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Tips for Teaching Physics in Physical Science

physics in physical science

I’m a life science girl at heart. I was a biological sciences (pre-med) major all throughout college, before adding in a secondary science education double major during my junior year. Biology, anatomy, and chemistry have always been my favorites. So when I found out at my first teaching job I was going to have a few sections of physical science mixed in with my beloved biology, you could say I was less than enthusiastic.

The physics in physical science was the scariest part to me. My memories of physics were from my physics with calculus courses in college, and while I LOVE math, I didn’t think I would be very good at teaching others how to do it, let alone throw science on top of it.

I was shocked to discover that I actually ended up LOVING teaching physical science – and the introduction to physics in the physical science semester was actually even more fun to teach than the introduction to chemistry in the physical science semester!

Are you in a similar position teaching physical science or integrated physics and chemistry for the first time? Have no fear, I am here!! I am going to share with you my best teaching tips specifically for physics in physical science here (tips for the chemistry portion coming in January 2022 here.)

But before I dive in a little preface: as a teacher turned curriculum writer I have read a TON of different states’ standards for physical science, and have talked to a TON of teachers about how physical science is set up as a class at their school. I don’t think any two have been the exact same! Physical science is one of those courses that used to be a required science in a lot of schools until a lot of states got away from it (mine included!) Now some are adding it back into their course sequences as they’ve seen a need for a more introductory science course.

I say all of that because it is important to note that all of us define a physical science course in a different way. So before I share my tips, I want to tell you my experience with teaching physical science so you can understand my perspective.

I have ALWAYS taught physical science as a lowerclassman course, typically for 9th and 10th graders.

I have ALWAYS taught physical science as a FOUNDATIONAL and INTRODUCTORY course, meaning it was designed to give students half of a year intro into physics, and half of a year intro to chemistry. This means it has always been a PREREQUISITE for later taking a full year chemistry 1 or physics 1 course.

*This is especially important to note if you are in an NGSS school but still have physical science, chemistry, and physics as 3 separate courses. NGSS does not have separate standards for these 3 courses. They JUST have the High School Physical Science standards I am linking here. Because of this, my physical science curriculum, written from and used during my physical science teaching experience, covers all of the middle school physical science NGSS, and some of the high school. I still taught the course to high schoolers but was teaching it as a prerequisite to them later taking chemistry or physics as juniors and seniors.

Lastly, I HAVE taught physical science to 8th graders when I taught in a private school. However, we treated this as a high school course taught in 8th-grade, like when students take Algebra 1 or Geometry in 8th-grade but receive high school credit. So it was an advanced course. Students had to have already taken Algebra 1 or be, at a minimum, concurrently taking it, in order to take physical science in the 8th-grade.

PHEW. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here are my best tips for teaching physics in physical science!! Hopefully, you find these helpful whether or not you are in a similar physical science teaching situation as I have been (described ad nauseam above).

Tip #1 for Teaching Physics in Physical Science: Do ALLLLL the demos!!!

physics in physical science

I never realized how many FUN and CHEAP demos you can do with physics in physical science until I taught it myself!! You can literally do so much with so little. I found I was regularly keeping a crate in my car that I could fill up with supplies from my house to bring in for demos. These really help bring the physics part to LIFE and are so fun for your students to see!

Plus, they make some pretty memorable moments. I love to skateboard around the classroom when I first introduce common forces that affect motion. I make a point to wear a pencil skirt and wedges on the day I do it. It has earned me major street cred with a lot of my students for years!

Another favorite – ROCKETS. Any and all types of rockets. Just Google “bottle rockets” and you will find so many examples – and these cover topics in TONS of different physics-based physical science units!

Not sure where to begin? Start with the ones that scare you the least (Ex. Demos that don’t involve fire, like dropping things out a window to teach about gravity!)

Manageable take-home challenge: Make it a goal to do ONE DEMO a week for the rest of the quarter.

Tip #2 for Teaching Physics in Physical Science: Labs are life – and don’t be afraid to keep it SIMPLE.

physics in physical science

There are SO MANY great labs to do with students in physical science, and if labs scare you or overwhelm you, GET EXCITED! Why?

Because physics-based labs (in my opinion) are the least scary and cumbersome when it comes to prep (comparing this to my experience with biology, anatomy, and chemistry).

You can keep it SO simple and still have incredibly effective labs. During my motion and force unit, I LOVE to do a lab where students run on the football field. All you need are students willing to run and students willing to time them. You measure their time at the different yardages and students can calculate so many things from it. My students love the chance to get outside, and I take volunteers for the runners so I always get the most competitive kids who love the chance to get out there in front of their classmates.

