Dec 29, 2011

Modeling Workshop and Revising Worksheets

This past summer I had the opportunity to attend one week of a three-week workshop in a physics teaching method known as Modeling Instruction. The workshop was a couple hours drive away, and I got a flat tire on the way down AND the way back (!!), but it was well worth it. The leader of the workshop knew Modeling inside and out, and graciously filled me in on some details about the weeks that I was missing. I probably wouldn't try to teach a Modeling course without attending the full three-week workshop, but this was a perfect introduction to whet my appetite for learning more about the method. I took so much away from the workshop I'll have to spread it out over multiple posts, but here are some thoughts I've been having in the meantime...

I've seen a few Physics First classes where Modeling is used, and all of them have used worksheets that are centered around solving classic quantitative problems (projectile motion problems, collisions, etc.). Most of these worksheets were developed a few years ago, out of the Modeling Instruction Program at Arizona State University. Many of these worksheets can be found on various websites, if you hunt around a bit, but the Modeling Instruction Program has taken pains to prevent them from being disseminated freely. On their own, the worksheets are a somewhat misleading "face" for the Modeling method, and the important aspects of Modeling as a curriculum are not in contained in these worksheets. However, when a physics teacher looks around for documentation about how to teach a Modeling class, these worksheets are often what they see. In fact, I've talked to teachers who use these worksheets as problems sets in their class, but lecture to their students in an otherwise totally conventional way. These teachers are missing the point of what makes Modeling special.

I've felt for a while that these worksheets do not reflect my own priorities for what should be emphasized in a course for ninth graders. Some are overly quantitative for the math level of many freshmen, and they do not overtly provide fuel for "conceptual" discussion. Let me clarify: a good teacher of Modeling can definitely emphasize the aspects of a problem that would be considered conceptual, but these aspects are not often emphasized in a given worksheet itself. But these particular worksheets do not have to be the worksheets used in a Modeling-based Physics First class. I feel that there is a lot of exciting work yet to be done developing curriculum materials to apply Modeling Instruction to a ninth grade level.

Some teachers in various parts of the country have taken on the task of revising these worksheets to be more age-appropriate for fourteen-year-olds. In particular, a password-protected page on the ASU Modeling Instruction site offers two sets of materials developed by teachers at at high school in Missouri and another in Pennsylvania. I've just started to look through these modified worksheets, but what I've seen is very exciting. You can get an idea of how the class works by checking out some of the whiteboards posted on one of these authors' page of whiteboards prepared by students in his Honors Freshman Physics class.  Unlike the worksheets mentioned above, whiteboarding IS central to the Modeling method - you can see some whiteboarding in action here.

I'm curious to what extent other teachers have undertaken their own attempts to "freshmanize" the modeling materials. Teachers new to the method may not feel experienced enough take on the task of making new worksheets themselves, and veteran modelers have probably developed effective ways to steer worksheet discussions where they'd like to go through class discussion. I have started to work out how materials I developed for my own class would fit into a modeling course, but I've only gotten so far… Perhaps, not too long from now, revised worksheets such as this will form the core of more Modeling workshops geared specifically for teachers of Physics First, and the Modeling materials that get used in ninth grade classes across the country will begin to shift.
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Dec 26, 2011

Happy Holidays, and THANKS to the Physics First listserv!

Happy Holidays! It's been a while since I posted last, and I apologize... I've been busy with some other things, including a nation-wide tour with a rock band that I've played in for a about 10 years now!! Here's a music video I made for one of our songs, in a case you'd like to check it out!! (If you look closely, you'll see a demonstration of blackbody radiation from a light bulb AND a glowing piece of 0.7mm mechanical pencil lead - it's amazing what 6A can do!!) In any case, sorry for the delay... I've got a lot to catch up on, so let's get started!

In the spring of last year, I had an opportunity to sit in on a few classes taught by a teacher who has been a great asset to the movement to popularize Physics First. This teacher maintains the Physics First listserv, an invaluable resource to all of us interested in seeing Physics First gain traction across the country. Many of the teachers I've observed for this blog I've found through the listserv. For as long as I've known about Physics First the listserv has consistently been a great hub of communication for educators and physics education researchers across the country, and even the world.

