northern lights
Homeschooling at midnight

All through elementary and middle school, I insisted my two children (19 months apart) study the same topics in science and history, because they gained so much from the interaction, plus it saved a lot of time. It was one of the main reasons I never considered a boxed curriculum – I hated the idea that one would be studying physics and the other biology, just because they were in “second” and “third” grades.

So now I have a rising 10th grader and a rising 9th grader, and I’m one year in to the culture shock of teaching high school science. I’m happy with the way our elementary and middle school science went, but high school science is a big jump for me. I’m not a scientist. Most of the people writing about science in high school are scientists, or their spouse is a scientist, or whatever. I’ve read their curricula online, but I find they don’t help me – those parents know too much. I studied physics at AP level, and did a few gen ed science courses in college, but that was all a very long time ago.

My original plan was to have my elder daughter study physics, chemistry, biology (probably AP level because it’s her favorite subject), and earth science and astronomy, while my younger daughter meshed in with chemistry, biology, earth science/astronomy, physics. That seemed very sensible. Then, I thought, it’s asking a lot for my elder daughter to be ready for AP biology without an introduction to biology class. That’s crazy. So after physics, what if she does chemistry and biology in one year? She liked that idea. We’ll cut back a bit on history.

So my younger daughter now had a choice, chemistry or biology, and she could still mesh up with the elder sister. But hang on a minute, I had been thoroughly convinced by the arguments to teach Physics First, so shouldn’t the younger daughter have that chance, too? But that would mean having classes in physics, chemistry, and biology all in one year. Is that even possible? Forget it.

But then I started considering all the things I would do differently in organizing a curriculum, now that I’ve had the experience of teaching a Physics First class. Shouldn’t I take that knowledge and use it?

What is Physics First? What should the curriculum be like?

My elder daughter had two main complaints about her physics class: she had trouble remember the formulas, and she didn’t think she was learning very much physics. She cares about “how she’s doing” in relationship to the rest of the world, and her Physics First wasn’t enough to prepare her for the SAT subject test, so she didn’t feel it was “Real Physics.”

My main objection was that she didn’t learn enough of the good stuff of physics.

With less than 10% of the schools out there following a Physics First curriculum, there isn’t a lot of standardization, or way of knowing what students should be learning. I couldn’t find a test packet from Teachers Pay Teachers or other source which we could use as a standard. One of the attractive things about buying a homeschool pre-made curriculum is someone else has already figured out what students should be learning and made up tests to evaluate it. But I haven’t found an academic curriculum that teaches Physics First – most of the ones on the market are for an advanced 11th or 12th grade students.

There are two approaches: conceptual or math-based. The conceptual physics concerns itself with the big ideas, without a lot of formulas. The math-based physics in 9th grade has a strong mathematics and formula basis, but limits itself to the kinds of problems that can be done with algebra only, skipping the elements that require trigonometry. My big problem this year was I never decided which one I was teaching. I assigned the textbook Conceptual Physics by Paul Hewitt, but then I expected my daughter to be able to do the math, and suggested she might be ready for the SAT Subject test. She looked at the review book, and her immediate reaction was, “I don’t know anything!”

Conceptual Physics will not prepare your student for the SAT Subject test.

The SAT Subject test is 75 questions in 1 hour, no calculator, and there is no formula sheet provided. It tests total recall and application of physics formulas and speed of processing. It also contains some problems requiring trigonometry.

Another testing option is to look at the IGCSE exams. In this system (used in the UK and many other countries), students take exams at age 16 or so, including the possibility of physics, chemistry, and biology. The exams are at a slightly lower level than the SAT subject tests, but are considerably more involved, with two days of exams (three hours total), longer short answer questions and more real-life application.

I liked the materials I used for Physics First, but I am going to rearrange the course order and the focus for my second time around.

  • More good stuff – astronomy, nuclear fission and fusion, and so on
  • More math on fewer topics, so there can be actual math-based testing
  • Better labs

Some ideas from the AP Physics 1 & 2 courses:

Although I definitely don’t want a Physics First course to try to be an AP course, I did some research on the AP Physics 1 and 2 page:

AP students are given a formula sheet. This is important information – the main thing I dislike about the SAT Subject test is it puts so much emphasis on memorizing formulas, which bears no resemblance to real life. If a calculation matters, you should look up the formula and make sure you have it right. No shame there.

