Description of Physics Programs and Curriculum

United States: Description of Physics Programs and Curriculum

The United States does not have a uniform curriculum for physics. For TIMSS Advanced 2015, students were sampled from courses identified as second-year physics using the definitions from the School Codes for the Exchange of Data (SCED) course classification system. The SCED courses included five College Board Advanced Placement (AP) courses (Physics B, Physics 1, Physics 2, Physics C: mechanics, and Physics C: electricity and magnetism), two International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme courses (IB Physics Standard Level and IB Physics High Level), and other courses implemented at the state, district, or school level. Descriptions of courses and their content in school catalogues were reviewed to determine course eligibility. As a result, the students assessed in TIMSS Advanced 2015 participated in varying curricula. The AP and IB courses have specific curricula that are taught to all students regardless of the state, district, or school in which they take them.

AP Physics B is a second-year algebra-based physics course. The curriculum is divided into five main topic areas: Newtonian Mechanics; Fluid and Thermal Physics; Electricity and Magnetism; Waves and Optics; Atomic and Nuclear Physics. Under Newtonian Mechanics, the curriculum covers kinematics; Newton’s laws of motion; work, energy, power; systems of particles, linear momentum; circular motion and rotation; oscillations and gravitation. Under Fluid Mechanics and Thermal Physics, the curriculum covers fluid mechanics; temperature and heat; kinetic theory and thermodynamics. Under Electricity and Magnetism, the curriculum covers electrostatics; conductors, capacitors, dielectrics; electric circuits; magnetic fields; electromagnetism. Under Waves and Optics, the curriculum covers wave motion; physical optics; geometric optics. Under Atomic and Nuclear Physics, the curriculum covers atomic physics and quantum effects; nuclear physics.

In 2014, AP Physics B was revised by the College Board and replaced by the two-year series of AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2. Thus, in the 2014-15 school year, schools stopped teaching AP Physics B and instead began teaching a two-year sequence of algebra-based physics: AP Physics 1 and Physics 2.These two courses collectively cover similar content as AP Physics B but in more depth. AP Physics 1 focuses on Newtonian mechanics (including rotational motion); work, energy, and power; mechanical waves and sound; electrostatics and electric circuits. AP Physics 2 focuses on more advanced topics including principles of fluids; thermodynamics; electromagnetism; optics; and topics in modern physics, including quantum, atomic and nuclear physics. Both Physics B and the Physics 1 and 2 courses are included in the TIMSS Advanced 2015 sample, as the specific courses offered during students’ junior and senior year may vary across states and school districts during the transition year.

AP Physics C: Mechanics covers all of the same content under Newtonian Mechanics as AP Physics B, but in greater depth. AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism covers all of the same content under Electricity and Magnetism as AP Physics B, but in greater depth. Both AP Physics C courses are calculus-based.

IB Physics Standard Level (SL) has a core curriculum which covers physics and physical measurement, mechanics, thermal physics, oscillations and waves, electric currents, fields and forces, atomic and nuclear physics, energy, power, and climate change. The curriculum also includes 30 hours of instruction on two of the following topics: light and wave phenomena, quantum physics and nuclear physics, digital technology, relativity and particle physics, astrophysics, communication, and electromagnetic waves. Finally, the curriculum includes 40 hours of practical work, composed of investigations and a project.

IB Physics Higher Level (HL) has the same core curriculum as IB Physics SL, but includes six additional required topics: motion in fields, thermal physics, wave phenomena, electromagnetic induction, quantum physics and nuclear physics, and digital technology. The curriculum also contains 45 hours of instruction on two of the following additional topics: astrophysics, communications, electromagnetic waves, relativity, medical physics, and particle physics. The curriculum includes 60 hours of practical work, composed of investigations and a project.

Students were also sampled from other second year physics courses, with course curriculums varying by state, district, or school.