I had a bit of a debate on Reddit a few weeks ago with a high school physics teacher that stated his students have to solve the problem the way he showed them how to solve the problem. I stated I liked showing students that there may be easier methods to solve specific types of problems, and I would be tickled pink if a student of mine solved a problem with a novel approach. The physics teacher reiterated the students solve it his way, or they only get half credit for the answer, and I was just interfering with the curriculum that the teacher was attempting to teach.

I thought about this statement and why high school classes on physics are so different from university classes on physics, and reached some startling conclusions:

1. A university physics professor has a PhD in physics with graduate student assistants and teaching is, at best, a side gig. A post-doctoral physicist at a university is bringing money into the university with research. When a post doc is teaching an undergraduate course, he isn’t overly worried if his students are getting good grades. In fact, he might feel teaching undergraduates as a waste of his time, so he isn’t going to take too much time to show his students how to solve problems. He would much rather be in his lab or office doing research or writing research grant proposals. The professor won’t take much interest in his students until the student’s junior and senior years, and then only because the professor is looking at the students as potential graduate research assistants. (By the way, if the students are taking physics as a prerequisite for engineering, the engineering faculty are even worse about their treatment of undergraduates.)

2. Most high school physics teachers usually have a BA degree in physics with a minor in teaching, or a teaching degree with a minor in physics. A high school physics teacher is only interested in teaching, and the only metric of the teacher is if the students get good grades and do well on standardized tests. Therefore, the teacher isn’t worried if the students really understand how formulas that are memorized work in the real universe, so long as the students get good grades and do well on the standardized tests.

3. This means when a student starts taking university level physics courses, the student is completely unprepared. The amount of thought and work he needs to do on his own and the amount of thinking on his feet that he needs to do just to pass the courses will be a complete surprise.

4. This means the curriculum that the high school teacher has concerns means nothing once the student is finished with the high school physics course.

The point that I am trying to make is that now and then a high school physics teacher should give the students a problem that is slightly above the students’ heads to solve. This can be given as an extra credit and taken home to solve, just to see how the students try to handle it. This problem wouldn’t interfere with the curriculum, and the students just may surprise the teachers. Hopefully, these problems will help prepare the students for university level physics. (Even if the students work together on these problems or look up how to solve these problems on the internet, these aren’t bad things. The students are still stretching themselves to get the answers beyond their teachers.)