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My First Physics Course

  1. Feb 1, 2012 #1
    A few years ago, I was teaching science courses at a high school where inquiry was embraced: my predecessor at that school had been doing it since the 1970's.

    Now in 2012 I am teaching at a high school where I seem to be the first teacher on the high school side that teaches using inquiry. (We have middle school teachers that embrace it, and my administrators support it, but I'm the first in the high school.)

    My preferred approach has been to use over 75% inquiry-based methods, because that is how my mentors guided me in the past.

    I was teaching a different science previously, so, this year Physics is a new subject to me -- i.e. I'm back to the drawing board as far as preparing for this course.

    Here is what I am using so far:

    1. Content Learning Guides. We have Giancoli's book which was bought before I arrived at this school, and I dislike it because there is so little conceptual information; page two of our current chapter goes right into the calculations without much background information. Anyway, I am having my students read Giancoli, but not without some scaffolding and support. They have what are called Content Learning Guides (CLG) which have a basis in building literacy and encouraging focus. Basically they get points for filling out the CLG worksheets as they read the chapters. Either I can make a worksheet and focus it on the most important part of the text, or, they sometimes summarize/paraphrase the important points.

    2. Computer Simulations and Activities. I have use of the computer lab 1 day per week, or 20% of the course. During this time, they work on PhET simulations, read Motion Mountain (and answer questions on a CLG while they read), and sometimes have a one-day research project to complete using the internet.

    3. Labs. I have four or five lab manuals from different sources. One was written by the 2011 high school "Teacher of the Year" in our state. Unfortunately her school had better equipment than ours, so we can't use all of her labs. Her text is very inquiry-minded and she likes to give students practice with metrics, calculations, case studies, etc. Some of her labs are very enjoyable, hands-on, active, fun, and definitely good for the average high schooler. Another lab book (I forget the name of the author) is a college lab book, and so far we've used two of these labs. They are generally 10-13 pages long because they have a lot of reading, a complex procedure, and a lot of questions.

    4. Problems. I am doing my best to get my students examples of problems. So far I have not been doing so well at this. Giancoli's text and problem solution manual leave out too many of the basic steps for my liking - the level of frustration for me and for the students is just too high. So far I have been relying on "The Physics Classroom" website, and a couple others, and I make worksheets from these problems. With those, I like that the proofs/solutions are one click from the problem page. It takes a lot of time to prepare the problems (both for examples and for tests.)

    Student reaction so far:

    1. They are used to teachers who lecture and passively give them information. They are used to labs where teachers walk them through every step and grade them on whether they got the answers "right." There is a lot of resistance to my methods. They dislike that they have to work and invest time and effort and "do" things instead of sit back and listen.

    2. I have been struggling a bit on explaining the math and the equations. I did not anticipate that some of the basic steps would be stumbling blocks for them. Before the first test, I had them do several activities about "the steps of solving a problem" and I thought it had sunk in. But on the second chapter quiz, only one student consistently did this (copied the equation, wrote the knowns and unknowns, and a diagram, and included units in every step.) It was no surprise that he aced the quiz without raising a single question. The other students seemed really lost, and were asking me questions during the quiz, and when I came to their desks to help, the first thing I noticed was they had done none of those standard procedures. I still helped them as much as I could (made it a teachable moment instead of a punishment type of experience) but when they turned in those papers without the steps, they lost some points, and then they were upset about that. In the end, it was a teachable moment, and as a result of that difficult quiz day, they all are now doing those types of problems much better. Still, it was messy.

    3. About half the class enjoys the projects and does their best on anything I give them. The other half feels that they are not getting a "serious" class because they don't get much lecture and because some of the projects are "fun" (or creative, or involve something other than a written assignment.) I think this is largely a result of the teachers they had in freshman and sophomore year who were very traditional. The "above-average" and more left-brained high schoolers are the ones that give the most resistance. I've found that my methods are very well accepted by the average kids and the struggling kids (who usually do pretty well in my classes because I teach to a variety of learning styles.)

    I really believe in inquiry-based education, and that the way of the future involves technology. But I'm not getting the buy-in I want, and I'm not finding the perfect materials and resources to make this course run as smoothly as I like. I wish we had a different book, that was more suited to high schoolers (age appropriate) instead of an algebra-based college text. I'm starting to make packets for the students to supplement Giancoli (either my own writing or a compilation of conceptual explanations that I research on the web.)

