Physics

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I’m happy to announce the return of my student-designed Phunsics class for the 2013-2014 school year. If you’ve followed our previous work, you might want to skip ahead to phunsics2013.wordpress.com or the pics below to see what we’re doing at the moment. For some discussion of how I set up the class this year, read on.

As in my experiment a couple years ago, I’m running my physics class as a student-organized maker-space where the teacher’s main role is to check for safety and procure supplies as needed. The projects and course topics are mostly up to what students are interested in building, making, and learning about in the field of physics and engineering.

I added a bit more structure this year compared to the last time I ran this class. We once again started off with the marshmallow challenge on the first day. This was awesome for having students experience failure and the need for prototypes in their projects. We then spent a day or two brainstorming three areas:

    1. What content knowledge and skills should we expect to learn/want to learn as part of this physics class?
    2. What tools will we use to communicate what we are doing with our families, friends, school, and world?
    3. How will our work be assessed and graded for the school’s online gradebook?

The class of 26 students broke themselves up into teams to tackle these three areas. One group dove into our physics textbooks and the AP Physics guidelines to begin to search for big ideas for the class. A second group started brainstorming what sort of online sites they wanted to use for sharing their work. The third and surprisingly large group (I was sure no one would want to talk about grading policies) had some great conversations about how they wanted the course grade to be determined.

Initial tasks for setting up the course: content, communication, and grading policies

The results from our initial discussions about how to run this year’s course

After a few days of research and discussion, students came up with these guidelines for the course:

    • We will use a class blog at phunsics2013.wordpress.com and a shared YouTube channel to display our work
    • Each project group will have at least one author with a WordPress account who can publish to the class blog
    • Groups may create their own separate blogs/sites but will post links to these on the class blog
    • A reference list of major course topics will be published to the class blog by the team investigating our list of content knowledge and skill standards
    • Each project group will publish a weekly update to the class blog for the purposes of communicating and documenting their progress
    • At the end of each week, each group will either email or have a conversation with Mr. Ludwig about what progress grade they have earned for the week as supported by the evidence in their blog posts
    • All projects will be shared with the community both in online spaces and in at least one public event similar to our Phunsics Day 2012

What’s really fun is that their policy about weekly progress checks to determine their grade is very close to what I’d already implemented in my other classes using a weekly student entry in BlueHarvestFeedback. Either my students have caught on to how I like to grade or I’ve stumbled upon how they like to be graded, but either way we’re on the same page with our progress grades. I think we’ll need to have some more conversations later about how to derive their semester grade, but for now the progress checks are working nicely.

And now for the best part->

Here are the projects that my students are currently working on:

  • designing and building a quadrotor flying machine
  • a raspberry pi-powered robot of some sort (battle bot would be ideal, but we’re just learning how to program the pi)
  • the physics of weightlifting using Vernier Video Physics motion analysis
  • designing and building a spinning magnet and ferrofluid apparatus
  • building a flame tube for visualizing different wavelengths/frequencies of sounds
  • designing and building a two-seater powered go cart
  • designing and building a two-person cardboard boat destined to row across the swimming pool
  • restoring and improving the class hovercraft

Its early in the year, but many groups have already had some important successes. It’ll be interesting to watch as the year unfolds. Stay tuned and follow their blog for updates!

 

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I’ll share a “wondering” of mine that I’ve been chewing on for a while and see what you can throw my way in the comments. It revolves around the title of a course, in this case “Physics.” What does the course title Physics mean? Does it matter? Who notices and who cares?

Some background: I’m mostly a biologist by training and a chemistry teacher of some ability, but I occasionally get called on to teach high school physics. The last time I was called upon to offer physics resulted in some very interesting things indeed. If you are a new reader here, you might want to catch up on some of the Phunsics shenanigans here (or here if you prefer video). Basically, the students and I set about learning physics through a series of projects that they designed and carried out. Most anything was fair game, since, after all, everything is physics. Projects ranged from wind tunnels and hot air balloons to trebuchets and potato cannons.

I’ve fielded many questions about how this class operated: Did we follow a syllabus? No, it would have rapidly become obsolete since students were designing the class. Did I know more than one or two weeks out what projects we would be working on? No, students determined what we would work on. Did we have a set of standards that we based our work on? Yes, I created a standards document from Colorado and New York physics standards that students used in planning projects and students created their own wiki based on AP Physics standards. As I look forward to doing this course again in 2013, after this year’s “break” to teach AP Biology, my main question is this: can I still call this course Physics knowing now how it will likely operate?