The school I visited is a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania, on a beautiful campus surrounded by trees and open fields. I spent the better part of the day at the school, and sat in on quite a few different physics classes, as well as the school's weekly Quaker meeting. This teacher's teaching style was relaxed and comfortable, and students clearly felt at ease. They were studying wave motion, and after a few minutes of lecture on the topic, the entire class headed outdoors to measure the speed of wave pulses on large slinkies that the teacher had affixed to trees earlier in the day. When we returned to the room, I polled students (at his suggestion) with a simple prompt, to be answered anonymously: "Name three things that come to your mind when you think of this class." The students were honest, and the responses showed varied levels enthusiasm ("interesting concepts", "learning how things work", "too much math"), but taken together this poll was a nice window into the success of the Physics First program at this school.

In conversations with this teacher during my visit, I learned that last year was his final year of teaching. He had been at the school for decades, and has seen the Physics First program grow from its initial implementation in 1999. In my brief time at the school, I saw this teacher offer his time and experience to teachers and students time and time again - even giving up his free periods to help another teacher run the same waves on slinkies lab he had prepared earlier for his own class. This teacher had a presence at the school that will be sorely missed, and his ongoing contributions to the Physics First community are much appreciated.
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Sep 1, 2011

Discussion Physics

This is a very exciting day for me because the September issue of The Physics Teacher came in the mail... Most exciting of all, a column I wrote on using handouts to teach effective note-taking in my ninth-grade physics class is printed in this issue! If you're a subscriber to The Physics Teacher, the column is on page 396 of Issue Number 6 of Volume 49, or you can read it here. If you're not a subscriber, you should be!! (You can subscribe to TPT here.)

The "For the New Teacher" column, organized by Patricia Blanton of Watauga High School, is intended to provide helpful tips for anyone new to physics teaching, and to help all physics teachers expand their thinking to include creative new methods. My column suggests a way to use Notes Outline handouts to provide a hierarchical structure to help students think about new concepts and methods in their science class, and be aware of how these concepts are presented over the course of a class discussion. Here is an excerpt from the column: 

Taking conscientious notes in a science class is a skill that's crucial for a student's success, yet students rarely receive direct instruction on how to do this... A sophisticated note taker must simultaneously recognize the role of new ideas and examples in the hierarchy of information of the class, and identify which pieces of information will be most valuable to have recorded... In my Notes Outline handouts... [questions that will be the focus of class discussion] are highlighted in sections marked Notes on Discussion... Students are expected to [record any arguments or examples from this discussion] that will help them answer a similar question later on... Isolating the most sophisticated and personalized form of note taking in these Notes on Discussion sections allows students to focus on and practice this technique specifically.

One aspect of these Notes on Discussion sections that I did not elaborate on in this column was the role they play in the labs that I've written for use in my course. Taking a cue from the fantastic Physics by Inquiry books, (by Lillian C. McDermott and the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington) I like to structure student discussion of a complicated idea by offering excerpts from a discussion on this topic between fictional students.

Here is an example of how Physics by Inquiry structures a student discussion about batteries and bulbs:

Consider the following dispute between two students.Student 1: "The current through the battery in each circuit is the same. In the circuit on the right the current from the battery is divided between the two bulbs - so each bulb has half the current through it that the bulb in the circuit on the left has through it."

Student 2: "We know that the current through each of the bulbs in the circuit on the right is the same as through the bulb in the circuit on the left. That's because the bulbs are all about the same brightness - and bulbs that are equally bright have the same current through them. So the flow through the battery in the circuit on the right is more than through the battery in the circuit on the left."

Do you agree with Student 1 or Student 2?
(Physics by Inquiry Vol II, McDermott & P.E.G., 1996)

I fell in love with this method of structuring lab discussions the moment I first saw it. Giving words to common student misconceptions is an excellent way to bring these misconceptions out into the open so that students must face the concrete implications of such thinking directly. I have found that asking a complicated question outright in a lab handout is ineffective, as students' responses are often brief, hasty, and poorly thought through. With the structure of a fictional discussion, however, students will often collectively reach a correct conclusion through discussion in their lab group, even if no individual student could clarify a correct response on their own. Furthermore, these passages from fictional students provide opportunities to model effective argumentation in science - emphasizing for students the importance of supporting claims with data and defending the relevance of these data as evidence of the claim.

