Teacher Development Through a University Partnership AAPT SM 2022

I’ve written about this amazing partnership a few times. I gave a talk on the program at the summer national meeting this year. Check it out!


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


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 · 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


University-High School Physics Partnership Enhances Classrooms Statewide

The following article I wrote was published in the Rockford Register Star October 17, 2021

Only 15-25% of students in the region graduate with a physics course on their transcript.

Yet physics is seen as a gateway course to science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors.

Simply taking a physics course in high school correlates to higher ACT and SAT scores, success in any college science course and tenacity in college science programs.

Physics majors, on average score highest on both the medical (MCAT) and law (LSAT) entrance exams.

In the region, we have many employment opportunities in these fields such as Collins Aerospace, Thermal Fisher and three different hospitals. In short, robust high school physics programs have a direct impact on college admissions and future employment. Yet our programs are lacking.

This is not a problem unique to the Rockford region. Though the state of Illinois boasts some of the top physics degree programs in the nation and two of seventeen national labs, low enrollment is typical across the state outside of the Chicago area.

It’s a vicious cycle: few sections means a full-time physics teacher is not necessary so the physics sections go to an out-of-field teacher. This is not unusual; only 24% of physics teachers nationwide have a physics degree.

Without a robust background in physics, and without other colleagues with whom to collaborate, teaching physics can be an immense challenge and very isolating, particularly for out-of-field teachers. This directly impacts the quality of instruction which ultimately impacts the student population and the community at large. The physics enrollment problem also disproportionately affects communities with lower incomes and higher diversity. 

To address this challenge, the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC) established the Illinois Physics and Secondary Schools (IPaSS) partnership last year.

In 2019 four “master” teachers were invited to the program, of whom I was one. For the second year, the program opened up eight more fellowship positions.

Three of those have gone to Rockford area teachers Jennifer Grady at Hononegah, Elizabeth Gonzalez at Belvidere High School and Leonard Friedhoff at Freeport High School. Anna Wetherholt at Dekalb High School and Julie Zaborac from West Aurora are also involved, creating a local network of skilled, passionate teachers.  

The program consists of strong support from the university and intense professional development. Teachers spent two weeks together over the summer learning how to use the research-based materials from UIUC that are also used in their courses and then modified and developed these materials for their own use.

These materials include the online lectures, homework system as well as the iOLab, an innovative device created at the University that does everything the thousands of dollars of typical equipment can do, but in a small box for about $150. At UIUC every physics student purchases one of these devices for their lab sections, typically running smaller experiments at home prior to the lab section.

During the pandemic my high school students had these devices at home which allowed them to fully engage in labs remotely. Often students struggle with the college transition. Students of IPaSS teachers who move on to UIUC will use the same content and materials, bridging the gap between high school and college expectations. 

The four of us “expert teachers” also lead daily workshops related to not only the University material use in classrooms but also strategies related to teaching physics and course layout ideas.

We have discussed using this model to prepare teachers to present at local and national conferences. Not only is the program equipping teachers with resources, it is also empowering teachers as leaders.

During the school year teachers meet every other week for an hour to check in on goals, share ideas, struggles and materials. Indeed, it is exactly what district administrators expect us to do in our professional learning communities, but we never have other physics teachers to work with.

All of the participants have positive reflections. Jennifer Grady at Hononegah shared how valuable having concentrated time to work and connect with so many physics teachers is for her own practice.

Elizabeth Gonzalez at Bleivdere shared that she would encourage others to apply because “We can always find other ideas and resources that can improve our practice and we can always help others to find what they need.” Julie Zaborac at West Aurora shared, “I get more ideas and feedback from this group than I could possibly receive anywhere else.”

Most teachers care deeply about their craft, but often must find a balance between the ideal classroom they envision and what they have the time and resources to create. The IPaSS program provides a space where teachers can make these decisions with evidence-based practices while also growing in our craft. 

UIUC would like to see the program continue to expand, doubling participation each year, to increase the quality of physics education state-wide. Applications are currently being accepted for 16 spots for next year. 


Reflecting on the Year of COVID

I think I’m ready to reflect on last school year: the year of COVID-19. While we may not be post-pandemic, and while a myriad of mitigations will likely still be in place next fall, we have three effective vaccines, and nearly no mystery left.

Over the course oof 180 days we had 4 different schedules.

For the first 130 days we had 100 contact minutes with students per week, down from what would normally be 250 minutes.

I created and recreated so. many. materials.

This was the word cloud from our employee engagement survey in September. In hindsight I’m able to see and respect the positive words much better now than a year ago today.

There were two decisions I made at the start of the year:

1. Relationship, connection, belonging and compassion come above all else

2. Teaching students that there is more than one way to learn.

I created and kicked off my classes with this idea

What did I learn?

My students are far more incredible and capable than I’d ever given them credit. Even with half the instructional time, I’m pretty confident about my AP student preparation for the exam. My regular level physics students were doing incredible work by the end of the year, with much stronger evidence of learning.

