“I use modeling, do you?”

“Uh…no, but I’m interested in learning about it”

I felt like such a noob when I had this conversation a few months ago because literally, everyone else at my group seemed to be doing this already. I was at a workshop on whiteboarding after a talk on standards-based grading and modeling and I thought, “wow, she really has it together… I have a LOT of work to do” (Does anyone else have this overwhelming feeling of inadequacy in the classroom all. the. time. or is it just the mom-guilt extended into the classroom?)

So I have started incorporating some things here and there as I’ve gone along, and I recently looked into Etkina’s resources (I started using parts of her book last year). As I poured over Etkina’s labs and our workshop speaker’s resources I realized: I HAVE BEEN DOING MODELING ALL ALONG! Mostly because it’s just the way I already think about problems. It just didn’t have a fancy name, and more importantly, I wasn’t always doing it intentionally as a teaching strategy.

**I’ve decided that the intention is really the key in modeling as a teaching strategy.** I think good physicists are good at models but bad at teaching them. We do it so seamlessly in our own work we fail to realize that type of thinking is not seamless or natural to the general public.

Cue modeling curriculum

Models are just any representation we use for a situation: pictures, free body diagrams, motion diagrams, graphs, mathematics etc. We need to work our kids like gymnasts, very intentionally using and practicing these models so that our students become flexible and natural at using them on their own for any scenario.

This is the paradigm shift: teach the model first, and the physics as a result of the model. Too often physics teachers (especially physics teachers not trained in physics) teach all this physics stuff, then all these equations for particular problems and then maybe shove in some graphs at the end. The problem is that students fail to see the bigger picture and physics becomes a class where students are attempting to memorize a million procedure for a million different problems, rather than learning a handful of approaches and selecting the best one or two for the problem at hand. The clearest example of this in my current classroom is how I am teaching two-body problems. I have made a huge deal about the fact that all of the physics is in the FBD. Because learning the general process for FBDs is a lot easier than trying to memorize separate processes for ramps, Atwood machines, modified atwood’s and oops! Now there’s friction!

The next most important part of this is to teach students how to communicate with one another using their models, and this is where the value of whiteboarding comes into play. I believe very strongly in letting the kids move around the room to see whiteboards * without* having a board representative at each board. The reason for this is that the students begin to realize that it’s hard to make sense of what someone has done if you don’t provide enough detail. Students can then ask these questions and leave them at the board before we come together as a whole group for discussion.

I decided to use modeling very intentionally in the classic coffee-filter air resistance lab. The original lab I had snagged from someone had a bunch of background info and then asked students to skets the velocity and acceleration graphs. I got really tired of marking the same things on everyone’s papers last year and realized this year that this is a perfect opportunity for modeling.

When students walked in today their desks were in groups of four with a whiteboard. I asked them for the following

- A free body diagram at t=0, sometime before terminal velocity, and at terminal velocity
- Acceleration expressions for each of the diagrams
- position, velocity and acceleration vs time graphs.

It was so cool to watch them work, discuss and argue. The FBD’s were relatively easy, the discussions mostly about whether or not to put air resistance on the t=0 diagram.

The discussions about the graphs were far more interesting. Many students were working with the graphs as unique units, rather than considering the relationships from one to the next. Inevitably we had piecewise acceleration graphs and linear acceleration graphs and linear piece-wise vs curved velocity graphs.

I asked the kids to cite similarities and ask questions about differences. One group today started changing their board before attention was drawn to them. It offered a fantastic opportunity to review the graph models and review the relationships.

One of my favorites was a group that decided the curve of the velocity graph was quadratic, so they started taking the antiderivative for the position function. They noticed the constant slope portion in many of the other graphs and asked the question about it. Then they realized (#overachievers) the velocity graph wasn’t really quadratic.

I realize this particular example isn’t quite model-based learning through and through as I did not allow them to experimentally discover the exponential function relationships, rather after discussing that all of these changes were continuous I gave them a brief taste of the calculus/diff eqs ending in “solution is always in the form….” and hey, doesn’t that look like the curve we agreed upon?

We only collected data today, so I’m really curious and excited for what their write-ups are going to look like Wednesday!

I’ll keep you posted 🙂