In my labs, the Notes on Discussion prompts remind students that they have a responsibility during lab not only are they expected to participate in these discussion, but they must also record whatever they'll need to recall the details of this discussion later on when they look back over their lab notes. I've posted an example of a lab on Newton's Third Law that uses these Notes on Discussion prompts extensively
here. I like this example because it demonstrates how Notes on Discussion can be used to structure both discussions within small lab groups and discussions that include input from the entire class. I have started to make some handouts that I developed for use in my own class available on the web here, but this project is far from finished. You are welcome to use anything you find on this page in your own class, but please write me an email to tell me that you're using it, and please give me feedback on how these resources worked for you.
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Aug 29, 2011

When a Mile Wide is Too Wide...

All physics teachers make choices concerning the depth and breadth of material they include in their courses. Physics First is a golden opportunity to establish a new paradigm of priorities for our students that is informed by recent developments in education research and PER.

In May of this past school year, I visited a public school in New Jersey that made the switch to Physics First about five years ago. The impetus for the switch initially came from the district superintendent, as a way to increase student scores on the state Biology test. (Though the state does not require students to pass the bio test to graduate, this particular test is held up as evidence that a school's science program is successful.) This reasoning is increasingly a driving force behind the switch to Physics First in many schools throughout New Jersey and beyond, as administrators notice how much better Juniors at PCB-sequenced schools (physics first, then chemistry, then biology) perform on a Biology test than Freshmen at BCP-sequenced schools. Though it's easy to question the merit of this rationale, the fact remains that Physics First is coming to more and more public schools for this reason. With it comes a great opportunity to teach an excellent introduction to the natural world and to the discipline of science.

The Physics First classes that I sat in on at this school were fairly typical of a traditional physics class: most sections were studying waves, and I saw diagrams of first, second, and third harmonics for standing waves on a string drawn on the whiteboard next to similar-looking diagrams for standing waves in open and closed tubes* (along with the ubiquitous and tautological λ=v/ƒ). An accelerated section was working under a different yearly sequence, and students were carrying out a lab on projectile motion in which they they attempted to place a target on the ground to predict where a projected ball would land. The teacher carried out the correct procedure for collecting the necessary data and making the necessary calculations, and then turned students loose to carry out these steps on their own.

A teacher new to the school revealed that a colleague who'd been teaching the Physics First class for a while already instructed him that the best way to teach physics to ninth graders was "a foot deep and a mile wide." This indicates a prioritization of content knowledge over critical thinking skills and, unfortunately, I have gotten the impression that this attitude is all too common among high school physics teachers.

A physics class taught in ninth grade has a great luxury over many physics classes taught in other grades in that standardized tests in physics for ninth graders have not (yet) gained popularity. An institution usually has to show indications that students have shown academic progress as a result of taking a Physics First course, but how the school chooses to measure these gains is often more flexible than for, say, a ninth grade Biology class. If a school wants to show that their Physics First class teaches students to think about science like a scientist, Lawson's Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning can be used, and if a school prioritizes teaching students to internalize "Newtonian thinking," the most recent edition of the FCI (revised to be ninth-grader-friendly) can be used as well.

Given such an opportunity to emphasize scientific thinking and fundamental conceptual understanding, I'd love to think that "mile wide" breadth of content in Physics First would be our last concern. Does a student benefit from being exposed briefly to diagrams of both standing waves on strings and standing waves in tubes, when one diagram so often reinforces misconceptions about the other? Why would we ask our students to spend a lab period carrying out a prescribed procedure for solving a projectile motion problem when they could spend the same time designing and carrying out their own method of isolating variables and collecting data in a simple investigative experiment?Physics First is by no means a "silver bullet" solution to our science-teaching struggles . Rather, it is a golden opportunity: a chance to establish a new set of priorities for students that will impact their relationship to science throughout their lives, rather than asking them to perform the same old number crunching and regurgitation of bullet points.

*This has always frustrated me!! A very high level of abstract and sophisticated thinking is required to interpret the physical phenomenon that is represented by the "pressure vs. position" or "displacement vs. position" graphs (shown below) often presented during a study of standing waves. That these graphs look conveniently similar to the observable shape of a standing wave on a string only makes this more difficult to understand.
Here is an example of a conversation I had with a rather bright student while visiting another ninth grade class doing a lab on standing waves using tuning forks and glass tubes:

Me: So, what's going on in this tube?

