Student-designed physics class: barely controlled chaos for the win

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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