May 24, 2012

101qs in Physics Class

Ugh, what a grey, rainy day we've had in New York City today...

I spent a lot of time indoors at my computer, and stumbled across Dan Meyer's 101qs site, which I hadn't seen before. The idea behind the site is for teachers to upload pictures and videos in the style of Dan's Act One prompts, where other teachers give feedback on what questions might come out of the picture. In a classroom, it would be the students suggesting questions that might be answered using the data. Meyer uses the photos and videos to introduce elements of drama and storytelling to make problem-solving relevant to students who might otherwise feel an aversion to it.

One video in particular stood out to me, maybe because it's more "physicsy" than many others I saw:

There's lots of information in this video, and it brought up all kinds of interesting possibilities for questions that could be answered: Is the acceleration of the train constant? If so, what is it? Does the train reach a constant speed before it leaves the station? If so, what is this speed? If not, how long might it take for the train to reach its top speed? What is the instantaneous speed of the train exactly 10 seconds into the video?

Of course, to solve these problems you need information that's not available in the video, but most of what you might need is freely available on the web. For example, the length of a SF Bay Area BART car is about 70 feet, and the train can reach a top speed of about 80mph. (In some similar videos, all the information needed to make estimates is included in the video itself... This video might work that way if an adult of "average" height was simply standing in the foreground.)

I've been thinking a lot lately about video-based data collection, especially as a potential solution for students missing essential lab days in a Modeling-based class. What I find exciting about Dan's approach, though, is the power of an open-ended question. Not only do students get practice applying physics and math, but they also get practice using creativity to exploit the ubiquity of useful data in the world around them. High school science has the power to change how students think - everything they need to continue to answer these questions is around them all the time, as long as they stay curious.

(btw, the answers I got were: yes: ~1.2m/s/s, no: ~30s, ~10m/s)
Continue reading →
May 19, 2012

Sharing Modeling Resources

A web-based hub for uploading and distributing Modeling curriculum materials is on the horizon. The potential significance of such a resource is huge, and a healthy conversation at this early stage can help ensure that it becomes both dynamic and user-friendly. 

In preparing materials for my own Modeling-based Physics First course, I've been looking through materials posted on a password protected portion of ASU's Modeling site. In particular, I've been spending a lot of time with two remarkable collections of materials developed and prepared by small groups of teachers in St. Louis (Debbie and Rex Rice, and Gabe de la Paz) and Pittsburgh (Shady Side Academy faculty, including Kathy Malone - recent recipient of the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship). Both collections have firm roots in the Modeling materials originally developed at ASU. However, in addition to revising these canonical materials, both collections also offer entirely original activities and even some major restructuring of the order of the conventional Modeling curriculum. In spending more time with these collections, I've been getting more experience with what I need in order to make efficient use of work done by another teacher, and it's been quite illuminating.

There are quite a few similarities between these two sets of materials. Both collections provide a large text file containing "Teacher Notes" for each unit in the curriculum. (The materials for one such unit are shown in the picture to the right.) These notes generally begin with suggestions on the Scope and Sequence and Instructional Goals of the unit as a whole, then go on to provide details about implementing the activities or worksheets contained within the unit package. Both collections include handouts or worksheets composed in Microsoft Word, and usually include one document file for each physical handout. (For example, a handout made to accompany a lab activity and a homework assignment directly related to that activity are usually included as separate files, sometimes in separate folders/directories.) The documents in both collections are formatted quite precisely, and I experienced frustrating formatting errors when opening some of these documents on my own computer. Most importantly, both collections reflect the great passion and expertise of the teachers who created them, as well as an enormous investment of time.

One key factor in the success of Modeling Instruction, I believe, is that it has been almost entirely teacher-driven. Workshops are run by teachers and interest in the method has spread largely through word-of-mouth. Curriculum resources are developed and shared by teachers as well, though this practice is somewhat cumbersome at the moment. However, like the ASU Modeling site, the online home of the American Modeling Teachers Association (AMTA) is already hosting sets of materials developed by high school teachers, such as the extensive work of Dr. Matt Greenwolfe. This site is going to be updated any day now to include a Modeling Curriculum Repository, in what will hopefully be a big step toward an online hub for Modeling-related resource sharing for teachers by teachers. Like any big crowd-sourcing project, there are some logistical hurdles, but I'll share here some of my thoughts and reactions to how this might be accomplished. 