Student: The air comes down the tube, bounces off the bottom, and then comes back up.

Me: How do you explain why these diagrams show two different lines for the air?Student: Those are the paths the air takes down the tube and then back, or... I guess that maybe the two prongs of the tuning fork would each make their own stream and then cross in the middle?
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Jun 9, 2011

Modeling Instruction in California

At an all-girls school in Palo Alto, California, I saw a wonderfully successful example of pure Modeling Instruction employed in the ninth grade. I also saw the long term result of this approach in AP Physics C Seniors that had taken the Modeling course as Freshmen, and the results were equally impressive.

Before I visited this school, I'd been eager to see a wider variety of the different facets of the Modeling Instruction approach. Most Modeling-based classes consist of a great deal of whiteboarding, and I'd seen a few different examples of this process in my previous visits. But data-collection and analysis are central to the Modeling experience, and I had yet to witness such an activity this first hand. Due to a slight scheduling difference between different sections of the class, I got to see a variety of different activities throughout the day, including a "paradigm lab" where students collected ticker-tape data on an object undergoing constant accelerated motion.

The teacher at this school has been using Modeling for 10 years. He was trained at a workshop held at ASU, where Modeling was developed, and has employed the method at two different schools since then. When he first came to this school in Palo Alto, he was able to tell the administration from the outset that he planned to teach a full year of inquiry-based instruction in the ninth grade, including both the Modeling mechanics curriculum and the CASTLE curriculum in electricity and magnetism. He is only physics teacher at the school, and this made for a smooth transition into Modeling.

Nearly every unit in modeling begins with a "paradigm lab," during which students design their own method of collecting data on the relationship between two variables. One paradigm lab that falls early in the year, for example, asks students to collect and graph data on the weights of various known masses, thereby illuminating the linear relationship between mass and weight. To begin the unit on accelerated motion, the girls I observed devised a method of using a ticker tape timer to measure the distance traveled by a cart on an inclined plane as time passed. The girls then graphed distance vs. time on a set of axes using simple graphing software. This activity in itself is by no means unique to Modeling, but the role of the teacher was less traditional. Throughout the experiment, the teacher gave no instruction as to how the data being collected might be interpreted. These were the first moments that the phenomenon of acceleration was being studied in the course, but the term acceleration was not a part of the discussion. Since the class begins the unit with this lab activity, any subsequent work done in the unit can refer back to the data collected by the students. Any understanding of the topic being studied is developed by the students themselves as the data they've collected and observations they've made are discussed in class. Nature is permitted to speak first, and to speak directly to the students, free from the filter of a teacher's explanations. The role of the teacher is to facilitate the relationship between the students and the data they've collected, rather than presenting "knowledge" outright. The students were quite at home carrying out this experiment, and some seemed to appreciate the immediate differences between these data and the data they had previously collected on constant velocity motion. More rigorous analysis of these data would take place throughout the rest of the unit.

In a different section of this course, I witnessed students working for the first time with a method of analyzing motion that had recently emerged from their class discussion: interpreting the area under a velocity - time graph. The idea that this information could be physically relevant was, of course, suggested by the teacher himself, but he left it up to the the students to confirm that this analysis was indeed fruitful. Some girls saw the implications immediately, but some were suspicious of or uncomfortable with the method, and made comments such as, "This is weird..." or (more interestingly) "I don't see why area is important. Is the thing traveling around within that area of the graph? I thought it was going straight." I took these statements as a sign of the students' expectation that in order to use this analytical tool in their physics class, they should understand why the tool is relevant to the phenomenon they have observed. In other words, students had to convince each other that the method was useful. The organic manner in which this tool was introduced pulled out into the open students' confusion about this complex tool very early on, rather than burying that confusion or relegating it to a simple and grossly inadequate, "Can you explain that again?"

