Though I've been working on these observations since September, I'm just now getting around to creating a public record of these observations! I apologize for the delay! Much of the information here has been copied directly onto the "What's this Project?" page, so I'm sorry for the redundancy.
First, some background: My name is Joe Kremer. I have a Bachelor's degree in Physics and Russian Language from Oberlin College, and I worked teaching physics at the Brooklyn Friends School in Brooklyn, NY for seven years. For four of these years, I was working full time as a ninth grade physics teacher. I also taught IB Physics SL for three of these years. I left BFS in the fall of 2010 to pursue some other interests, and to try to get a perspective on the state of ninth grade physics education outside the walls of this one school.
My research is focused on some big questions: What does a ninth grade physics program need in order to be successful? What can ninth grade physics do well? (By this I mean really well and uniquely well, as opposed to simply "almost as good as as physics class for Seniors.") What do we want students who come out of these programs to be good at? How can we best get this desired result?
My experience at BFS was wonderful. BFS is a very small school (~50 students per grade), and I was the only physics teacher for much of my time there. I had the complete support of my administration and my department to do anything I wanted with the ninth grade class, and I was able to set the scope, depth, and focus of the class entirely to my own priorities. As such, this class was developed to a large part without much communication of any kind with others in the physics teaching or PER communities, and I became very curious to explore what teachers at other schools were doing with physics first. These observations are the result of that curiosity.
The priorities of my class were centered on developing a truly "conceptual" understanding of physics- an understanding based on a qualitative analysis of equations and problem solving with words and explanations. The concepts covered in the class varied from year to year, but essentially reflected a standard introductory physics curriculum: mechanics (forces first, kinematics and graph analysis, momentum & impulse, energy), electrostatics, electric current and circuits, magnetism, thermodynamics and the molecular model, electromagnetic radiation, oscillations and waves, and sound. Questions explored in the class ranged from "Why does an egg break when you drop it?" (A fundamental Newton's second law question: if a student can answer this question thoroughly then their teacher is doing something right!) to "Will this bulb get brighter or dimmer when I unscrew this other bulb?" (The circuits unit is provides many excellent opportunities for "conceptual" explanations of some tricky physics.) to "How do people breathe?" Students had access to Hewitt's "Conceptual Physics", but this text did not serve as their primary resource for the class. It's my feeling that the language of this text is well above the level of understanding of the average 14-year-old, and Hewitt's priorities didn't always match my own.
I came to think that my priorities were somewhat arbitrarily chosen, and did not necessarily match the priorities of the physics teaching community. In full disclosure, when I gave the FCI to my students year after year I often found that my class wasn't transforming my students into Newtonian thinkers like I'd hoped it would... (My normalized FCI gains tended to be around 0.1 or 0.2, not nearly high enough to call my class a rousing success by this measure!) My class was successful in a lot of other ways, but through observing what other programs have chosen to do with their own physics first programs, I hope to learn more about what can be done most effectively. Hopefully, this blog can serve as a resource to others who are interested in doing the same.