Let me complicate matters more. It turns out that the Physics course at our high school has always (in recent memory) been a weighted course, weighted 5.0 (the highest) in fact, so that a B in the course averages in at a 4.0 (an A) for GPA calculations. So now I have the situation of a powerhouse of a science class, a weighted 5.0 class, that has no preordained syllabus, students can follow pretty much whatever lines of inquiry they desire, and it only has a list of “suggested standards” rather than requirements. Uneasy yet?

I am uneasy with the idea of continuing to call this class Physics, which is why I’m wondering whether I should try to rename this course something like Advanced Science Research (like this teacher) or Applied Science Practicum of Awesome. But then the little voice speaks: but colleges won’t know what that is, will they?

Ah. Here it comes: the role of colleges and universities in deciding how we do science down at the high school level. I’ve been asked to provide syllabi before for a student or two, so I know colleges are looking at them. Are they looking at the course name on a transcript or at what we do in that class to help students learn? I’m guessing usually door number 1, the name. And just like that, I’m back to keeping the name as Physics because that most closely matches the content and skills that my students are going to acquire during that course.

See my lovely logic loop? The old-school science teacher in me says I’m no longer teaching a Physics class but the practical considerations of calling the course anything else are maybe too much to fight for, especially once the diverse student/parent/counselor/college audience is factored in.

Now its your turn: would you call a project-based, student-designed course in which we tried to tackle a variety of physical principles and design challenges Physics or not? Weigh in in the comments.

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Scott McLeod recently asked this question in his post Reconciling Convergence and Divergence:

How do you reconcile…

principles of standards-based grading; “begin with the end in mind and work backwards;” understanding by design; and other more convergent learning ideas

with…

project-, problem-, challenge-, and/or inquiry-based learning; creativity; innovation; collaboration; and our need for more divergent thinkers?

My answer: I don’t reconcile the two, nor am I sure that I should. I do both. Separately.

As frequent readers of this blog will know, I’ve been experimenting with standards-based assessment and grading for a couple of years now and am to the point that I feel reasonably expert in structuring my classroom around standards. I typically start off each course in the fall by discussing the specific standards that students will meet during the year and explaining how they might go about proving that they’ve met those standards. We then proceed to work together as a class to do a variety of activities and labs designed to help students meet the standards that I have laid out. This works well in my biology, anatomy, and chemistry classes, all of which are concurrent college credit and so are matched to my state’s community college system guidelines for each particular course. Very, very convergent stuff. All students focus their learning on mostly the same set of ideas, even going so far as to complete electronic portfolios based on a common template that I provide for them. This system works nicely and the portfolios that students are producing are excellent, with lots of evidence that they’ve learned particular skill and content standards.

But what about physics? This year I had the opportunity to take over the job of physics teacher because: a) no one else wanted to teach it, and b) I had a lot of proto-engineers begging me to teach anything besides biology or anatomy.  This class turned out to be radically different from anything else that I’ve ever taught. It was radically different because I didn’t go into the class with a defined set of standards. The class was not concurrent college credit so I didn’t have to concern myself with matching a college syllabus. The state of Colorado does have physical science standards for students, but they had mostly fulfilled those in their freshman and sophomore level courses, and the kids taking physics were Juniors and Seniors.

With nothing to prove to anyone about whether I had correctly learnified my students, I was free to structure the class as I saw fit. I decided to let the students run it. On the first day of school I explained that they would be designing the class, not me. We spent the next few days brainstorming what sorts of things normally go on in a physics class, which topics they ought to leave physics knowing about, and how to do assessments of said goals. In other words, the students and I were still in a very standards-based frame of mind.

But then we diverged. Big time. Our brainstorming sessions had revealed a lot of different student interests: What about building that hovercraft you were telling us about and just how much power does a shop vac produce? Can we build some sort of catapult?  How about a potato gun? By the third week of school, we had all carried out a couple of the standard labs on measuring motion using video analysis and motion sensors but that was the last time we did anything as a whole group. The rest of the year was project based. Completely student designed and initiated to the point they started calling the class “phunsics.” My lesson plan book for the class was a mess. Usually it just said “Projects” until after class when I could actually fill in what students worked on that day, and when I did fill it in, I often had to summarize four or five different projects for the same class period. And so it went all year, sometimes in great bursts of activity, sometimes in lulls of senioritis and apathy, but always there were one or two major projects underway and several on the back burners.

