Nov 16, 2010

Student-Designed Experiments in an All-Girl School

This post describes my visit an all-female K-12 school on the upper east side in Manhattan. The school is small, with a class size of about 60 students in each grade, 15 students to a classroom. I spent most of a day at the school, and sat in on two ninth grade physics classes, one senior level AP-style course, and one student-teacher interview about an independent research project. What follows is a rough account of what I saw during my visit, and my impressions of what the program seemed to emphasize. The teacher I spent most of my time with took a great deal of time out of his day to discuss the program at the school, and gave me totally free access to any class I was interested in seeing.

This school has been teaching physics first for about eight years. Since students are not required to pass any external standardized test, the priorities of the class are set entirely by the department, and there is a lot of collaboration between teachers to decide what these priorities will be. Four members of the current science department have taught the ninth grade class, though there are currently only two current teachers of ninth grade. At least two of the four individuals who have taught the class through the years have degrees in biology, not physics, though they felt that there was adequate communication and collaboration within the department to make their physics teaching experience effective and enjoyable. For every science class taught by more than one teacher, teachers meet at least once a week to discuss the class.

I talked at length with one teacher about a project that students do near the beginning of the year that is entirely based on scientific process and isolating variables. This teacher called it the "whirlybird experiment," and it recalled for me the "Internal Assessments" of
student-designed experiments required by the International Baccalaureate program. (Chris Hamper has produced an extremely valuable resource for these IB Internal Assessments in Design that provides a nice overview of the focus of these assignments.) Each ninth grade class does a class-wide experiment relating two variables of a paper "whirlybird": drop height and flight time. The class then analyzes the data they collect by graphing one variable against another in Excel, and calculating a linear regression, discussing "error" etc. Students are then required to develop their own investigation into two quantifiable variables of the whirlybird, such as "# of paper clips vs. flight time," where they hold all other variables constant. To me, this exercise falls into the category of "things that ninth grade physics can do uniquely well. Physics, moreso than biology or chemisty, uses instruments and variables (stopwatches & meter sticks to measure time and distance, etc.) that students understand intuitively, so the emphasis becomes the process of doing science. This exercise communicates early on in a student's science education the message the science is a discipline based on collecting and interpreting data. Coming out of middle school, many students have developed the impression that science is something that comes out of textbook or off the internet, and a ninth grade physics class can give a student ownership of their own science education in a very powerful way. (This emphasis was also clear from the teacher's introduction to accelerated motion. At one point, he asked students to decide whether they thought a falling ball was accelerating. His follow-up question to this was, "What evidence do you have to support that claim?")

Much of the focus of inquiry-based science education seems to be on giving students this same sense of ownership of their own understanding. This type of approach develops the skill and intuition to look at a problem as a scientist would, and to expect that a scientific claim should be supported with evidence.
Perhaps moreso than any physics concepts or understanding, this skill seems to be applicable in all spheres of life.

This teacher has also done an excellent job of presenting students with a comprehensive rubric for lab grading, and making his priorities clear. He uses the class-wide whirlybird introduction as an opportunity to show them an ideal lab report, and then turns them loose to present their own findings. He does about one full lab report per term (4-6 in a year), but he expects these assignments to be substantial and comprehensive. The lab grading rubric has evolved a lot through discussion with the science department, but the priorities of a lab report change from grade to grade. The teacher felt that the differences in focus between the disciplines make it difficult to keep consistent priorities from grade to grade, but that all classes emphasized that lab reports were for presenting unique findings within a larger context of research, to reflect the structure of science outside the classroom.
The ninth grade course is called "Conceptual Physics." On the day I visited, students were studying free fall using standard equations of accelerated motion. I saw ninth graders complete a lab where they estimated the height of the room by measuring the time it took for a ball to fall this distance, and then the teacher dropped the same ball out the window to estimate the height of the physics room on the sixth floor. The questions on the test that I saw, and the problems that were being discussed in class tended to be centered around quantitative problem solving, though the teacher pointed out one question about relative velocity that asked students to "explain" how one observer could perceive the velocity of an object to be directed northward while another observer perceives the same object to be moving with southward velocity. Since kinematics tends to be heavy on quantitative problem solving I imagine my observation was skewed toward the quantitative, but the problem-solving methods I witnessed mostly stressed the procedure of how to approach an algebra problem with these variables, etc.

This procedure is something that I chose not to emphasize in my own kinematics unit, so I think I was looking closely at what this school has chosen to do with this material. I'd see this an example of a style of problem solving that is hard to do as well at the ninth-grade level as it is with older students, simply because of the limitations of a ninth grader's algebra skills. The teacher clarified to me in a recent email that he feels comfortable stressing algebraic problem solving because all ninth graders at the school have passed Algebra I by the time they take physics. (If they haven't completed an Algebra course, they enroll in summer school before their ninth grade year to get them up to the math proficiency level of their classmates.) In discussing his 12th grade physics class (designed in part to get students to pass the mechanics AP test), the teacher mentioned that he thought of this class mostly as an "applied math" course, and that this reflected a personal priority of his. I imagine that this priority extends to the ninth grade as well. (Certainly, this teacher is not alone in emphasizing quantitative problem solving in a physics class!)

In my view, the fact that the school is all-female is a positive aspect of physics at this school. In my experience with a mixed-gender physics class, boys can often dominate a discussion. This isn't because the boys are more competent with the material, but rather because they are often more eager and competitive with each other. Girls can get lost in the mix if a teacher doesn't actively pull them into a discussion. At an all-female school, it seemed that ambitious girls were free to pursue their interest in the subject without the fear that their interest will be viewed negatively by others in the class. Some girls stayed quiet throughout class discussion, but this wasn't because of a gender difference. All the physics teachers at this particular school are male, so students do not have a role model of their own gender to look up to in the subject, but they are certainly not the only school with this problem.

The ninth grade physics class at this school is popular and successful. This seems to be in a large part due to the dedication of the teachers, and these teachers have the full support of their administration. For many students, the ninth grade physics class is the only physics class they will ever take, and the course seems like a comprehensive collection of introductory physics concepts and problem-solving methods.

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