Teaching Methods

How I Teach… Energy Part 4 – Lab!

This is part of a series!
Part 1 (Work) Part 2 (energy bar charts) Part 3 (problem solving)

I have this lab I received from a colleague, it’s an iteration of a lab I’ve seen in other places. Basically an object goes down a ramp, gets caught by a paper catch/index card etc and students are looking for some iteration of work and energy.

In the version I have students are asked to find a relationship between height and distance. The cool thing about this is it ends up that height is directly proportional to distance and related by the coefficient of kinetic friction alone.

Student’s work looks like this:

Students are asked to complete the lab with a hot wheel car and then again with a small mass attached to the car. To students’ surprise the lines are not identical. This really bothers students until we discuss what we were actually looking for. See, the lines are still parallel, but the car with more mass is going to have a greater momentum at the bottom and will require a greater impulse to stop. It’s a fantastic conversation piece.

Student generated graph from lab

I really enjoy this lab because it requires students to consider a new problem and then apply that knowledge to a lab setting. Research has shown that students don’t really learn content in the lab, they learn lab skills. I was always a little frustrated with the disconnect between all of the work students put into the theory and then the lab results themselves. So this time I changed things up.

Instead of giving students the lab hand out and letting them work in groups, when students walked into the room they were put into visibly random groups. Visibly random grouping just means you create the random groups in front of students so they see it was truly random. I’ve been immersed in the book Building Thinking Classrooms and the research on this is really cool.

Once students are in their groups and at a white board that is vertically mounted, I’m in the middle of the room at a lab table with the lab set-up. I verbally explain the set up and that I want them to derive a mathematical model for the relationship between height and distance.

Vertical whiteboarding is really cool and has several advantages. First, students are standing which puts them into a more active position, this gets more of them working. Second, it’s really easy to just look around and snag ideas from other classmates. Third, since they’re already standing it’s really easy to move around the room and discuss with other groups. The first time I did this what astounded me was the sheer number of students talking. Instead of it being maybe 4 or 5 leaders it was nearly everyone in the room! There was so much collaboration and ownership of learning it was magical.

Taking a peek to get ideas is easy!

So I did this with the first part of the lab. Next, I asked them to sketch what the graph will look like with the two lines. Almost all of the students sketched the two lines on top of each other. I want them to have the experience of their data not aligning with their previous ideas and having to reconsider, so we left it at that. Then students were off.

I’m going to finish this lab this week, so I’ll have to come back to update this post, but I love this activity and vertical whiteboarding gets a 10/10 every time.

Teaching Methods

How I teach… Work & Energy Part 3 – The Math!

This is part of a series!
Part 1 (Work) Part 2 (energy bar charts) Part 4 (Vertical Whiteboard +Lab)

After over a week of work and various representations and practicing energy bar charts we finally dive into the math. We’ve already created mathematical models for spring energy and gravitational potential energy and I give them kinetic. Now we begin.

I want to press on the students that there isn’t an “equation” for energy problems that they are looking for. They need to determine thee equation from their bar chart and physics they already know.

We will start with another example problem and generate the equation through the bar chart. Students then have the opportunity to try a bunch more iterations on their own. This is about the time I will do the hopper popper lab energy style.

In AP I will open the following day a step further by giving them the problem below as a warm up (students do NOT have the bar charts provided!)

Students are first asked to create the bar charts because there’s no point in trying to write equations and solve for anything until the bar chart is correct. In the first part most students will neglect to include friction. In the second, students will say the ball only has potential energy at the peak, forgetting that the horizontal component stays constant!

The purpose of this exercise is twofold: first, it’s a great opportunity for interleaving. Second, it demonstrates to students they need to be ready for anything!

This year I’ve been incorporating vertical white boarding from Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics and it’s been truly amazing. After this exercise we went to vertical boards where students had two more problems, one was straightforward with friction while the other was solving for the height of a ramp needed so a ball can just make it around the loop.

