On Developing (or not) a Student-Designed Physics Course

I’ve been putting off this post for a while, even though some of these ideas have been kicking around in my head all summer. I suppose I haven’t wanted to have one of my pet ideas shot down by wiser heads. But now that the school year is almost upon us, and I’m looking over yet another Edge, it feels like time to throw this one out there.

At the rural high school I teach at, we have often offered an upper level physics course, one that goes beyond what students do in their freshman level Physical Science, but it rarely happens due to lack of student interest. That appears to have changed this year and, yes, yours truly has been tagged as the Physics teacher.

I’ve taught physics before, both as a one semester introductory course and as a full-year elective, so I’ve got some ideas about how to run the course. I could trot out one of my old syllabi, change the dates, maybe update an URL or two, and go about the business of surviving yet another new(ish) prep. But I’m not going to do it that way.

I’m going to go in the first day of class without a syllabus, pacing guide, or even a web page to tell students about the class. Its going to be their class and they’ll help decide what the course looks like.

This means that after an introductory activity or two, we’ll sit down together and decide what we want to do this year as a physics class. We’ll throw around our favorite topics in physics and get a sense of where our interests lie. We’ll brainstorm some major projects that we want to build (community WiFi, catapults, and a hovercraft for starters). And then we will crack open the physics textbook and see what other topics we missed that we think we ought to know before the year is over. Only then will we break out some shared Docs and write our syllabus for the year, complete with topics, projects, and how we’ll determine final grades.

For the SBG’ers out there who are interested in my list of physics standards that I’m going to assess, sorry, my students haven’t written them yet. But we will. Together.

7 thoughts on “On Developing (or not) a Student-Designed Physics Course

  1. Susan Berrend

    Chris, this sounds most excellent. I’ve done things like this on a shorter scale. I look forward to see where it goes.

    Reply
  2. Brian Lamore

    Whoa. What an amazingly courageous plan! I think I know how you feel. You are acting on your feelings — what you feel is right. In my experience whenever I have followed my “inner voice” (no, not those voices — the other ones) only good things happened. I also let my students have an input. Not sure how much until I get to know them.

    You might want to make some baseline objectives in case your kids can’t offer much besides “let’s blow stuff up!”

    Please keep writing about your experiences and upcoming school year.

    Reply
  3. john

    wow. This is so awesome. I hope that your students decide that communicating what they are doing with the outside world is an essential component of this course—I for one, would love to read about their adventures.

    Reply
  4. Michael Rees

    This will be beyond amazing. I especially like it because it (as far as I can see) guarantees that there is no chance for my biggest pet peeve–scripted learning–because no one knows where it will go. I can’t wait to see how it turns out!

    Michael Rees

    PS: John, don’t worry–you’ll read at least one student’s tale 😉

    Reply
  5. Dorrie

    I’m so excited for y’all! More freedom, more passion, more fun, more learning… We look forward to hearing more. Greedily, I hope some showcase online.

    Reply
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