“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 ; )

A shift in focus: “about us” becomes “about them” in a student-designed physics class

kazoo testing

What do you do with a physics class full of bright, independent, high school kids? Well of course you march through the physics textbook so they can learn how to plug and chug all the right equations turn the class over to them so they can do the experiments that they want to do. At least that’s the way I thought we’d try it this year in my admittedly experimental foray into teaching a full-year physics course again. We had an awesome first semester, with lots of small student groups that self-organized around a number of major projects such as the trebuchet, hovercraft, hot air balloon, potato “accelerator,” wind tunnel, Road Runner/Coyote video analysis, and multi-stage rocket (and Barbie launcher) design. We capped off the semester with a traveling physics hover-tree built by the students that was decorated with mementos of all their projects for the year so far and lit with whatever light bulbs we could find, including a car head light.

The tree was quite the conversation piece once we parked it in our school’s common area/cafeteria, but more importantly it let the whole school community get a glimpse of what the students had been up to in our physics “workshop.”

On the first day back from Christmas break, with the hover-tree mysteriously removed back to our workshop, I challenged the physics kids to make a switch for the new semester. I explained, and they agreed, that the first semester had been “about us.” We had done all the fun, dangerous, and occasionally goofy projects that were at the top of our to-do lists, or in some cases our as-seen-on-You-Tube lists. It was time now, I said, to change the focus to become “about them” (insert image of me pointing outside the classroom) meaning that we should take on projects that would be either educational for younger students or benefit the entire community in some way.

And so Physics Day was born. Physics Day will be happening on March 31st from 10:00 to noon in our gym and the nearby parking lot. We’re going to demonstrate the trebuchet, rockets, potato accelerator, and the hovercraft. Inside the gym we’ll have several stations with hands-on experiments such as wind tunnel testing of objects, slime creation, electromagnet building, an alternative energy showcase, and maybe our Rube Goldberg machine if we get it done in time. We plan to distribute promotional fliers around town, especially to students at our Intermediate and Jr/Sr High schools. We’ll publicize it in our local paper, too, as the day gets closer so that all the great folks at the local hardware stores can come see what all their lumber and pipe get used for.

Student designed, planned, and performed. Completely. I can’t wait to see what sort of turnout we get. I can’t wait to see how the trebuchet team manages to move the trebuchet halfway across the school grounds. I can’t wait to see if we can inspire students to enjoy science again.

P.S. —The student brains behind the trebuchet are at work on a plan to provide free Internet access to students at home throughout town by bouncing the school’s WiFi signal off of some strategically placed reflectors. This may be the “about them” message taken to the extreme, but if we pull it off, it’s going to be a big deal for the whole town. I’ll share more on that as it progresses past the ugliness of setting up the backend RADIUS server.


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.