The following day students engage in my conceptual whiteboard challenge where I help scaffold an expert approach to problem solving.

Next up, what my mathematical lab looks like for energy. Time to bring out the toys!

Turns out I also have a lecture video for this one (thanks COVID!)

Teaching Methods

How I Teach… Work & Energy (part 2)

This is part of a series!
Part 1 (Work) Part 3 (problem solving) Part 4 (Lab)

We move into energy conservation pretty quickly. Similar to our introduction to work, I pull on prior student knowledge. How many energy forms can you name? As students list them I copy them on the board, sorting them into mechanical and non-mechanical forms. Once we’ve exhausted this list I give them the category names and also the definitions of potential energy as energy of position and kinetic as energy of motion. We discuss how potential energy requires a position that can be measured within the system.

One of the best ways I’ve learned to support students is to teach them to create bar charts. I’ve seen many iterations of this, in the modeling community these are LOL charts. I, personally, haven’t been convinced to continue to use quite as much time on the systems part as many in the modeling community do (literally for the sake of time) but the key feature here is that we are taking concepts and translating them into a kind of visual, mathematical model.

So this is what we do first. We do a few examples (it’s like a checklist!) and then students are on their own for some samples. Emphasis is placed on the process:

  1. Identify your initital and final states
  2. Sketch a picture of each state
  3. Identify your system
  4. Identify which energy/ies are present
  5. If there is a change between initial and final then we need to include work.
  6. Double check that you have, in fact, accounted for any possible external forces that may have done work.

I show students how defining different systems can still get you to the same answer and WOW! Work done by gravity is the same as the potential energy due to gravity… the difference is the system.

I actually have the COVID-lecture version of this video when I wasn’t able to run this lesson with the whole class. While you’ll notice I do go into the math here, it’s really not an emphasis until later. In my regular class I don’t touch it at all until the next day

Teaching Methods

How I Teach… Work & Energy

Interestingly enough the work and energy unit/chapter has become my litmus test for whether or not I’m going to invest time in a resource. It was what spurred my frustration with The Physics Girl’s AP review series (although I’ve learned that when you’re actually commissioned by someone like PBS you have to bend to the whims of the corporation).

So what’s the litmus test? Open the resource to the first page of the Work & Energy chapter. If you see “work is defined as force times distance” close it and move along! First of all, let me be totally clear, that was me early in my career. I taught that work was the dot product of force and distance, we did a lot of different calculations and then we defined energy and did conservation of energy. My frustrations began with the fact that students were not transferring the idea of work over to conservation of energy. They deepened when upon reflection I realized my angst was because the core idea is not just that “energy is conserved” but that work causes a change of energy in a system.

Enter the new dynamics. I’ve talked about how the structure of your units is really going to guide students to what is important. If you start the lesson with an equation, then they are going to assume that equations are what’s most important. However, if we start with their preconceptions, build on that knowledge and form models we can get a little farther than equation hunting.

This is part of a series!
Part 1 (Work) Part 2 (energy bar charts) Part 3 (problem solving) Part 4 (Lab)

I start by asking students to name types of work. The list looks something like this:

  • Homework
  • Housework
  • Yardwork
  • work work (a job)
  • Wood working

and so on…

Then I ask students what is shared amongst all of those ideas. I’m looking for two answers, that they all require effort and that they all end in a change: Do your homework and your brain grows, work a job and you get paid… and so on.

So then I give students a list of tasks: lifting your backpack, holding your backpack, dropping your backpack, walking with your backpack (at a constant speed), climbing the stairs with your backpack, and I ask students which of the following are an example of doing work. We don’t share answers quite yet because I don’t want to participate in “expose and shame” where we trick students into marking the wrong answer. After they come up with this list then we formally discuss work as “a change in energy of a system due to the application of forces”. I emphasize the change which is in alignment with our original definition and “application of forces” which is the “effort” part they mentioned earlier. We go back through the examples and have a discussion about which are work and how.

