to like to read Weisskopf!

They seem to be able to follow his arguments about how the atom is not at

all like a planetary system.


In parallel, I have them do posters and reports on energy

technology themes. I use the DVD Saved by the Sun to give them ideas. This

year I may also use some curriculum developed by Sun Edison and I am also

going to include high rise farms since Casa Grande is a farming community.

Last year I had a good project on the northern velocity of the jet stream

due presumably to global warming and another on Clean Coal technology.


What do they learn? I would like to be able to say how my students do on the

AIMS--Science Test, but I only know that the ones in my AP-Physics B class

exceeded the standard. Perhaps I will be able to give more details next year.


If you have read this far, thanks for your time and attention --- feedback

is always welcome.



Fountain Hills High School is public, in a town northeast of Phoenix that is mostly middle class and upper middle class. ALL freshmen take physics. Two of the three physics teachers at the time had taken Modeling Workshops at ASU.


>From: Paul McElligott

>Date: Tue, 4 Nov 2008


>Fountain Hills has been Physics First for almost 5 years now.  We placed top three in the state in AIMS science results with Pinnacle Peak and Scottsdale.  We saw that all our honors students excelled.  Seventy percent of our regular physics first excelled or passed.  What shocked us is close to 50% of our applied physics students using some basic physics first principles passed. That is a testament to our teachers in science but also the concept of physics followed by Biology in Sophomore year. 


>We cannot be a stronger representative or proponent for the Physics First model.  Not only do we practice the whiteboarding and peer review models that are also in SEI.  My assistant superintendent did my review this year and I demonstrated to him how students are challenging other students to put away bad science ideas and excel by cooperative groups.  In addition we are starting to practice student-centered learning.  I end up sitting back for a solid month or two and students do the work.  It is amazing to watch.  Physics is on Steroids here and I cannot tell you how much I have grown as a teacher through this program.  DEMAND your teachers get involved.


Date: Thu, 17 Dec 2009

From: Paul McElligott

To: PhysicsFirst <>

Arizona users of the modeling for Physics first find it essential to get students enough math reinforcement and application theory for our state test AIMS. I have data showing that new students who skip the Physics first cannot pass the AIMS test, which is very inquiry influenced.




Desert Mountain High School in north Scottsdale, Arizona is upper middle class.  Ryan Hill is a cross-over (out-of-field) physics teacher, one of two who taught 9th grade physics. Ryan took a summer modeling workshop in physics at ASU.


Freshmen at Desert Mountain HS choose either physics or earth science.  All sophomores take biology. A new development in 2009-2010: Tom Vining, who started the 9th grade physics program at Desert Mountain HS, succeeded in coordinating his two sections of honors freshman physics with math. All students have one of two math teachers; thus he can easily coordinate physics and math with these two math teachers. He was delighted! However, in 2010-2011 he was not able to accomplish the coordination, unfortunately.


>Date: Mon, 17 Nov 2008

>From: Ryan Hill

>Currently, not all freshmen at Desert Mountain High School take

>Physics First. We have it listed as a course with a prerequisite of at

>least concurrent enrollment in Algebra I. Students that are in

>Geometry/Trigonometry Honors are eligible for the honors section of

>Physics First. Theoretically, every freshman in Algebra I or above would

>be in Physics First, but some don't sign up either because they didn't

>know about it or due to fear of physics.


>I don't have the AIMS data to give you specifically. I have heard that

>the class of 2010 students (the first class year where Physics First was

>fully implemented) at our school did well above the district average for

>students that met or exceeded the standard, and we are the only school

>in the district that offers Physics First, but there could be other

>variables involved. They have not given us the data specifically of

>Physics First vs. non-Physics First students.


>Anecdotally, I can say that freshmen are capable of learning physics,

>and the comment I most frequently hear is the class is "hard, but fun."

>One of our former chemistry teachers told us that he noticed a big

>difference in the students in his class between the ones who took

>Physics First and those that didn't.



Juli Thomas, Science IDL, Pinnacle High School, Phoenix AZ, wrote this:

Date: Tue, 4 Nov 2008

    Pinnacle High School, located near Deer Valley and Tatum, started with the

Physics First program when we opened 8 years ago.  We teach Conceptual

Physics to our freshmen, followed by Biology due to the AIMS test given

sophomore year, which culminates in chemistry during junior year.  We also

offer AP courses in Physics, Chemistry and Biology as well as two other

elective science courses (Anatomy and Physiology and Environmental

Science) that can be taken during the junior and senior years.   This

curriculum sequence has helped us to build the strongest AP program in

PVUSD among 5 high schools.

     Our student population is primarily from a high SES background, and

unfortunately not very diverse.  However, all students respond well to

Physics First and we believe that our students performed well on the

science portion of the AIMS test, partly due to our Physics First program.

 Many of our Physics teachers attended ASU's physics modeling class, which

encourages high order thinking skills and graphical analysis.   We support

our special ed kids by placing special ed teachers in many of the Physics

classrooms to help them achieve.  We have been very happy with the rigor

of our program and how it leads students to continue their Physics

education by taking an AP Physics class later on in their high school career.