To try to explain the course to future generations of phunsics students (and anyone else curious about what the class looked like), students created several videos about their experience.  A playlist of some of their videos is worth watching for some different perspectives on the class. Also, here’s my tribute video for the Phunsics team.

 

How then do we decide which type of course is better for learning, the convergent “let’s meet the standards” kind of class or the divergent “follow your interests” kind of class?  That all depends on how you measure learning, I suppose. On the one hand, students in anatomy, biology, and chemistry have portfolios of the work they accomplished during the year and anyone curious enough could see exactly what sorts of standards they had met. On the other hand, the phunsics students exhibited self-direction, organizational skills, coping with failure, teamwork, and creativity. Our current set of standardized assessments would completely overlook the achievements of these students, should we choose to assess them that way.

Would I teach the anatomy, biology, and chemistry courses the same way that I did physics this year? I’m not so sure I would. Some subjects lend themselves to true inquiry and self-direction better than others. Disciplines like physics and engineering will always have an advantage over subjects like biology and anatomy where real inquiry involves very specialized equipment and a ton of background knowledge that students may not yet possess. Likewise inquiry in chemistry has to be bounded both by safety considerations and the background knowledge of students. Don’t get me wrong, I work in as many open-ended and inquiry labs as possible in these disciplines but these labs or “problems” are still often defined by the teacher and not the learner. Probably I still suck at PBL and just need to get better at it, but for now any sort of PBL short of giving full control to students seems kind of artificial to me.

In conclusion, I’m going to try to offer the physics course as often as I can, which at this point is every other year in rotation with AP Biology. I think a student-designed course like that is vital to help students understand what real scientific inquiry is like, with teams working together to solve problems and meet design challenges they meet along the way. And, at least for now, I’ll keep the anatomy, biology, and chemistry courses as standards-based courses, but attempt to move them in a direction of more student control about how and when they meet the particular standards.

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kazoo testing

What do you do with a physics class full of bright, independent, high school kids? Well of course you march through the physics textbook so they can learn how to plug and chug all the right equations turn the class over to them so they can do the experiments that they want to do. At least that’s the way I thought we’d try it this year in my admittedly experimental foray into teaching a full-year physics course again. We had an awesome first semester, with lots of small student groups that self-organized around a number of major projects such as the trebuchet, hovercraft, hot air balloon, potato “accelerator,” wind tunnel, Road Runner/Coyote video analysis, and multi-stage rocket (and Barbie launcher) design. We capped off the semester with a traveling physics hover-tree built by the students that was decorated with mementos of all their projects for the year so far and lit with whatever light bulbs we could find, including a car head light.

hover-tree
The tree was quite the conversation piece once we parked it in our school’s common area/cafeteria, but more importantly it let the whole school community get a glimpse of what the students had been up to in our physics “workshop.”

On the first day back from Christmas break, with the hover-tree mysteriously removed back to our workshop, I challenged the physics kids to make a switch for the new semester. I explained, and they agreed, that the first semester had been “about us.” We had done all the fun, dangerous, and occasionally goofy projects that were at the top of our to-do lists, or in some cases our as-seen-on-You-Tube lists. It was time now, I said, to change the focus to become “about them” (insert image of me pointing outside the classroom) meaning that we should take on projects that would be either educational for younger students or benefit the entire community in some way.

And so Physics Day was born. Physics Day will be happening on March 31st from 10:00 to noon in our gym and the nearby parking lot. We’re going to demonstrate the trebuchet, rockets, potato accelerator, and the hovercraft. Inside the gym we’ll have several stations with hands-on experiments such as wind tunnel testing of objects, slime creation, electromagnet building, an alternative energy showcase, and maybe our Rube Goldberg machine if we get it done in time. We plan to distribute promotional fliers around town, especially to students at our Intermediate and Jr/Sr High schools. We’ll publicize it in our local paper, too, as the day gets closer so that all the great folks at the local hardware stores can come see what all their lumber and pipe get used for.

Student designed, planned, and performed. Completely. I can’t wait to see what sort of turnout we get. I can’t wait to see how the trebuchet team manages to move the trebuchet halfway across the school grounds. I can’t wait to see if we can inspire students to enjoy science again.