Note: We’ve already discussed systems when we did forces, so there is a review of this idea as well.. the concept of systems is critical to student understanding of work and energy so if you’ve not done systems yet you need to hit this hard!

I’m going to include a few of the sample problems we work together in class to hit different ideas:

I ask this question right after our intro to work. I let students come up with lots of ways to reason the answer. The “correct” answer is that the force is perpendicular to the displacement, but this is also a good time to discuss that a “before” and “after” snapshot would also look identical, or that with each orbit the displacement is zero!

I ask this question in two ways: first as presented, then I ask them how the ranking changes if they were asked about the work done on the OBJECT. This is also a good place to discuss what negative means in the sense of work (positive work ADDS to the system while negative work takes away from the system)

Also of note: in AP I tell them that any time they get a graph they should ask themselves “does the slope tell me anything, does the area tell me anything” slope is essentially dividing the properties while area is multiplying (I know this is a major oversimplification, but it’s an algebra based course). I show them a graph of force vs displacement and ask how they find the work done (area!) they have a few practice items with these.

We run the spring lab where students discover Hooke’s Law and then I ask them to determine the amount of work done on the spring. Most students are able to get to the idea that its 1/2kx^2, but I do always have a few groups that want to just sub in kx for force and end up omitting the 1/2. This is a great conversation to have in a board meeting.

In my regular classes I run this great desmos activity I found by another teacher (try it out here).

First, students move the sliders to make the graph match the scenario…

Then that graph is reproduced on the next slide so students can use it to perform the calculation

This familiarizes students with graphical representations and the idea of how positive and negative work affect the system. I added one last slide to the original asking students to review what they learned in the activity and predict the work done by the spring in their lab

When we are ready to move to energy, I open with the following question:

A ball is dropped from rest.

  1. Define the system to be just the ball. Sketch a diagram showing the ball and the earth and identify the system by drawing a dashed circle around the objects in the system. Include any relevant forces. Is work being done on the ball? Explain your answer.
  2. Define the system to be the ball and the earth. Sketch a diagram showing the ball and the earth and identify the system by drawing a dashed circle around the objects in the system. Include any relevant forces. Is work being done on the ball? Explain your answer.

This is a great way to talk about how the same situation can describe work or not. The gravitational force is clearly inside of the system in #2 and therefore is a NON example of work.

We’ll discuss how I move from work to energy another day!


Room Ideas: 5 Myths and Alumni Wall

Full disclosure here: I am not a decorator. I don’t do cutsy anything. Aside from the fact that my perfectionism would take over and I would generally hate what I put up, I also refuse to dump cash into stuff I have to put up and tear down every year and in the grand scheme of things doesn’t make a huge difference to the majority of students in my class.


I do believe in the power of simplicity and powerful messages.

In my core beliefs I believe that every student has the capacity for physics because inquiring about the world around us is an intuitive piece of our humanity. The AAPT put together a brochure on “Myths about High School Physics” more than a decade ago. Needless to say, it was in need of a major update, and the result is beautiful. (You can access them here) When you download the file you get 6 high resolution images you could theoretically print in any size you like. I maxed them out on regular printer paper and arranged them on my door as shown

Adjacent to my door display is my alumni wall. Around October/November I reach out to former students who are in college and I ask for their school, major, favorite physics memory and advice to rising students. I think both of these are really important to have up in the room before parent teacher conferences because it’s certainly worth talking about!

I’m really excited because I mentioned this to our academy/career coach and together with the graphic design teacher they are going to create some beautiful posters featuring all of our alum all over the building!