    I'm a little frustrated. I know learning is happening, and even on that rough quiz, the scores were not terrible. It's more the mindset of the students that irks me today. It just seems like they're not very adaptable or open-minded compared to the students at my prior school.

    There's a lot of threads within this post, but I'm just writing here, for some feedback and ideas. For those of you who teach with inquiry, I'm hoping to hear from you what is working for you. And all opinions are welcome!

    Thank you!
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 2, 2012 #2
    Understand that this is coming from a student's point of view.
    Quite frankly, I always loved physics. I really like the understanding, and before anything else, I would study up on concepts. I rarely study formulas because I know I can look them up any time.
    My sister, on the other hand, loved physics to begin with and later grew to dislike it. Why? Because the teacher switched from plugging numbers in to concepts over the semester.
    In short, the students who love physics and are passionate about it will like the conceptual method. Yes, you'll encounter resistance. That's to be expected. But quite frankly, if you were my teacher, from your description, I would find it much more enjoyable. The students will thank you in a year if they take a higher level of physics and find the problems easier.
    You might want to explain to them why there are books called "Conceptual Physics."
  4. Feb 2, 2012 #3

    Andy Resnick

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    I'm not that familiar with high-school curriculum requirements: do you have any state guidelines, is there some sort of required proficiency exam for graduation, etc.?
  5. Feb 3, 2012 #4
    Hi Andy -- Yes, I'm following the state standards. There are no graduation exams for Physics in our state.
  6. Feb 9, 2012 #5
    I teach a conceptual level physics course at a state "flagship" university which is counts as a "gen-ed" course for non-science majors (business, theatre, etc.)... and I use inquiry methods for this course (mostly using Phet Sims, but sometimes using simple materials -- for instance this coming week they'll build a simple electromagnet with a battery and wire -- then follow up by working with the Phet sim).

    Before each course session, the students have a short multiple choice quiz over a reading assignment that will prepare them for the day's activity. At the beginning of each session I have a "mini-lecture" on what they should have gotten out of the last activity. This generally lasts less than 15 minutes, and gives me a chance to include demos.. and importantly -- countered the small amount of resistance I had to the method. After the mini-lecture, the students (in groups of 2-4) start a new activity and can leave when they are done (which they generally like -- and an advantage of college teaching). Each activity has an accompanying worksheet, which I use for completion-record (and average with quiz-grades for 35% of their overall score (generally increasing their overall course grade by 5-10%). Since the activities are in groups, it's my way of doing some peer-instruction (I don't like clickers and that method of peer-instruction).

    Note: We use Bloomfield's "How Things Work" text... a conceptual text, and I don't require ANY algebra to pass the course (the only small algebraic or graph-interpretation is on the activities to help conceptual understanding). Why? Even though the chosen text includes some math problems at the "back of the chapter" (although no examples) there is NO algebra etc. prerequisite for the course, and there are two versions of algebra-based physics offered by the university (one for pre-med students, and one for other majors).

    Some of my other "stuff-based" activities: building mobiles, measuring the coefficient of restitution of different balls (include a balloon, and a balloon filled to the same air level... but including some candy inside for "thermal" dispersion!), making ice-cream, rolling dice (to determine statistics of "atomic" decay), flipping coins (and weighted coins -- with a glob of solder on the back, to model the "Zeeman" effect), and (since they look at CD's) I have them learn binary (using some neat little cards like that look a bit like "dominos" that have only one set of numbers (1,2,4,8...) set up right to left. An old site where I used to document my stuff is here... but I'll note I haven't updated in a long time since our university subscribes to Blackboard (on online course hosting site).

    This summer, I'll be teaching the second-term of an algebra-based course (the one for premed students) which has three lectures... two labs AND two recitations. I'll have them do activities in one of their two weekly recitations with TA's (and unfortunately I'll be stuck with the traditional teaching and example stuff in lecture, but can at least refer to the activities they'll be doing in recitation).
  7. Feb 9, 2012 #6
    Be wary of Motion Mountain- some of the ideas of the author are fringe,bordering on crackpot.
  8. Feb 12, 2012 #7


