It's a rare occurrence to see high school students playing with toy cars in a classroom. But ninth-graders in this Little Rock, Ark., classroom are being graded on just that -how well their Hot Wheels toys accelerate, decelerate, and maintain constant speed.
The class is active physics, and in the Little Rock School District the course is taught to all ninth-graders. In fact, the district was recently recognized for being one of the first in America to adapt the "active physics" curriculum for all high school freshmen.
"Everything you do, active physics applies to it," says Frank Troutman, a physics teacher at Central High School. "Every motion you make, every job you do -heating up food, throwing a baseball -it's about active physics, and these kids need to know about that."
For several decades, academics have attempted to break the typical sequence - created in the 1800s - of high school science curriculum: ninth-grade biology, 10th-grade chemistry and, for the minority who make it that far, 11th-grade physics.
The increasing consensus is that flipping the sequence makes more sense, says Leon Lederman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who is the leading advocate of physics first. He says a new sequence would allow students to logically build on concepts they have learned.
"That effort [in Little Rock] is what we want to see happen across the country," says Dr. Lederman. "Physics is all basic knowledge that students need to learn in order to progress to the next level of learning science."
'Lighting in the Library'
But Little Rock students will be getting more than a basic course in physics.
The school district is part of the US Department of Energy's, "Lighting in the Library" program, which is an offshoot of the department's Rebuild America project. That project creates a network of community partnerships to save money by saving energy.
The "Lighting in the Library" program enables students to calculate the electricity used to provide lighting in school libraries and determine the feasibility of saving energy and money by using energy-efficient lighting fixtures for all five Little Rock high schools.
At the end of the school year, the students will present their findings to the Little Rock School Board.
Teachers say that this "groundbreaking initiative" will effectively institutionalize an energy component into the existing curriculum and turn student recommendations into real action.
Annice Steadman, a biology teacher at Central High, launched the original project at the school. With teaching materials from the Department of Energy, Steadman helped to devise programs to save energy in her schools. Her work led to the city-wide curriculum.
"Physics needs to be taught in ninth grade so students can be ready for these types of classes in higher grades," she explains. "Students don't need to just take algebra without taking some science. And all students need to think about energy."
City and state leaders are also enthusiastic about the project.
"This project exemplifies the type of community development and partnerships that our department is excited about," says Barbara Pardue, executive director of the Arkansas Department of Economic Development. "What better example than involving young people in community planning, projects, and decisionmaking."
Little Rock students enrolled in the applied-physics class learn an array of sensible lessons through simple experiments -how a lightning rod protects a house, the intensity of a tornado, or why a sunset glows orange.
For those students working in the "Lighting in the Library" program, the lessons are different. They will learn to build insulation, study the insulation's heat consumption, and determine where energy loss is occurring.
The Rebuild American project "exemplifies the most basic principles of local economic development by leveraging local resources and by establishing long-term planning for action in Arkansas communities," says Mark Bailey, Rebuild America's national program manager.
While not every student may be mastering the electricity project, all students taking the course are learning valuable lessons about the way things work - "baby-step physics," says Mr. Troutman.
During the year, the students learn how the insulation works in houses, how tornadoes twist and turn, even how a basketball goes up and down through a hoop.
Usually the word "physics" raises the hair on the backs of students' necks. But Troutman says that teaching physics early eliminates any fears students may have of the course as they enter higher grades. During class, he often mixes his curriculum with a movie -such as "Twister." Students discuss, using applied physics, whether a cow, for example, could really fly through the air during a tornado.
"When I first started in this class, I was a little scared," says student Steven Bobb. "But I like doing the experiments and learning how things work and why they work the way they do."
In the basement of Central High, Steven and physics buddies Reginald Ballad and Falyn Redmon work together in a group to master physics.
"We can concentrate on what physics is, what it all really means in day-to-day life and not have to worry about the math that goes into it," says Falyn. "I feel good knowing that some of my work may help the school district."
The trio rattles off a definition for terminal velocity in unison before embarking on the car experiment. They zip their toy cars on a ramp while pulling a ticker tape through a device that registers various speeds. The three diligently take down notes in their physics notebook.
"This is so much fun, and I now know how my mom's car works," says Falyn. "I have never thought about some of this stuff before. I always thought physics sounded evil, but anything that makes you think can't be bad. And it's really a fun class."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society