Jul 30, 2012

Modeling Physics First for Modeling Chemistry

A Physics First course based in Modeling Instruction provides an opportunity to rebuild a science curriculum school-wide, with stronger conceptual connections across subject lines and a more cohesive high school science experience.

As I mentioned in my latest post, I just finished a Modeling Instruction workshop last week, and my head is still buzzing with new ideas on physics teaching. Some of the other workshop participants are lucky enough to be attending the 2012 AAPT Summer Meeting in Philadelphia. Due to some extremely poor planning on my part (misinterpreting the "6" in the advance registration deadline date to mean July for one... doh!), I won't be attending the conference itself, but since I've got a few friends down in Philly that I haven't seen for a while, I decided to take a short pilgrimage to the City of Rocky (and say hello to some physics teachers while I'm down there, of course!). In any case, I wanted to make a plug for a poster presentation (tonight, Monday 7/30, at 8:30 at the Houston Hall Bistro) by one co-leader of our NYC Modeling workshop, AMTA President Mark Schober. The poster is titled, "Physics Education Through the Lens of Chemistry Education," and its focus is on examining the benefits of Modeling-based Physics First as a foundation for larger transition within a science department.

I visited Mark's school last spring, and sat in on both some physics and chemistry classes taught to Sophomores and Juniors, respectively (Mark's been advocating for a shift in sequence to full Physics First, rather than the rather unique BPC ordering currently in place, but this transition may take some time to implement.). This past year was Mark's first at the school, and although the chemistry classes have been taught by Modelers for some time, Mark is the first teacher to teach physics using exclusively a Modeling method. In the physics class I saw, Mark began with some discussion about a test on the just-completed circuits unit, in which students got into a heated discussion about a question about a classic circuits puzzler similar to arrangement shown here. Mark gave students time to discuss their various solutions, and gradually the students who had struggled with the solution came around to better understanding. After this discussion, Mark moved on to whiteboarding Worksheet 1 of the Models of Light curriculum, which develops some basic properties of electromagnetic radiation. (The basics of this curriculum were nicely summarized in a presentation given by Kofi Donnelly at EdCampNYC 2012. A screencast of this presentation can be found here.)

Earlier that day, I sat in on a Modeling-based chemistry class where students were studying solubility. In addition to playing around with an awesome PhET simulation on solubility of salts (shown here), they had just completed a lab in which they used a conductivity probe to investigate the change in solubility as different substances were mixed into a sample of distilled water. While students were preparing whiteboards on their results from this lab, I had a chance to chat with a few groups, and it was obvious to me that each student understood clearly that conductivity could be used as evidence of a presence of free ions in a solution. Interestingly, however, no student I talked to could articulate why this connection was valid. That is, when I asked them to tell me what they knew about conductivity, they told me about electrons moving in a wire, through bulbs, etc. When I asked how this might be connected to the conductivity of a solution, they were stumped.

I'm not so sure that understanding how a conductivity probe works is essential knowledge for your average high schooler (I'm pretty sure it ain't...), but I was struck with the disconnect that existed from physics to chemistry for these very bright students. This, it seems to me, is exactly the focus of Mark's poster presentation. Beginning a high school science sequence with a Modeling-centered physics course in ninth grade can create a foundation of knowledge, language, methods, thinking skills and representational tools that can be called on (and built upon further) throughout a student's high school science classes. Furthermore, a constant conversation between teachers in different subjects through this transition and beyond can help build courses that emphasize the interconnectedness of concepts in science. The students in this chemistry class had taken physics, but not through a Modeling approach. While I wouldn't necessarily suggest that a Modeling curriculum would have better prepared these students to infer that a flow of ions must be responsible for the "conductivity" they measured, I do certainly think that better consistency between courses could have helped students to connect these concepts. Similarly, representations developed in the Models of Light unit could be used with representations of energy quanta developed the in chemistry class to build a more nuanced understanding of photosynthesis in Biology class the following year. As the Modeling method expands to include more resources in chemistry and biology, a transition to Modeling within a department has increasing potential to encourage this continuity.

I may be putting words in Mark's mouth, so please go talk to him in person at the Houston Hall Bistro tonight (Monday) at 8:30!!
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Jul 26, 2012

Notes on Consensus

Tomorrow is the last day of our Modeling Workshop here in NYC. Everyone involved, from the workshop leaders to the participants (Big digital shout out to @elbee818, @jsb16, @d2thelhurst, and @fernwig!) have been amazing, and to say that I'm going to miss hanging out with these folks all day long is a gross understatement. On the bright side, though, looking back through my notebook on the train ride home today got me chomping at the bit to spend some much-needed alone time working out how I'll be putting this stuff to work with my ninth graders in the fall. As anyone who's completed a workshop has seen, Modeling Instruction is a method, not a curriculum - the worksheets and activities used in any workshop are meant to serve only as a starting point for applying the method to your student population. As I've mentioned before in this blog, it's a fascinating experience to leaf through other Modelers' revisions of activities, and take inspiration for what to include in revisions of my own.