Almost all units in the Modeling mechanics curriculum begin with a paradigm lab asking the question, "What is the relationship between ____ and ____ ?" There is great power in the consistency of this format, because students are always interpreting new ideas within the familiar structure of graph analysis. As this teacher put it to me, "The question is always the same, but the physics is always different." For students in this course, it's always relevant, when performing an experiment, to graph the data and attempt to interpret the graph. This experience forms their core understanding of what science is, rather than the experience of reading a textbook, listening to a lecture, or solving a good ol' physics problem. During the AP C class that I observed, students three years older were asked to design a method to determine the relationship between the impulse on a cart (calculated as the area under a force - time graph of the cart as it's accelerated by a spring-loaded plunger, metal bumper, or even a ball of clay) and the change in momentum of the cart (calculated using a change in velocity, measured using one or more photogates). The structure of this lab was exactly the same as so many of the labs the students had carried out three years earlier in their ninth grade Modeling course. Likewise, students were charged with a similar task of interpreting the relationship between two quantities on their own. (The Fnet ∆t = m∆v relationship happens to be one of my favorites, as there are so many unbelievably great slo-mo videos to watch as part of a discussion about the idea that "more time can mean less force": !!! !!! !!! (sorry for the advertisement on that last one...))

This emphasis on analyzing a new relationship directly is not the only thing about Modeling that I've found impressive, but it seeing it first-hand on this visit was a new experience for me. The possibilities for expanding this format outside the scope of modeling were immediately clear to me, particularly through the lens of IB Physics, which I taught for three years. IB science places special emphasis on student-designed experiments investigating the relationship between an independent and dependent variable chosen by the students (relationships that my students studied include: the breaking force of a pasta strand as a function of time soaked in water, the resistance of a play-doh cylinder as a function of the mass of iron-filings mixed in with the play-doh, the launching distance of a trebuchet projectile as a function of counterweight mass). These experiments often yield unpredictable results that would never be found in a textbook, and students often experience great difficulty with the seemingly simple task of analyzing this new information. Using data-collection to introduce the fairly simple relationships that are a part of a normal introductory mechanics course, as the Modeling curriculum does, would certainly have improved my students' capacity to make conclusions about the more complicated relationships they encountered in these experiments!

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May 20, 2011

Using Technology with Ninth Graders

Technology can be put to use in ninth grade classes to great positive effect, but the complexity of this technology can sometimes obscure the reality of physical processes.

In February, I visited a private school in the San Francisco, CA, where physics has been taught in ninth grade for a little more than five years. The school is small, about 300 students total, and has taken a progressive stance in educating students not only in the content of the subjects they study, but also in ethics-centered "precepts" that concern each student's identity as a lifelong learner and citizen of a community that is larger than themselves.

The ninth grade physics class is taught by two different teachers through two largely different curriculums. The teachers cover much the same material using very different teaching methods. One teacher, who's method I will focus on here, uses a piece of software to integrate students' notes, homework, lab work, and other class activities into one document. Every student at the school is given an identical laptop, and this laptop is used extensively in the class. During the classes I saw, students used this piece of software to record notes on new concepts, record corrections to a homework assignment done, and access instructions to lab on sound, which itself utilized data collection hardware integrated with software on the students' laptops. (On the day I visited, the other physics teacher did not seem to make extensive use of the students' laptops.)

Students in this teacher's class do not use a textbook, and they do not carry a class notebook. The class is completely "paperless," to the extent that even individual homework assignments are uploaded to a server to be checked for completion by the teacher on the web. Since instructions for the day's lab existed only as an electronic document, most lab groups had at least two computers open: one to follow the lab instructions and one to collect data. This teacher remarked to me that he had not yet been able to explore what he saw as the the true potential of the medium. He envisioned a future for the class that was entirely centered around interactive work, using the notes software to provide structure to this experience. Students would be free to work at their own pace, independent from the class as a whole.

I was impressed by the complexity of the document this tea
cher has written for his students. This was, in effect, a vision of a textbook for the digital age: seamlessly integrated with computer simulations or data-collection software; unified to include content from both teachers and students, but segregated enough to identify one from the other; easily updated and revised to reflect modifications in the curriculum or mistakes found in the document.

However, when taking notes on a laptop in physics class, students can run into great difficulties in formatting. Notes in a physics class often involve heavy use of diagrams and equations, and representing these in a standard text editor ca
n be difficult or confusing. This teacher had tried to address these issues by including into his document pieces of particularly crucial diagrams. One feature of the program made it possible to embed regions designed especially for free-hand drawing. Though this feature made it easier for students to draw arrows and other simple shapes, the whole process seemed quite awkward. Perhaps, with the inevitable arrival of touch-screen tablet PCs, this limitation of electronic notetaking will be eliminated.