• Efficient subdivisions of documents can help clarify which materials are relevant to a given topic or activity. Both of the collections I've mentioned were made to be downloaded as a package. As a result, the "Teacher Notes" pertinent to each package are rather lengthy documents. The notes that are specifically related to one worksheet or activity can occasionally be difficult to locate, and isolating one activity from the unit as a whole can be slightly tricky. This makes sense given the overarching goal of Modeling Instruction - Modeling is a unified approach, not a collection of activities to be blended piecemeal into a traditional curriculum. But as more and more teachers convert to Modeling, I believe the need to isolate individual activities will become greater. I think there's a lot to be gained in breaking down these large unit-based collections of files into smaller chunks. Individual files in the unit can contain a few closely related handouts (a couple of related worksheets with teacher notes, for example, or perhaps a lab handout and with both pre-lab and post-lab supplements). I've posted an example of collection of resources I've prepared for an investigation into friction here. 

• Maintaining a hierarchy of organization on the web (rather than within a single .zip file for a unit) can provide both flexibility and manageability to the resource collection. AMTA President Mark Schober has told me that, in his opinion, the ideal resource-sharing mechanism would include access to both individual materials and recommended collections of materials comprising an entire unit. These collections would be curated by an individual or group for use with specific student populations, like playlists of songs curated by notable taste-makers or music communities. The choice of what to include in these playlists evolves over time, and the files contained within the playlists evolve in parallel. The inertia of large collections of curriculum materials can make them slow to change according to teachers' evolving needs and wisdom, and a system based on individual files is bound to be more nimble. 

• If teachers have access to multiple versions of similar materials, user ratings and recommendations can identify versions that are unique, valuable, and appropriate for use with different student populations. This is a model already in place in many communities, including our own community of science educators. For example, exemplary resources designed for use with PhET applets can be nominated for a Gold Star, which identifies "high quality inquiry-based activities that follow the PhET design guidelines and that teachers find useful." The challenge of such a system is to find a balance between maintaining democracy in contributions from individual teachers and keeping the collection of recommended materials concise and manageable for teachers using the site. 

• SBCD - Standards-Based Curriculum Development. Fellow physics blogger Kelly O'Shea just published a fantastic post about bundling established stablished standards for her course to facilitate communication with students about what will be covered on tests. This got me thinking that curriculum materials hosted on the AMTA site might be organized according to standards as well. That is, a worksheet on motion maps could be tagged (in a database and on the document itself) as relevant to one or more standards, such as O'Shea's CVPM1 - I can draw and interpret diagrams to represent the motion of an object moving with a constant velocity. Perhaps the entire Modeling curriculum could be broken down into agreed-upon standards, varying from "I can design an investigation into the relationship between acceleration and mass for a constant force" to "I can solve problems involving the separation of two slits and the distance between bright fringes in an interference pattern from a laser." Specific standards could likely be consistent between courses of widely varying ages and student populations - a more sophisticated course would simply include a wider variety of standards and different supporting materials. For example, the CVPM1 standard above would be a part of a Physics First course and a university course, but the materials used to support this standard might look quite different for such different courses. 

• To avoid formatting errors, documents can be distributed in robust, universally readable file formats. In producing my own curriculum materials, I've taken to saving a version of everything in PDF format, to ensure that I'll always be able to open a specific version to print it out for use in class. Both Greenwolfe and O'Shea have chosen to distribute their materials as PDFs as well. A disadvantage of this method, of course, is that the PDF format cannot be edited, but a text file or word processing document can be included as well to make updates more flexible. Alternatively, a universally available word processing application like GoogleDocs could be used to avoid such formatting inconsistencies. Andrew Stillman, an administrator of the online professional development site YouPD, has advocated such an approach.

Creative Commons is key. Most Modeling documents I've come across have included at the bottom of the page a copyright tag like "© Modeling Workshop Project 2006," indicating that the work in the document stems directly from the original work done at ASU. Sometimes individual authors are identified and sometimes they aren't but this tag ensures that the owner of the intellectual property contained within the document is crystal clear. AMTA Executive Officer Dr. Colleen Megowen has told me that it is a priority for the AMTA to prevent the materials from being used for commercial purposes at any time in the future, but according to this page the copyright isn't explicitly protected against commercial use. It seems to me that without a watertight license, the entity that officially owns a given piece of work (whether it's the AMTA or an individual teacher who has designed their own materials) could at some point choose to restrict access to it, or aim to make a profit off its distribution. There's nothing wrong with teachers making money off of work they've done, but the alternative of an open source Modeling Curriculum Repository seems even more attractive. By attending a workshop, a teacher would be introduced to a wealth of free resources and a community of like-minded peers, both of which would aid them in their transition to Modeling Instruction. In order to protect this dream, a Creative Commons license can be used by any original author of material to prevent the work from being used commercially. Looking through descriptions of the various CC licenses paints some striking pictures of what the Modeling curriculum at large might look like!

Now that I've stepped off my soapbox, let me clarify that this is not intended to be a set of recommendations for how to structure the AMTA site or the files contained within it. Rather, this is just an early collection of personal thoughts on a topic that I find quite exciting. As the work of assembling both the site and the materials goes forward, I hope that this conversation evolves. What are YOUR thoughts?
Continue reading →