Another great idea is that these look REALLY great next to the career profiles students generate as part of the STEPUP careers in physics lesson plan! And if you want to know how that fits into the scope of my class, check out my post Three Ideas for a Strong Start

Activities · In My Class Today · New Teacher

3 Ideas for a Strong Start

It is the end of July, the back to school sales have been running for a month, the #clearthelist movement is in full force. While I keep telling myself I have ALL of August left (that’s actually a lie, I have institute the 30th/31st) many of us are starting in just a few weeks. Here are three ideas to start physics strong. These ideas are grounded in my values and beliefs around teaching physics. You can read about those here

Physics is about EXPERIMENTS

I want students to know science is investigative and that anyone can do it. Many teachers will do a team-building activity on the first day, but I prefer to let students play. This gives me a chance to observe the dynamics of each class before I begin to influence the room and it also takes any pressure off of students to perform for one another or myself. I try to set up a demonstration or lab from each of the units for the entire year. Directions for observations are left on a notecard in front of the set up. Students are asked to write down detailed observations about each demonstration. Over the weekend I ask students to find the demonstration online and learn about how it works. Students are then asked to write a claim, evidence reasoning statement about a single demonstration. Here is my handout and some of the demos I set up

Getting to Know You

When we begin class I ask students to introduce themselves, rather than butchering their names on the roster. I take notes for myself. I ask students to share their name, and how they are feeling. I will also ask them to create a flipgrid introduction with a little more info. This allows me to have their pronunciation recorded so I can review it repeatedly. Here are the prompts:

1) State your first and last name
2) What is something you’re really into, or “your thing?” This could be an interest, hobby, job, talent, etc… anything!
3) Post a picture in your video of you doing your thing or a product from your thing
4) What is one thing you wonder about one (or more) of the demos from the first day? (I wonder why….)
5) Respond to at least TWO classmates!

Physics is for Everyone!

I am a STEP-UP advocate and one of the lesson plans in the program is the Careers in Physics. In the lesson students learn about the vast scope of employment opportunities with a physics degree and then are asked to create a career profile. Students do this by taking a super short survey where they check off their interests and values and then they are matched with a professional who shares their interests. You can access the lesson plan and resources here.

I hope you find these ideas useful! What else have you done to set the tone for the year? Drop it in the comments!


Illinois Physics and Secondary Schools Summer

I’m at physics summer camp.

That’s what I called the llinois Physics and Secondary Schools Partnership Program today while on the phone with my husband.

It’s not new information that teachers of physics are pulled in a lot of directions and are often under-trained.

Additionally, outside of major metropolitan areas, or areas with Universities, it’s not uncommon that a school has ONE physics teacher without any other physics teachers nearby. This is a deadly combination that not only leads to burnout, but in many cases mediocre to poor physics teaching. This is no fault of the teacher, but rather a consequence of their limited resources: knowledge, time and access.

Enter IPaSS. The program addresses all three.

Three years ago the team at UIUC contacted me about being one of the “master teachers” for the first year of the program. The main intention was to see how AP Physics C teachers would incorporate the recently redeveloped intro sequence (211/212) in their classes. Our summer was a lot of training and messing around, and also some sharing of practices. The four of us all came from very different schools and philosophies of thought, even through 3 out of the 4 had an education from UIUC.

Last year the program started to formalize a little by introducing 8 new teachers to the program, and now we are fully formalized with another 12. We get to spend an entire week (ok 4 days) sharing experiences, pedagogies, philosophies and materials…and we also have access to the high quality research-based materials from the University.


By bringing together teachers with 0-30 years experience, there is a wealth of knowledge in the room. This knowledge is not limited to physics, but also pedagogy and classroom practices. After your first year you are expected to bring your wealth of knowledge to the table in a more formal manner by presenting or running sessionrs.


The University of Illinois has a large and strong Physics Education Research group. The main professor of the program, Tim Steltzer has been doing PER for decades. This program gives teachers access to all of the materials that University Students in introductory physics use in their courses. This includes supplying teachers with a class set of iOLabs.


One of the best parts of the summer institute is that we have concentrated time to focus on specific areas of our teaching that we simply don’t have during the school year. During this time we are working with other teachers who have similar values and goals. The sessions are set up with enough flexibility that if you need to go off and work independently on a project you are able to do so.

Another cool part of the program? It is whatever you choose to make of it.