One common downside of an increased emphasis on technology in a physics classroom is that the technology can obscure the physics. During this lab on sound,
for example, students were using a computer microphone to automatically draw graphs of pressure versus time of the air around a vibrating tuning fork. At one point, students were instructed to change a time value in the settings for the program to allow them to see how the amplitude of the sound wave decreased as time passed. Depending on how students interpreted the instructions, they ended up with graphs that looked like one or the other of the following two graphs, both displayed over a time period of 4 seconds:

Slow Sampling Rate:
Fast Sampling Rate:
Though these graphs both show correct measurements of the same phenomenon, the graph on top was made using a "sample rate" of 0.03 seconds per sample, much too slow to represent the rapidly changing pressure of a sound wave. This misleading graph would lead one to believe that the tuning fork the made the sound was vibrating an an unreasonable 6 Hz. The graph on the bottom was made with a sample rate of 0.0005 seconds per sample, and correctly shows the uncountably high number of oscillations that take place over four full seconds.

As they took data, students looked around the room and compared their graphs to the graphs of the other students. Students whose graphs looked like the latter graph shown invariably concluded that they had made a mistake, since the graph didn't look like the "sine-shaped" sound wave graphs they'd previously seen. Because of confusion stemming from a simple error in setting up the software, student misconceptions about the connection between sound waves and the "sine-shaped" representations of these waves were unwittingly reinforced.

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May 9, 2011

Conversation with a NYC Public School Teacher

In December, I had a phone conversation with a New York City public school teacher about his experience with Physics First. This teacher had worked at the same school for seven years, and had seen the Physics First program there progress through a few different incarnations, the most recent being a promising course rooted in Modeling Instruction. This Modeling-based curriculum, however, existed for only a single year before the school switched their sequence of science classes away from Physics First back to teaching biology in the ninth grade. This decision, as well as a lack of administrative support for physics within the school, brought this teacher and a few others in his department to a decision to leave to school at the end of the 2010-2011 school year.

As he described it, the school's decision to reverse the sequence of science courses back to "biology first" was centered around administrative concerns over students' scores on the New York State Regents exam in biology. The "Biology/The Living Environment" Regents is a requirement for graduation designed to be taken by students at a ninth grade reading level. A school's performance on this specific test is scrutinized particularly closely by the state as evidence of a successful science program. In an effort to increase scores on this test, the school implemented a biology course in ninth grade as well as a tenth grade course, called "Biochemistry," directed toward preparing students to take the Living Environment Regents Exam at the end of the tenth grade. The Earth Science Regents class, most commonly taught in the tenth grade, is now taught to Juniors. In essence, the school restructured their science curriculum, and scrapped a successful Physics First program, in order to delay the taking of these two tests one full year so that students might do better on the tests.

I was able to find the Regents Exam results of this school online. In 2008, when Physics First was still in place, the percentage of students who passed the Living Environment test was indeed lower than the average for the state of New York (68% compared to 75%). The results for the "Physics/The Physical Setting" Regents, a test designed for eleventh graders and administered to ninth graders at this school, are quite low (42% passing, compared to a state average of 77%). Since the aforementioned curriculum changes were made just this year, no new test scores are available for comparison, but would an increase in biology scores mean that the science program is more successful? What about an increase in physics scores, for that matter?

We'd be right to be skeptical of any increase in test scores that come about as a result of curriculum changes like those instituted at this school. When test scores are being used to gauge the success of a course or a program, the program can certainly be modified to increase those scores, but do these changes really reflect our priorities as teachers? I was told by this teacher that he expects about 60 students a year to take physics at this particular school in this new sequence, down from 300 when the Physics First program was in place. Of course, one would expect this return to the classic paradigm of physics as a course for only the science-minded to result in higher scores on the Physics Regents at the school. But any increase in scores would simply show that fewer students were being exposed to physics, and that the students taking the class were two years older! (The teacher also mentioned that, at the beginning of that school year, his school had received boxes of equipment from two nearby high schools, which had closed their physics programs completely, in part as a result of the movemenet to dismantle large, failing schools and rebuild them as multiple smaller schools - more on this in a later post…)

In any discipline, emphasizing the results of a particular standardized test will skew the focus of the class toward this test, for better or for worse. In physics specifically, an increased emphasis on testing can encourage schools to abandon their physics class completely or relegate it to a course taken only by the top academic performers, simply because the physics test is perceived as more challenging. For Physics First, the lack of a standardized curriculum, let alone a standardized test, may make it difficult for passionate teachers to defend the quality of their program, but the solution to this isn't necessarily to develop a standardized physics test designed to be taken by Freshmen.