Here are the Big Ideas from the AP test:

1. Objects and systems have properties such as mass and charge. Systems may have internal structure.

2. Fields existing in space can be used to explain interactions

3. The interactions of an object with other objects can be described by forces.

4. Interactions between systems can result in changes in those systems

5. Changes that occur as a result of interactions are constrained by conservation laws.

6. Waves can transfer energy and momentum from one location to another without the permanent transfer of mass and serve as a mathematical model for the description of other phenomena.

7. The mathematics of probability can be used to describe the behavior of complex systems and to interpret the behavior of quantum mechanical systems.

AP courses also require that 25% of the instructional time devoted to labs/hands on work. We didn’t hit anything like that amount in the elder daughter’s physics course, although I would certainly count some of Richard Wolfson’s Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works (Great Courses) lectures as that, because much of his time is demonstrations of ideas which often can’t be easily replicated at home. If you’re looking at a typical one year course, 5 days a week, 36 weeks a year, that’s 180 hours of “instructional time” (not including “homework” … of course for a homeschooler, the difference between instructional time and homework is completely arbitrary, so I’m just using these numbers as an example.) That would be roughly 15-25 labs, depending on how involved each one is.

Currently Under Consideration


Conceptual Physics by Paul Hewitt

Physics Matters from Singapore Math (textbook, workbook and answer keys) – this is not a good teaching text — it’s more a summary of rules, but my elder daughter really likes it.  She is coming to it after reading Hewitt, which gives her the big picture, but she appreciates being able to translate it into specific problems.

Trade books

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Death by Black Hole

Richard Feynman, Six Easy Pieces

Christophe Galfard, The Universe in Your Hand: A Journey Through Space, Time, and Beyond


Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Richard Wolfson Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works (Great Courses courses, 60 lectures)

[A few lectures from Alex Filippenko, Understanding the Universe: An Introduction to Astronomy (The Great Courses); we already own this, but there are many other options.]


Nuffield Experiments (free resource)

Order of Topics:

Again, from the AP Course description:

AP Physics 1:

  • Kinematics
  • Dynamics: Newton’s laws
  • Circular motion and universal law of gravitation
  • Simple harmonic motion: simple pendulum and mass-spring systems
  • Impulse, linear momentum, and conservation of linear momentum: collisions
  • Work, energy, and conservation of energy
  • Rotational motion: torque, rotational kinematics and energy, rotational dynamics, and conservation of angular momentum
  • Electrostatics: electric charge and electric force
  • DC circuits: resistors only
  • Mechanical waves and sound

AP Physics 2

  • Thermodynamics: laws of thermodynamics, ideal gases, and kinetic theory
  • Fluid statics and dynamics
  • Electro statics: electric force, electric field and electric potential
  • DC circuits and RC circuits (steady-state only)
  • Magnetism and electromagnetic induction
  • Geometric and physical optics
  • Quantum physics, atomic, and nuclear physics

The courses described are two, one-year courses, replicating a single year course in college.

(I’m pretty sure these options did not exist when I was in school; in any rate, our AP Physics was calculus-based. That still exists, as the two Physics C options, for a total of four AP physics classes.)

Hewitt advises teachers to skim the mechanics chapters and spend as little time as possible on it, yet that’s where all the testing is (36-42% of the SAT subject test) and it’s surely important to further courses in physics, either later in high school or college.

Canadian physics teacher Roberta Tevlin wrote an article in CrucibleOnline, advocating for “Upside- down Physics,” and says, ” I have recently realized that the order in which I and most other teachers handle physics in Ontario is wrong, wrong, wrong.” She teaches in the order of Electricity, Electromagnetism, Relativity, Light Waves, Particle -Wave Duality, Forces and Motion, Momentum + Energy, New Physics.

On the other hand, HomeschoolScienceGeek warns me: “You might have some problems going in that order since to talk about fission/fusion you need to know about atoms first. To talk about space, dark matter you need to understand gravity and electromagnetism.”

So I’m now considering using the following order of subjects: modern physics; heat and thermodynamics; waves and optics; electricity and magnetism; mechanics.  This would begin with a conceptual physics approach for the first third of the course, and move gradually into a math-based approach for the second two-thirds.  Of course, I may chicken out and go back to the standard order that’s used in every textbook. I will post the syllabus when I write it.

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