Curriculum

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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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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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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.

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