If labs still feel a bit overwhelming, take some of your simplest demonstrations and make them into stations! This is a GREAT way to make learning more student-centered and hands-on. I did this with my favorite motion & force, electricity, and wave behaviors demos. I found I had SO many demonstrations that could be even more engaging if I used them as a chance for students to explore for themselves before I explained.

Never done stations before? I love them SO much and have found them to be incredibly helpful if you are especially low on budget and equipment. You can read everything you could ever possibly need to know about using stations in high school science in this post here.

Tip #3 for Teaching Physics in Physical Science: Don’t be afraid to incorporate math!

physics in physical science

Hear me out on this one – I think it is SO important to NOT exempt the math part of physics in physical science. Don’t be afraid of the math – EMBRACE IT! Here is why:

It gives them soooo much context for math in the real world. Seriously, your math department will love you for doing this! The majority of my physical science students were concurrently taking Algebra 1 while in my course, so I was essentially teaching them how to rearrange equations to isolate and solve for unknown variables before they ever learned it in math. But it made SO MUCH MORE SENSE because there was CONTEXT for all of the math with the real-world scenarios!

My students started doing so much better in their math classes because we were incorporating math in science!

Now I am the first to admit I was afraid to do this – mostly because, if I am honest, I am really math-minded naturally, so I wasn’t sure I would be able to figure out how to break it down to teach it to someone who didn’t understand it. However, the math and science departments at my school came up with a problem-solving technique called RADAR that helped me and my students so much. You can read more about it here.

An additional benefit – your logical students will really appreciate the numbers to back up the concepts you are teaching in class. Even though you can demonstrate a lot of them, there are still some pretty abstract parts of physics in physical science. The numbers will really help to provide concrete evidence for what you are teaching.

Tip #4 for Teaching Physics in Physical Science: Partner with the chemistry and physics teachers in your department.

physics in physical science

I can’t emphasize the importance of this enough! If you teach in a department of science teachers, UTILIZE EACH OTHER!

Especially if the point of your physical science course is to prep your students to later take chemistry and/or physics, then TALK TO THE TEACHERS THAT TEACH THOSE CLASSES to see what they want your kids to have a solid foundation in!

I found after talking to the chemistry and physics teachers that my students would go to after that they really wanted an emphasis on:

  • Basic lab and graphing skills – safety sense, equipment use and familiarity, and a healthy understanding of bar, line, and pie graphs
  • Number sense – meaning they wanted students to feel really comfortable with numbers and have “common sense” with numbers, so to speak. This request is why I include so much math in the physics in physical science portion of my course!
  • Solid understanding of dimensional analysis and unit conversions (they still reteach in the higher courses, but at least knowing students have gotten a healthy dose of it once was helpful)
  • Physics first then chemistry – they requested I started with intro to physics and ended with intro to chemistry. Since the majority of students go on to take chemistry and not physics (in my experience in how the schools I’ve taught in have been set up!) they found it better to have chemistry be the most “fresh” in students’ minds.

Are you a lone ranger, meaning the science department = you? Think about what would be SO nice for your students to already understand before they have you in two years for physics or whatever it may be. I’ve been in a small school where I had some students 4 years in a row for 4 different sciences, and it can be nice to know exactly what prior knowledge you are building on.

Tip #5 for Teaching Physics in Physical Science: Make it a point to help them see physics in the real world.

physics in physical science

Last but not least, physics is honestly one of the easiest science subjects to see in action in the real world. Use phenomena to teach every unit!! There are soooo many great physics-based phenomena – making this a GREAT subject to use inquiry-based teaching methods and let your students explore before you explain – especially with those simple demos as I mentioned earlier that you can convert into station-based activities!

Bring in alllll the real-world connections to things they know, love, regularly interact with, and/or are interested in. A few examples of my favorites I love to incorporate:

  • Roller coasters when teaching about gravitational potential energy, kinetic energy, and momentum
  • Football when teaching about force and motion (or any sport you want!! We are just big football people where I live)
  • Earthquakes, rogue waves, and other earth science topics when teaching waves
  • How the heck their favorite technologies work when teaching electricity, magnetism, and waves (I love driving unit essential questions like – where do all the Snapchats go?)

Those are my best tips for teaching physics in physical science. If you are still feeling hesitant about taking on this subject, DON’T! I really think you will enjoy it more than you think. I know I did!

Veteran teachers – anything you would add? Let me know here!

Still stressed about lesson planning for your physical science course? I’ve got you! You can check out my entire physical science curriculum in my TpT store here or my resource shop here.

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