At a large public school I visited in New Jersey, the school demonstrates the effectiveness of their Physics First program using the FCI and the Lawson Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning. The state accepts this because the head of the science department at the school, along with other administrators, are committed to giving Physics First a chance as part of a school-wide sequential development of scientific thinking. As the teacher I spoke with in New York City put it to me, "If you don't have an administrator that believes in that, there's really not much you can do."
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Feb 19, 2011

CPO Physics First in Baltimore

In December, I drove down to Baltimore to observe a few Physics First classes in the Baltimore City Public Schools. There are about a dozen schools in Baltimore that made the switch to Physics First two years ago, and I visited two of them. It's taken me until now to process my visit thoroughly enough to say something concise and substantial about what I witnessed. Public schools in Baltimore are struggling, and teachers and administrators in the system are faced with great challenges every day. All the individuals I spoke with or wrote to are working hard to find creative solutions, and the implementation of Physics First should be seen through this lens.

As I understand it, in 2008 the central administration of the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS) announced to individual high schools an opportunity to be a part of an experimental phase of Physics First implementation. The reasons for this push seem to be in a large part due to a need to prepare students for the Maryland State "High School Assessments" (HSA) in algebra and biology. It was thought that since physics provides good opportunities for application of algebra techniques, teaching physics earlier would better prepare students for this algebra test. The students' math skills are indeed one of the challenges faced by Baltimore's teachers. While watching students doing a lab on the reflection of a light ray off a plane mirror, I noticed that some students were experiencing significant difficulty measuring angles with a protractor. It was clear that activity was exposing them to real-world applications of math. Though I didn't notice any questions concerning angles on the sample HSA I looked through, I have no doubt that students' algebra skills are developed in the physics course. However, one teacher mentioned that she takes a full week away from her physics curriculum in January to do algebra test preparations, and hearing this made me a little uneasy. Physics class should be about learning physics, not about doing algebra.

The physics classes use Hsu's CPO Physics: A First Course, and its accompanying lab manual and equipment. Teachers at each school are expected to cover four of six possible units in the course. The CPO equipment is well-designed and very sturdy, but expensive, and each classroom had only enough equipment for four lab stations. Teachers seemed fairly satisfied with both the text and the lab book, but one felt that the text was far above the reading level of her students. My main criticism of the CPO course was that it reflects none of the insight that PER has gained into how students learn physics. The content of the course places emphasis on memorizing terms and methods, and the labs encourage students to simply follow the directions that have been laid out for them. On some level this exposure to physics concepts is certainly valuable, but Physics First offers a chance to do much more.

The two teachers I saw had very different approaches to classroom management. One teacher began each class with a "Do Now" activity, and rewarded students who were working on this problem with a stamp on an index card that could later be redeemed for small prizes. With the use of a projector (which she had purchased with her own money for use in her classroom!), she gave a short lesson, then demonstrated the procedure of the day's lab. With ten minutes of patient, attentive instruction, she was able to get the entire class working on a lab activity, and by the end of the class period every group had completed the lab. Though this activity was roughly one third of what CPO guidelines suggest could be completed in one class period, this teacher was familiar with the pace of her class and willing to work patiently to accomplish a realistic goal. The other teacher felt she could not allow students to work independently with the lab materials because the students would try to break the equipment. She has had problems with this in the past. Instead, students spent most of the class period copying lab instructions out of the lab book into a spiral-bound notebook, a trick she employs "to keep the class settled." She walked around the room with one set of lab materials and supervised closely while students carried out discrete steps of the procedure for few minutes at a time.