IPaSS physics summer camp with a smorgasbord of anything your heart could desire:

  • You want to lead other teachers in awesome methods you’ve learned? You’ve come to the right place
  • You need to boost your practice because you’re out of field or new? You’ve come to the right place
  • You are an experienced teacher that feels stuck in old ways? You’ve come to the right place
  • Your school lacks resources for high quality instruction? You’ve come to the right place
  • You want to be involved in scholarly research, publishing and presenting? You’ve come to the right place
  • You’re a PER post-doc or professor and need access to high school students/teachers for research? You’ve come to the right place.

Literally anything you can fathom can come out of this space.

Here was the schedule the first day

I’m so thankful to be part of such an amazing group of educators.

Teaching Methods

My Favorite Retake

At some point while considering equitable grading practices, I found myself searching the archives of TPT looking for some ideas regarding retakes. While I appreciate the idea of an honest retake, my experience has been that it is simply more time and effort on my part, and minimal effort and a hope to just “do better this time” on the part of my students. I ran across Jeff McManus’ article regarding the “box score” (“Retests”: A better method of test corrections)

 In short, when the students turn in their exam, they receive a blank copy of the exam and they get to redo it, using any resources. If the redo is perfect, their old score gets a bump on the square root curve. I liked this notion,  but had a dilemma—my exams in AP Physics are taken from secure college board documents which are not to leave my classroom. Additionally, I knew that certain groups of kids would work together, while others would not take the initiative to join a group, attempt to work on their own, and not reap as much of the benefits. Not wanting to lose the integrity or security of the exams I needed to make a modification on the assignment.

I informed students of the opportunity to do a retake. Since they needed time to really work the exam, I offered them a “collaboration day” during lunch (our students have a shared lunch hour). The retake would be the following day at lunch as well. (Collaboration day came and I was enthralled. Two thirds of my students came (this has increased to as high as 80%) , received a blank copy of the test, and started talking and working together. Large groups of students formed around white boards to tackle problems, the energy was palatable and the camaraderie was invigorating. Since the students had no number to form an idea how they had actually done on the exam, there was a wide range of abilities in the room.

One of my best students commented to me after collaboration day, “I thought I did really well, but I realize there was a lot I didn’t know” The need to score a perfect in order to obtain an increase in points also motivated students to grill each other for explanations until they understood and could reproduce the work themselves.

Retake day arrived and I had a full house. Students were able to finish their previously 40 minute exam in 20 or less because they knew how to attack the problems and most students were able to perfectly answer the problems.

I struggled, however, with the notion that students might memorize steps to a solution, rather than it being truly valid. I added a reflection component to the retake. Students needed to explain to me what they had previously misunderstood that now they comprehended. The reflections were telling. Students who had obtained 100% on the exam could clearly indicate their faults in either concept or problem-solving approaches. Students who were unable to obtain 100% were unable to adequately reflect on what they misunderstood.

I have continued this practice, in particular with the energy exam, for the last 5 years since I first came across the article. It is not my first or only method for re-assessments, but it is certainly a powerful one. A few changes and observations I’ve made over the years:

  1. To avoid the memorization piece, instead of testing next day, we test 5-7 days after the collaboration day in order for students to “forget”
  2. I had a really hard time not bumping a student who earned a 60% and then got all of the FRQ right and missed one MC. So I do a half-bump… so if the full bump is 10*sqrt(60) = 77, the half bump is 77-60/2 = 8.5 60+8.5 = 68.5, which I’ll likely round to 70 out of generosity.
  3. I’ve had one instance where a student with extreme anxiety and perfectionism this was problematic. I made alternative arrangements for that student ahead of the retake (they got 100 anyway).
Teaching Methods · Uncategorized

“Physics of” Projects – End of Year

Did you come here from a schoolology link? I’d love to know how you’re using this post! Feel free to contact me!

