AP Physics B Splits

AP Physics I and AP Physics II will replace the current AP Physics B Course next year

Advanced Placement Physics B, the algebra-based physics course, has been under review by its administering agency, the College Board, for a number of years. At the end of this school year, the yearlong course will be no more.

In its place, starting the 2014-2015 school year, the College Board will offer two year-long courses that are aimed at fixing some of the problems identified in a review conducted by the National Research Council: AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2. Hockaday will teach Physics 1 as a semester course and Physics 2 as a full year course.

During its review of the course, the College Board asked for feedback from high school and university physics departments, Science Department Chair Marshall Bartlett said. Many, he said, “reported back that they didn’t feel like students were coming out of the AP Physics B program with a solid understanding of the concepts of physics they felt they needed.”

As a result, some colleges and universities were not offering college credit for the course. Or, they gave credit for the hours, but not for completion of a physics course.

According to the College Board’s website, the council “concluded that the AP Physics B course is a very broad course that ‘encourages cursory treatment of important topics in physics rather than cultivating a deeper understanding of key foundational principles.’”

In the future, AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2 will offer “the time needed to explore and deepen understanding,”  the College Board’s website said. In addition, students will “have more time for hands-on exploration of physics content and inquiry labs.”

“They have enhanced what they want you to be doing in terms of lab work,” Bartlett said. “They want you to have this sort of experiential learning of physics, that it’s not just reading a textbook, that you’re actually putting balls down ramps and zapping each other with electrodes.”

Upper School physics teacher Richard Taylor, a physics consultant for the College Board, thinks the change is a good thing.

“They put a lot of thought into it,” he said. “They’ve been working on it for five years or more. The idea of switching over so that the course is in line with the way people learn is a pretty powerful thing.”

According to Taylor, research has shown students learn better through inquiry labs.

“The indication is that if you read stuff, it extinguishes pretty quickly. There is this exponential curve downward,” Taylor said. “If you do inquiry stuff, it slows the extinguishing a bit, and it becomes more a part of you, more intuitive, so it’s better, but it does take longer.”

The College Board has stated that in the extra time the two courses will offer, lab work should be a key component of curricula.

This begs the question of how Hockaday can shorten Physics 1 to just a semester. However, all Hockaday students are required to take beginning level physics.

“We felt that asking Hockaday students to take two years of physics for one year of college credit was going to be a hard sell,” Bartlett said. “So what we thought we’d try was to take their yearlong Physics 1 course and offer it as a semester course targeted mainly at sophomore students who have just finished a year of physics their freshman year.”

The Physics 1 course, Bartlett said, is an enhanced review of the material covered in the freshman year class and includes more difficult math concepts.

The Physics 2 course, in contrast, covers material not included in Hockaday’s beginning level physics course, so Hockaday will offer the yearlong course as recommended by the College Board. Lori Jia, a sophomore currently enrolled in the AP Physics B course, believes the new system could be a good change. “That way, you can have semester courses, and it is more flexible in your schedule should you want to take another semester class,” she said.

The College Board also offers the AP Physics C course, which is calculus-based. AP Physics B and AP Physics C were always thought of as alternatives, Bartlett said.

High school students who have taken or are taking calculus may choose Physics C; those with only an algebra background used to choose Physics B. However, the new Physics 2 course will cover many topics not addressed in Physics C, Taylor said, so a student could take both. “There’s more of an advantage doing Physics 2 and Physics C than Physics B and Physics C,” he said.

Traditionally, at the university level, Bartlett said, “the calculus-based physics courses are the ones required of most science majors, at least chemistry, physics and usually earth sciences. Algebra-based physics is taken primarily by life science majors and those who need physics to move onto professional programs like medicine.”

“We’re really hopeful that the course will go well,” Bartlett said. “We hope that the physics courses that they [students] take here inspire them to go on and take some additional physics somewhere else.”

– Emily Wechsler