Physics is often considered to be a love or hate field of knowledge in K-12 schools. But is physics in the classroom currently reaching its fullest potential, or are there common missing pieces in how we teach “the fundamental science” to the newer generations?

Undoubtedly, physics in the education field has evolved over the years. With newer discoveries and advancements, physics has gone from being the seemingly technical, mechanical, and fact-based science to serving a broader purpose. Despite how it may seem, understanding physics doesn’t require a lucky gene. Success with any kind of problem-solving— and this is not just for the physics classroom— depends on how well one can visualize the overarching conceptsthe tree trunks to all branches of different problems. Mastering concepts is what facilitates discovery, as emphasized by physics teacher John M., who often stresses to his students that there is more to physics than just methodical calculations, and that “It is crucial to understand what that math tells you about the concepts, to understand where the equations come from.”

John M.* has 14 years of experience teaching high schoolers in all different physics courses, and like many teachers alike, has often heard the age-old question from his students: “When are we ever going to use this in real life?” When asked about his techniques in getting students to buy into the value of those concepts, he stated that, “It’s not about emphasizing the bells and whistles and ‘how fun science can be.’ That won’t work on high schoolers. It’s really just more about relating it to something they’ve seen in their everyday lives.”

The truth is, nowadays, textbook physics just doesn’t make the cut for the pace at which technology and the world around this new generation is advancing. With every new discovery, it becomes more and more important to be able to make the abstract concrete. In fact, John M. speaks for most physics teachers with his support of teaching students how to visualize concepts.

So how exactly is that philosophy of “visualizing concepts” promoted today? It’s not a trick question: the answer is, visualizations! Demonstrations and lab experiments have long served the purpose of enhancing the learning experience for students by not only being engaging, but also providing a crucial learning approach to understanding the concepts behind lessons. Labs aren’t just accessories to the science curriculum. Kinesthetic activities truly appeal to students who can’t just grasp complex topics with conventional lectures or work.

There are two factors that contribute to maximizing the potential of a lab to help students learn.

The first is the styling of the lab itself with the learning material at hand.

According to another teacher, Dave F.,* who also sat down for an interview with us, labs are “100% essential in bridging concepts.” And fitting to that theme of visualization, “They show that numbers do actually have meaning, and you can physically see the meaning,” which serves wonders to a student learning the material for the first time. Dave, John, and many other physics teachers of today’s day and age agree that it’s worth it to run a lab – if you give the students freedom to run with it.

Contrary to popular belief, the whole point of a lab experiment is to not be methodical. “When I tried to explain exactly how to do a lab… students would get so fixated on what to do next… and I would tell them, it’s up to you to figure out what concepts you need, which made the lab more effective,” said John M. Therefore, to match progressive education, demonstrations and activities must be progressive too, since the real value of the experiment lies in letting the students learn how to discern applicable concepts themselves.

However, the efficiency of lab activities, even if they are styled with the perfect amount of guidance and student freedom, is also affected by a second and more physical factor: technology. When asked for their thoughts on how technology enhances the visualization experience, we received similar responses. To John M., technology is an instrument of learning that helps prove to students that “Yes, the real world does obey all of these concepts that we are learning.” And when you consider how impactful technology is on modern life in general, it’s not difficult to understand its value in terms of science and education.

It all depends on, again, the avoidance of those traditionally “methodical” procedures: the more the activity supports individual freedom to explore a concept, the more effective it is, and this truth applies to the technology of the lab as well. Our resident physics teachers confirmed that with the limited activity you can perform with today’s classroom tech, (usually photogates or sonic rangers,) that work soon becomes to seem like “busy work – tedious and repetitive,” for students using that technology – which, like we mentioned before, goes against the whole point. Photogates allow only instantaneous data collection, and sonic rangers are limited by their one dimensionality – only recording motion forwards and backwards. And as John M. said, “In a snapshot, you can calculate what it’s doing in one spot, but it’d be nice to see what it’s doing in the whole trip,” which is not only in reference to a common motion data recording activity (for example, a pendulum lab) but also sums up the broader dilemma with technology currently used in the physics education field.

The time has come to reform science education to be cohesive – not just taught in snapshots and a list of mandatory topics. With a curriculum and technology designed to complement the freedom of a learning mind, the possibilities for students are endless – as they should be. After all, physicists ask some of the biggest questions about the nature of the universe, so it only makes sense to equip the world’s future physicists with the best opportunity to help them do so.

* Many school districts do not support the endorsement of consumer products. In order to prevent a conflict of interest for the teachers who offered us their insights, we have chosen to retain their anonymity.