“Should my physics course be called Physics?” -Further thoughts on student-designed courses

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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Chris Ludwig

Chris Ludwig is a science teacher who teaches at La Junta High School and Otero Junior College in La Junta, Colorado, USA.

3 thoughts on ““Should my physics course be called Physics?” -Further thoughts on student-designed courses”

  1. Ok, here are some quick random thoughts as I should be grading.

    Does it matter what this course it called? It sounds awesome, and it seems to me the principal thing is that students are communicating to the wider world about the awesome things they are doing. If they are doing this, it seems like that would guarantee you overflowing enrollements in the future. And your students and you communicating what they are learning and doing (which SBG is pushing them to do), and this is widely available to the public, I think this course will also be viewed very favorably by colleges.

    I guess you do need some assurance that this isn’t seen as a “do whatever you want and get an A” course, so it might help to make sure that there are outside experts, other teachers and professors giving feedback to the work students are doing.

    Once you do this, and your course starts drawing real attention from the school, your local community and beyond, I think you can call it whatever you want. :)

  2. John,

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. I’ve been thinking about it for a while now, and yes, taking forever to reply to you. Its now that time of year when we are asked to provide lists of which courses we think that we will offer in our science department, so I had to make a decision. I am going to keep the Physics title for the course. However, I completely rewrote the course description for our registration guide to read as follows:

    “Physics: This year-long, upper-level science course is a student-designed laboratory that allows exploration of multiple aspects of science, engineering, technology, and math through project-based learning experiences. Students will practice a variety of scientific and technical skills including drafting, prototyping, research and critical review of scientific literature, experimental design, data collection, and data analysis. Projects carried out during the course will be published and/or presented to the community for assessment of student achievement and to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

    I hope that language makes it into the final copy of the registration guide because I think it speaks to the open-ended nature of the class and the fact that assessment will be by peer and public review of documentation or exhibition of the products produced.

    I’m already looking forward to next year’s Physics class!

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