Though the methods used by the first teacher seemed more successful when compared to those of the second teacher, I don't think the CPO curriculum made it easy for either teacher to encourage students to feel ownership of the topics they were studying. In my view, this aspect of a student's experience is essential to true learning, and needs to be at the center of any physics class. It was obvious to me that both were extremely passionate, hardworking, teachers committed to passing on a love of science to their students. But in an environment where students are expected to memorize terms and follow abstract steps in a procedure without any internal motivation for doing so, it's up to the teacher to synthesize that motivation. Good teaching can certainly encourage motivation in students, and I'm not suggesting that a more student-centered curriculum would eliminate the need for effective classroom management. Students' lack of motivation (even active, very vocal resistance to the work being done...) was a challenge common to both these classes, and every teacher in every classroom employs their own methods for addressing this challenge. My experience teaching at a small New York private school was worlds away from what these Baltimore teachers face every day, but I believe that the idea that students must own their knowledge is common to all classrooms. Any Physics First curriculum that is to be truly successful on a wide scale must encourage students to actually experience a personal, intellectual connection to the material they're studying.

This is one thing that has continued to impress me about Modeling Instruction. Not only does Modeling employ a student-centered approach throughout every unit, but any teacher who is expected to teach a course using Modeling methods must undergo training to learn how to use this approach. Teachers of the CPO curriculum in Baltimore, in contrast, get one professional development day every year to learn how to use the lab equipment. (The first teacher I mentioned above had received more extensive training in science education from a school in Washington DC.) A lot of education reform these days seems to be centered around identifying good and bad teachers, but it seems to me that the effectiveness of a good teacher lies mostly in providing a framework of motivation for the students in their class. If the curriculum itself is able to engage students in a way that unleashes their own internal motivation, then training of teachers should be specifically designed to facilitate this process.
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Jan 1, 2011


AAPT - American Association of Physics Teachers
AP Physics - a standardized curriculum of high school physic managed by the College Board, offered in three categories: A, B, and C
BCP - Biology, Chemistry, Physics - referring to the most traditional and common sequence of high school science classes where biology is taught in ninth grade (see PCB)
CASTLE - Capacitor-Aided System for Teaching and Learning Electricity - an approach to teaching Electricity and Magnetism, written by Melvin S. Steinberg and Camille Wainwright
ComPADRE - an online physics and astronomy education community
FCI - Force Concept Inventory - a diagnostic test used to gauge student understanding of Newtonian concepts of force and motion, originally developed by D. Hestenes, I Halloun, and D. Wells
IB Physics - a physics curriculum standardized for the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme
inquiry - an instructional method based in open learning, where students are led to discover concepts or phenomena by exploration and experiment, rather than being told an expected outcome explicitly
Lawson's Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning - a test developed by Anton Lawson to assess scientific reasoning skills, such as proportional reasoning and how to properly control variables
Modeling Instruction - a notably successful method of physics instruction categorized by inquiry-based labs and classroom discussions based around whiteboarding.  Originally developed at Arizona State University, Modeling is gaining in popularity and Modeling workshops are offered every summer in dozens of locations across the country.
MBT - mechanics baseline test - a diagnostic instrument designed to cover a wider range of applications than the FCI
operational definition - a definition of a term given in terms of a procedure that can be followed to determine its quantity or quality (ex: weight can be defined operationally as the value that is read on a spring scale when the object is hung from the scale in the absence of forces other than gravity and the force of the scale itself.)
paradigm lab - in Modeling Instruction, a lab designed to introduce a relationship between measurable variables, by investigating this relationship directly without explaining it or giving it a name
PCB - Physics, Chemistry, Biology - referring to a sequence of high school science classes where physics is taught in ninth grade (see BCP)
PER - Physics Education Research - "an area of pedagogical research that seeks to improve methods used to teach physics" (Wikipedia)
PhET - a marvelous collection of web-based interactive simulations used in science and math education
Physics First - a philosophy of science education based in the belief that physics should be taught in ninth grade, before chemistry and biology.
whiteboarding - a pedagogical technique in which large (2' x 3') whiteboards and dry erase markers are used by students to record a solution to a physics problem or results from a lab investigation
Physics Regents - a NY state-standardized test in high school physics
SDI Labs - Socratic Dialogue-Inducing labs are labs designed to encourage students to think like scientists and engage students creatively in constructing their own understanding of physics concepts
TPT - The Physics Teacher magazine, a monthly journal devoted to teaching physics at all levels
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