Nov 17, 2010

Modeling PF in a New Jersey Public School

The head of the science department at this public high school in New Jersey was one of a few people in my area who responded to an open request I sent out to the physics first listserve in the spring of 2010, and I'm very glad he did. The program at this school was exciting to see, and it is a rare example of a large public school that's been able to institute a successful physics first program at multiple skill levels. The program is an excellent example of successful Modeling Instruction, and students have shown significant gains on diagnostics tests and an increase in upper-level physics enrollment over previous years.

This school has been teaching physics first for quite a while (8 years) but the program has only been as successful as it is currently since they instituted Modeling Physics school-wide. When the ninth grade class began, they were essentially using a college-prep text at the ninth grade level, and this wasn't successful. One physics teacher learned about Modeling Physics at a seminar for the "It's About Time" program a few years ago, and then attended a modeling workshop at Arizona State University. He, like many others who experience Modeling Physics for the first time, came back with his perspective on science teaching completely changed, and he and the head of the science department gradually initiated a push to convert the entire ninth grade physics program to a Modeling approach. This change, as far as I can tell, took place totally independently from any other schools in their area (I find this impressive!).

This school has since become authorized to offer a workshop in Modeling Instruction on site, and this has made it much easier for them to maintain a consistent approach among their physics teaching staff. Science teachers have a four-course teaching load, and every physics teacher has been trained in Modeling. Furthermore, the department has collaboration time built into their schedule to facilitate discussions between teachers on what is working well for them. It's clear that the success of the program is a result of the department taking very seriously their responsibility to educate teachers in this unique approach to physics education, and to giving teachers this time to collaborate. All science classes take place in 90-minute periods, meeting three out of every five days.

There are over 400 students in the Freshman class, split into 20 sections, so at any given moment there are three to four ninth grade physics classes being taught. These courses are split into three tracks, called "Honors", "College Prep", and "Applications." The Applications course is taught to students who did not pass the New Jersey ASK 8 test in 8th grade (some of whom are special education students), and each of these classes is co-taught by a physics teacher and a special education teacher. The diversity and quantity of physics classes being taught make this shcool an ideal place to see Modeling in action.

In New York state, some successful physics first programs have been forced into switching back to a standard Bio-Chem-Physics (BCP) course order because of pressure to do well on the Regents, a state-standardized test. That is, since students have a difficult time passing the "Physical Setting" Regents, a test designed to be taken by high school Juniors, it has been difficult to defend Physics First to parents and administrators, since these Freshmen have a hard time passing this test. (This is a fruitful topic of discussion in itself, and I plan to devote a future post to this entirely...) In New Jersey, however, there is no state-standardized test for physics, so this particualr school has been free to continue offering the ninth grade course. In fact, reversing the order of the sciences has made it significantly easier for students to pass the required NJ state test in biology (since they end up taking biology as a Junior, and the test is designed to passed by Freshmen). Therefore, to prove the effectiveness of their science program, the school employs two different diagnostics before and after their unit on mechanics: the Force Concept Inventory (FCI) and Lawson's Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning. The school's program has shown substantial gains in both tests. Data showing the effectiveness of physics first is still relatively rare, so these results are invaluable to the physics first community.

Since I haven't been personally trained in Modeling Instruction, I can only speak rather superficially about what I saw taking place at this school. Students are taught that a natural phenomenon, like an object accelerating, can be represented in multiple ways, but that each of these multiple representations is at best a vehicle for gaining insight into the actual phenomenon itself. The power of this seems to be that the conversations students have about how to solve a problem take place at the intersection of these different models. In the case of a standard acceleration problem, for example, students are asked to solve the problem algebraically, graphically, numerically (with a table of values), and also represent the same situation using a "motion map." I witnessed students discussing standard accelerated motion problems, not with the language of, "What's the next step I need to solve this problem?" but instead, "How does this algebraic solution connect to this graphical solution?" One or more of their multiple representations could be wrong, but the multiple representations themselves gave the students a strong footing for their discussion about the problem, and more nuanced understanding of the natural phenomenon itself.

Students in a modeling course make extensive use of "whiteboarding": recording a solution in multiple representations in a group of 3-4 students on a 2'x3' whiteboard, then presenting their solution to the rest of the class. Although I did witness one class where a teacher employed a more conventional lecture-style approach (He said he felt pressed for time to get through more material,), almost all the class time I observed was spent whiteboarding. The 90-minute periods for science classes at the school I visited also make this whiteboarding process more effective, since the process is quite time-intensive.

Physics teachers at this school are free to employ their own teaching methods and exercises. One teacher assigned a "Picture Project" where students were asked to take one picture each of subjects that demonstrated constant velocity and uniform acceleration, then write a paragraph about each explaining their picture's relevance to those topics. There were certainly differences between classes, and between different levels of instruction (Honors, College Prep, and Applications) but in general I was struck by the uniformity of teaching method throughout these levels. This is certainly due to the fact that all teachers are trained in Modeling, and are expected to teach in this style. Furthermore, it seems as though the Modeling approach is expanding into the Chemistry and Biology classes. I sat in on one Modeling Chemistry class, and glimpsed the potential of expanding this type of thinking into the rest of the high school science curriculum. If this expansion is effective, Physics First will serve as a high school student's introduction to the modeling approach.

I haven't yet had a chance to see specific results of the FCI and the Lawson from this school (and haven't yet asked...). It strikes me that the details of these results are essential to truly understanding the effectiveness of the Modeling approach. I came across an interesting paper titled Learning of Content Knowledge and Development of Scientific Reasoning Ability, in which the authors demonstrate that FCI scores do not correlate with scores on the Lawson. That is, training a student to think according to Newton's laws does not necessarily train them to think like a scientist. There's no question that this school spends more time on mechanics problem solving than many other programs do, and I'd say that the problem solving approach that they take is very well suited to solving the types of problems on the FCI or the Mechanics Baseline Test. So perhaps it's no real surprise that these students perform more successfully on these tests, since they are more familiar with these types of problems? As a big fan of the FCI, I'm still not personally sure whether these questions really test whether a class is doing what we want our high school science classes to do. However, if FCI gains DO correlate with gains on the Lawson as a result of this program, then that's a very different result indeed.

In general,
I was totally blown away with what I saw at this school, and I hope to go back to see more Modeling in action during the unit on Newton's second law. This program provides clear evidence that a successful ninth grade program at a large school is possible, if adequate resources and attention are devoted to teacher training and collaboration. The administration at this school deserves credit for giving the science department the freedom to pursue this approach.

Leave a Reply