“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.

Inquiry in AP Biology: Live It. Love It. Assess It?

In my last post I described how I might try to conduct my AP Biology class a lot like I conducted the (in)famous Phunsics Class of 2011-2012. (Phunsics side note: I saw one of the graduated seniors from that class recently. He told me the story of how over the summer he and another member of the phunsics class were at the local grocery store when a little kid that they didn’t even know walked up to them and said “Hey, you’re the guys who built the catapult-thingy, right? Yeah, I was at your Physics Day.” Instant celebs, just add physics awesomeness)

Since that post was written (wow, is it October already?) we’ve had a great time and discovered a few things along the way. So far we’ve learned that:

Documenting Black Widow BehaviorYep, its a wormGreen stuff needs light

  • ants make terrible pets, but they do have awesome battles when ants from different nests are combined together
  • the ends of our grow-light enclosure have far less illumination than the middle (sorry Michael)
  • worms need to be kept moist, but do seem to prefer outside dirt to wet potting soil
  • a mating population of 7 students violates the conditions for Hardy-Weinberg equillibrium (as well as other school policies)
  • Black Widow spiders are awesome pets (if they don’t get out)
  • the old saying may be true: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks
  • a ZPA is not something on the front of your pants, but it might have something to do with genes
  • really pretty green caterpillars sometimes turn into really ugly moths

How much of this was my doing? Just the fast plants, ma’am. That and I’m making them read “Your Inner Fish.” I tried to foist my usual pillbug behavior lab on them as well but they were too distracted by worms, dogs, and Black Widows. I suppose my critters weren’t as cool as theirs. They do like watching the parade of roly-poly’s come out when we water their soil, but the sheer carnage of a spider capturing and slurping down a grasshopper is in a completely different dimension of awesomeness.

So what is my role in this type of class, where students are driving a lot of the day to day activities? Besides being head of the spider containment team and he-who-finds-dead-worms-on-floor, I suppose one of my jobs is to give these kids grades that communicate how well they are doing in my class. Yet I consistently find, year after year and especially this year with the new and improved inquiry-based curriculum, that, out of all my courses, my AP Bio kids always have the fewest assessments listed in my gradebook. What is that about and should I (or their parents) be concerned? Isn’t AP Biology supposed to be a tough class, a Test-o-Rama? What about the piles and piles of learning objectives that are supposed to be assessed by the AP Biology Exam?

Its like this: sometimes stopping for formal assessments can feel like hitting a brick wall. Instead, we just go. We do science. Not in an unplanned and chaotic way, although there are certainly elements of randomness that come from being responsive to student interests. We do labs, hopefully mostly student-driven ones, because labs are way more likely to get students to learn how to think scientifically, not some vocabulary exercise followed by a quiz. Is there assessment of student learning? Yep. Assessment of learning is something that happens with every conversation about the lab procedure or results or omglookatthat and often doesn’t find it’s way into the grade book in the same way that a chapter test or a fancy blog post will. We’ll do those things, too, just not as often. For example, right now the students are working on a big writeup for their population genetics lab as well as a writeup of their observations of different animal behaviors.

But here’s the catch: it’s taken us over a month to even begin to get major assessments into the grade book and I’m starting to get twitchy over the massive scope of material that these kids are supposed to know. I’m already having to restrain myself from launching into a powerpoint-fueled frenzy of content-spewing vocabulary-laden gibberish in the name of “Getting them ready for the test,” and its not even March or April yet.

If you haven’t heard, the AP Biology course got a major overhaul this year with a focus on, you guessed it, inquiry. I’m down with that and love the emphasis on the seven science process skills outlined in the course description. But there’s a ton of plain ol’ biology factoids still inherent in the system, some of which are going to be pretty ugly to inquirify, if that’s a word. I suspect at some point that as a class we’ll need to start striking a balance between the wild carefree days of inquiry past and the rote memorization of tomorrow. AP Biology is a college-level course, you know ; )