One thing that came up a couple times in our workshop discussions was the role of note taking in a Modeling course. In a classroom that's using a Modeling method, students build all knowledge through consensus. This consensus emerges slowly as students struggle  collectively to interpret empirical observations of a unit paradigm lab, present solutions on a whiteboard, and ask questions about these solutions of their peers. Flashes of insight will come at unexpected moments, often when the class is at its most exciting and engaging, but a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of a model must be built gradually over many days. It seems to me that only the most sophisticated note takers will emerge from a lab or whiteboarding session with detailed records of the knowledge developed during that class period. Students new to Modeling are suddenly asked to think about science in a radically new way, and (by necessity to the inquiry process) often denied access to the resources that they've come to rely on during their previous years as a science student. Sure, some teachers pass out a textbook, but these books turn out to be more useful for building inclined planes than for working through most worksheet problems or lab practica... For ninth graders in particular, this whole new ballgame begins on their very first day of high school, simultaneous to a transition that already induces utter panic. It's my hunch that some minor restructuring of worksheets and other Modeling curriculum resources can go a long way in helping younger students get the most out of this complex process of knowledge-building.

When I was teaching Physics First in a "lab, lecture, & discussion" format, I developed a system of handouts to try to provide students some hierarchical structure for their class notes. (A description of these Notes Outline handouts was published in the "For the New Teacher" column in The Physics Teacher in September of 2011, and you can find an old blog post about my approach here.) Through these handouts, I felt I succeeded in providing a consistent and reliable resource for students in a class where very little emphasis was placed on textbook readings. As I've delved deeper into Modeling Instruction, I've become more convinced that providing some similar structure is crucial to helping ninth graders succeed in a class with such a strong emphasis on higher-order thinking.

I recently revised a few worksheets on force diagrams (click to view, then click on the "Print" icon in the view to download: 1a, 1b, 1c, 2), designed to be used at the beginning of a Balanced Force Particle Model unit with ninth graders. At the end of each of these documents, I've included a blank box labeled Notes on Consensus. In this box I've placed one or two very general questions that are directly relevant to the content of the specific worksheet (I've included one example to the right, mostly just to fancy up my post with a picture... Check out the worksheets themselves to see the scope of the prompts I'm suggesting!). In using these handouts, I plan to call attention to these Notes on Consensus prompts at the beginning of the whiteboarding session for a given worksheet. At the end of the session, I'll direct students to them again with language like, "Remember, it's your responsibility to write down anything that you might need in order to answer this question on your own later on. Can anyone offer suggestions about what would be helpful to include in these notes?" (From my experience with ninth graders, it's necessary to devote verbal cues and class time explicitly to this process.) As the course progresses, I plan to remove the prompts from the Notes on Consensus boxes, and ask students to give their own suggestions about what questions they think should be the focus of their notes. By isolating the most sophisticated and personalized form of note taking in these Notes on Consensus sections, I hope to provide a forum for students to both practice note taking explicitly and construct useful resources for developing content understanding over time.

The idea of prompting students to record notes on class consensus is far from new. Debbie Rice, a co-developer of a collection of Modeling materials designed for use with ninth graders, told me in a phone conversation that if teachers aren't explicitly drawing out class consensus from work done, then they aren't doing true Modeling. On the Modeling Instruction revisions of handouts to accompany Melvin Steinberg's excellent CASTLE curriculum (downloadable from the "Legacy ASU Modeling site"), most worksheets include a blank space marked "Consensus." However, such direct prompts are by no means the norm in most Modeling resources I've seen. Most Modelers encourage students to record corrected solutions to worksheet problems somewhere in the space provided, but I'm not sure that this alone sends the right message about the role of worksheets in the consensus-building process. As a Physics First teacher pointed out after looking over my revisions, placing Notes prompts on the worksheets themselves illustrates explicitly to a student that "the worksheets are a learning process on par with the lab activities... Ninth graders need a clear understanding of when they're expected to be building knowledge and when they're demonstrating knowledge." Furthermore, having specific conceptual targets for a whiteboarding session can help novice Modelers, since "a teacher can pace discussions better when they know they need to uncover certain consensus points by the end of the period."

In thinking about the value of inquiry, I've always wrestled with the degree to which "less is more." That is, when students are building knowledge for themselves, how much top-down scaffolding is too much? For example, it's become strikingly clear to me through this workshop that worksheet problems must be sufficiently ambiguous or open ended to allow for a variety of relevant interpretations. I'm very aware that providing Notes on Consensus prompts will put limitations on how a given worksheet or lab can be interpreted by students, and that this may seem in opposition to others' visions of true modeling. Indeed, one teacher's response to the Notes on Consensus format on these worksheet revisions was more along the lines of a general template for "whiteboarding notes" that includes separate spaces for recording points of confusion and similarities and differences with other groups' whiteboards, but no content-specific prompts. At this point in time I'm convinced that the content-specific prompts will be useful, but only time will tell.

In any case, it's clear to me that there is value to including consistent reflection activities throughout every step of the Modeling cycle. If students learn better note taking skills in the process, that's all the better! I'd love to hear any comments that YOU have on either the Notes on Consensus format, or the specific worksheet revisions I've posted here. If you end up introducing similar modifications to the curriculum resources you use, please, please send 'em my way!!

PS - A huge THANK YOU to Leah Kanner Segal and Lucas Walker for their feedback on the collection of materials I've posted here!

PPS - If you want the MSWord files of the PDFs I've posted, just ask! They're revised versions of the 2010 Modeling materials (revised by Mark Schober, one of the co-leaders of our workshop!), which are available on the main AMTA site, but I've included some fancy new pictures that you might feel like using.

PPPS!! - Speaking of which, those amazing cartoon hands in the worksheet revisions are drawn by cartoonist Jamie Sale. If you feel like trying to draw some hands yourself, Jamie will show you how to do it!!

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