That time between AP exams and summer break is weird and special all at the same time. (If you’re looking for review ideas, here’s what I do before the exam) Depending on when your year starts it’s also possibly extensive. Watching movies and playing games is really only fun for about a week. If you are in all AP classes it gets old pretty fast when the whole day is mind-numbing for the next four weeks.

To use the time productively, and enjoyably, I assign a “physics of project”. I was actually inspired to do something like this after seeing Professor Gordon Ramsey continuously bring his undergraduate students in to Chicago Section AAPT meetings to present their original research. Most memorably I recall a project on music. The student who played saxophone in marching band, make a sax out of PVC and compared the tonal quality to a real sax using the same mouthpiece. He also did an acoustical analysis of his playing vs Professor Ramsey’s playing (which was really cool to basically see the differences between a “novice” marching band player vs an experienced improvisational player).

I believe that same meeting was the one where we hosted Rhett Allain who presented on the Science of Superheros.

The Prompt and Parameters

The prompt is simple: students are asked to research the physics behind anything they want.

The only real parameter is that whatever they choose they need to be able to collect and analyze data. If they cannot directly collect data then they need to find a way to come up with assumptions for measurements (analyzing videos, researching quantities) or find a way to model what they hope to research.

That’s it.

Ok, ok… I provide a little more structure than that, because we all know if given 2-4 weeks to complete a major project most students will put in 40 hours of work the 2 days before the deadline.

Here is what I provide:

Your task: In a group of 1-3 people:

  • Pick a topic to study the physics of. This can literally be anything, but it needs to be something that you can find a way to either physically model and/or otherwise collect data.
  • Research the topic and collect data. You may collect data inside or outside the classroom. Inside the classroom you have access to all probeware and software. If you are wondering if I have something, ask because I probably do. Outside the classroom your cell phone is your largest asset. Additionally, I have 4 iOLabs from the University of Illinois that can run nearly all of the data collection as my Vernier probes can. You may check one out for 2 consecutive days at a time. A sign up will be available next week.
  • Write a formal lab report (background, theory, purpose, procedure, data, analysis, conclusion etc)
  • Present your results in a 10-15 minute presentation. Come prepared with either a poster or slides because physics is visual!
    • When you present, you will be asked questions about the physics of your project and considerations to make it better. Be sure you’ve considered all of the assumptions you’ve made carefully and intentionally!

The first assignment students must provide me with is a project proposal. They need to have a concrete plan for how they plan to measure and analyze their data. This is submitted to me within the first week of the project. I provide students with feedback regarding their plans and suggestions as appropriate.

Next, I ask them to do some background research. It’s like a super watered down literature review. I want them using sources and learning a bit about what they are planning to study before they dive in. I ask for just a page.

The following few weeks they have a simple check in: what have you accomplished, what challenges are you running into, what do you need to do next. These check ins hold them accountable. All of the smaller assignments are included in the final grade.

The final product is a presentation and a paper. The paper is effectively a large lab report.

Students are given the following outline (dates were when we used to end on Memorial Day)

Student Products

Student projects are AMAZING

I will have many students analyze real data they’ve collected like this student who looked at the oscillations of her dog drying himself

Or I will have students analyze the physics of something they maybe cannot capture data directly, but they find ways to make estimates. Like this project on the physics of Nathen Chen

These projects have spanned everything from “is it possible?” in the movies, to students analyzing themselves in their own sport, to topics like rainbows that we don’t cover in AP Physics 1.

Students regularly report that this is their favorite activity the entire year, and the activity they are most proud of. (It also gives me a great story to tell in rec letters!)

When students give their presentations I want to run this much like if they were presenting research. I expect them to talk about what they might do or change if they did it again, or if they wanted to explore further. I ask them questions about their methodology and assumptions. During this process we also open the discussion to the whole class to brainstorm ideas as well.

Student work

If you want to see a sample, here is The Physics of Nathen Chen paper and the Wet Dog Slides and because we all need a little Monty Python, here’s a really extensive student paper on the Black Knight