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    I can understand students being resistant to a class that requires them to work and learn instead of napping while someone talks at them, but I'm surprised you're getting flak for making the class fun. I applaud your efforts. Try not to get discouraged, and remember you can't please everyone. The students might not appreciate it as much now, but might realize later how good it was when they get to college and are ahead of their peers. Since you're the new teacher, you might also be encountering some of the skepticism kids have about an untested teacher...they assume new means inexperienced. I see this in college level courses all the time. Someone can come in new and be an amazing teacher, but gets run through the ringer until a few class years in when the upperclassmen are telling the underclassmen how much they retained and that it was even fun!
  9. Feb 19, 2012 #8
    Try not being a stickler on labs, as a student nothing annoys me more than a lab report that needs to be written to exact specification and is very tedious (SIGNIFICANT DIGITS!)
  10. Feb 20, 2012 #9
    I don't mean to start an argument here, but I'd have to disagree. Significant digits are really important, on a lab, which is arguably supposed to be hands-on experience, they become doubly so, because in the real world it's incredibly important to already be used to that. That said, don't kill the students for things like that, but I think it is important to be slightly nitpicky about things like that.
  11. Feb 20, 2012 #10
    I believe there is no better way to turn a kid off from physics than to grill him or her over having 2 rather than 3 significant digits in the answer. Dock points off and they will hate the subject because they knew how to get the answer (which is far more important than the human creation of significant digits) yet they still lost points.
  12. Feb 20, 2012 #11
    I really doubt you understand the point of significant figures based on this comment.
  13. Feb 20, 2012 #12
    I do understand the point of significant digits. However, anyone would agree that it makes doing a lab report way more tedious if you have to include sig figs into all your calculations
  14. Feb 20, 2012 #13

    Andy Resnick

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    I instruct my students on the reasoning behind significant digits and tell them I expect reasonable fidelity- I don't mark off for one or two extra digits, but if someone simply gives me the full 12-digit output from their calculator, they get penalized.
  15. Feb 20, 2012 #14
    I read quite a bit of judgmental attitude on your part in your explanations. You are exposing children who have been taught a certain way for ten years (forever, in their lives) to a new way of learning, and you are expecting immediate results. Your loaded terms imply that you think your students have never had to 'work and invest time and effort' before (almost certainly not the case), and it looks like you are judging them accordingly. If you adjust your attitude and listen to your student's complaints, you and they will probably both be happier for the effort.

    If you teach the class with new methods and the class does poorly, it reflects more on you than on them. Expecting them to somehow internalize your new (again, to them) teaching strategy quickly only frustrates both parties. Comparing the adaptability and open-mindedness of your new class to another that has been taught for years in your style is just unfair and dangerous.
  16. Feb 20, 2012 #15
    This is an extreme case, yes.
  17. Feb 21, 2012 #16
    Please don't encourage this.
    There is a lot of misleading or straight up incorrect information in those books. Even in the earlier sections the author starts sneaking in stuff about his pet theory. In the more advanced topics he gets sloppier and more incorrect as he goes. This all culminates in an outlandishly crackpot theory.

    Motion Mountain should not be used as teaching material.
  18. Feb 21, 2012 #17

    Andy Resnick

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    I haven't closely read the entire document, but from what I have read, I don't understand the justification for these claims- can you provide some specific examples?
  19. Mar 2, 2012 #18
    Check out vol. 6 and I think you'll immediately see what we're talking about. That's where he finally reveals his crackpot theory in its full "glory".

    An example of serious problems before he reveals his big pet theory of everything is his gravitation section where he "derives" everything from his principle of maximum force which is wrong as he states it. He even claims to derive GR from this principle even though his principle is coordinate system dependent and doesn't even hold in GR. His method of "derivation" in that section is also a good read if you want to see some of the crackpot logic for yourself.

    An example of him sneaking in stuff is when discussing E&M he lists in a table of observed values his claim for the maximum possible electric field. Besides again claiming a limit on a coordinate system dependent quantity, regardless of our opinions on his crackpot ideas I'd hope he'd be able to agree that this shouldn't be listed as an observed limit. His response when contacted was that no experiment disagrees with his claim, and if I state otherwise then I'm a lunatic. So he can't even understand basic complaints.

    In short, the author is a crackpot. A student that doesn't already know the material won't be able to separate what little good there is amongst the sea of misleading information. So I strongly recommend against using Motion Mountain as teaching material.
  20. Mar 2, 2012 #19

    Andy Resnick

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    Fair enough- I never bothered with volume 6 since it's clearly labeled "speculation", and so is not appropriate for a textbook.
  21. Mar 2, 2012 #20
    Why would ANYONE write a crackpot physics textbook? That has got to be the biggest waste of time ever. Is his intention to mislead students into believing false theories or something?
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