P.S. —The student brains behind the trebuchet are at work on a plan to provide free Internet access to students at home throughout town by bouncing the school’s WiFi signal off of some strategically placed reflectors. This may be the “about them” message taken to the extreme, but if we pull it off, it’s going to be a big deal for the whole town. I’ll share more on that as it progresses past the ugliness of setting up the backend RADIUS server.

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A triumph of math

After much scribbling on whiteboards, iPads, calculators, restaurant napkins, and most anything else you can think of scribbling on, the math was done. Theory. Numbers on a screen or slip of paper. Are they the right numbers? How will we know?

Build it. Cut the lumber according to the calculations. And they did. The math was right.

20111023-193001.jpg To be continued….

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It’s been another phenomenal week in my physics class. We’ve got a definite groove going on in there that is about as student-centered as I can make it. We’ve got several different projects going on at once, still, but this week saw the successful completion and testing of our potato launcher (“its not a potato gun, its a potato accelerator”). Let’s just say that at this point it launches so far we’re moving it to a more appropriate firing range. Yay for living in a rural area with an empty lot behind the school.

Here’s my continuing dilemma, though: I’m constantly struggling not to over-teach these kids by jumping in to analyze what they are doing in terms of the physical principles involved. I regularly find myself almost launching into lecture mode once some major concept is demonstrated in one of their projects. Mostly, I think a hands-off approach on my part will pay off in the end with greater student ownership of their education. On the other hand, part of me feels like I’m somehow doing them a disservice if I don’t prepare them for the kind of physics class that they’ll encounter in college, with problem sets and various levels of plug-and-chug formulas.

I’ve been reading several posts lately with the message of “stop teaching so much, already!” and I tend to agree. I spoke with several parents at our recent parent night (reported on here with pics of one of our hovercrafts) and they didn’t seem to have any issues with the project-intensive class format, so I think I’m teaching enough as far as they are concerned. There’s just this little old science teacher voice in my head that says we’re having too much fun at this for it to really be a physics class.

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The experimental experiential student-designed entity that is my physics class is up and running for the year. We’re about three weeks in now (one of which was homecoming week, thank you very much) and we have some sort of structure to the class, but not much, or at least not as much as I’m used to (yes, I used to lecture a lot not too long ago).  The 18 students (was originally only supposed to be 8!) started off the year by getting a feel for what they might want to learn about this year in their physics class and they started making wish lists for major projects to undertake during the year. So far they’ve set up their own wiki for collecting ideas about what they should probably learn about this year for those going on to Colorado School of Mines or some other technical field. They mostly landed on the AP Physics standards, just because they are so accessible and well documented, but they borrowed some topic lists from some of the physics teachers I keep track of too. They divided themselves up into six groups to tackle what they thought would be the six major units for the year (Mechanics, Electricity and Magnetism, Waves and Optics, Thermophysics, Fluid Dynamics, and Atomic/Nuclear Physics) then did some research into what those different topics were about. At the moment, the wiki is a work in progress, as it should be, but we’ll probably keep referring back to it and adding to it all year.

Currently, we’re multitasking in a big way as a class. One group of students built our prototype hovercraft and did some pretty extensive testing of it in the halls last Friday. There’s a pretty extensive collection of videos of the event being produced at the moment (Thanks Kiel!) that will be linked here and/or on the wiki shortly. Another group (and by group I mean those people working on it that particular day, our groups are pretty fluid) is putting together the specs for a trebuchet that they want to build around Halloween to help dispose of some of the excess pumpkins in our valley (I help out by blowing some up in Chemistry class, but there’s always a surplus around here). Other students have been tinkering with the Vernier Video Physics app and other motion-capturing software so we can gear up for analyzing the motion of anything we build and/or videos and video games we play. Oh, and another set of kids is starting to learn how to set up a wifi signal-bouncing network across our town.

Okay, so there’s an awful lot going on. But how do I grade such a class? That’s my job, apparently. I gave the class the option of writing the set of standards that would go into the gradebook, but they were strangely more interested in building stuff and getting ideas from YouTube and Instructables than in dealing with writing a grading system. They told me to deal with that part of the class. I’m currently putting together some sort of standards document, but at least a part of me thinks I’m going to merely use it to keep them on track this year and not as some massive spreadsheet for grading them SBG-style. The verdict is still out on that one. If you have ideas on how to assess individual kids in a chaotic (yet fun!) group-project-oriented physics class, I’d be happy to hear from you.

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