I need to reevaluate my purpose. I believe my purpose is to equip students with skills to do science and to be critical thinkers about the field of science. This doesn’t require a specific number of topics, it requires depth of opportunity. In my regular level class I slowed the pace way down. Work and energy and momentum spilled into second semester and I did not get to electricity and magnetism. However, by testing students frequently, retrieval practices, standards based grading, among other things, my students truly learned and grew in ways I was surprised and delighted to see.

Digging into identity is a special privilege. I was really surprised by how much certain students opened up in their reflections. I also saw some of my students make growth in their own self-perceptions as we learned about scientist after scientist after scientist.

Where do we go from here?

The easy answer is: not back to the way things were.

We just can’t. It would make all of our time and energy this past year worthless.

I can’t go back to teaching in such a way that I lack trust in my students to truly drive their own learning

I can’t go back to teaching in such a way that my classroom is somehow a bubble of “classical Newtonian Mechanics” rather than a microcosm of the society and systems we live within.

I can’t go back to a place where compassion has boundaries, statutes and limitations.

I can’t go back. Only forward.

Memories and Student Feedback During the Year


Resilient Teaching during the Pandemic

Teaching during the pandemic has created a heightened sense of every emotion imaginable. Teachers were shocked and enraged that districts would ask them to return to the classroom in the fall. Scared about the safety of themselves, their own families and their students. Overwhelmed by the demands placed upon them to reinvent their craft while simultaneously needing to engage more with students, connect more with families, communicate more with colleagues. The  sheer amount of “more” is enough to feel like we are drowning. 

As many schools begin to reset, and in some cases reinvent themselves, it’s easy to ask “can I really do this any longer?” the answer to that question inevitably will have to be “yes” for most teachers, but how? 

Teach with compassion. Many teachers have been doing this from the start, but it remains an important reminder. What is it you hope to truly teach and instill in your students? Is it a large collection of facts or is it more than that? It is easy in any year to say “that child is failing because they will not engage” and place the blame on the student, the parents or the environment. While this is never the right approach, it is even more problematic under the current circumstances. Behind the black boxes and muted microphones there are real, live children. Many of whom want desperately to not fail this year, but often lack the courage to ask for help. Many of them already blame themselves for their apathy and lack of motivation. It is upon us to teach with abundant and unending compassion. 

Practice genuine gratitude. When yet another change comes down the line it is easy to quickly become upset, apprehensive and defensive. The complaints begin to gush like an open hydrant, often directed at individuals who barely have more control than we teachers do. When everything is manageable we tend to keep our heads down and just do the work. Take a moment to look up for a moment and express genuine, specific gratitude. Share it with your students, your colleagues, your administrators. We all need to be teaching and leading with compassion, and part of compassion is the ability to share appreciation. 

Find and celebrate the bright moments. There is no doubt that this is one of the most challenging school years for all of us. There is no debate that the vast majority of this school year is dark. For this reason it is all the more important to find the bright moments. What has the pandemic caused you to do to or learn or focus upon that you might not have in another year? Who has been a source of comfort or stability at this time? When did your students impress or surprise you, even in the face of everything we are struggling with today? Name those moments. Write them down. Share them with someone trusted. 

When met with the fire of adversity we have two choices. We can let it burn us alive, or it can refine our personhood leaving us stronger, wiser and more compassionate towards those around us. 


School in a Sitcom Structure

25 minutes. In the length of time it takes to watch a sitcom on Netflix, I’m expected to engage 25-30 students in physics. Time has a funny way of shaping our priorities.

This week I started reading Ainissa Ramierez’ book The Alchemy of Us. It is a new release and if you are the kind of person who loves fascinating connections I strongly recommend this read. In the first three chapters Ramierez focuses on time and clocks, steel and the railway system and the telegraph and communication. What endures for me is the thread within these three chapters of time. Modern transportation and telecommunications effectively shrink our world, bringing all of us closer together by reducing the time required for an interaction.

The time permitted for interactions with our students has been slashed dramatically. In a normal school year I would have 50×5=250 contact minutes with each class. In our pandemic model that time has been cut in half.

Teachers have panicked about “getting through” material and wondering how much more they can sacrifice from their curricula. Meanwhile administration and society continues to discuss the “learning loss” or COVID-slide, which, mark my words will end up being measured by some new costly exam from Pearson.

When time is stolen from us, we have the opportunity to recognize what is important.

As a teacher it’s important for me to recognize that the enduring teachings and understandings my students will walk away with have little to nothing to do with physics content. It would be arrogant to think otherwise. Who would I be, to think that my teaching of physics content is so life-changing that it is absolutely critical to a student’s future? The sheer diversity and variety of curricula attest to this fact. Yet, students can choose to pursue whatever field they desire, provided the opportunities, the awareness, and most importantly, mentorship.

What is enduring?

Problem solving skills. The ability to question. Discernment. Attention to details. Skepticism.

If we can teach our students to think like experts, and masterfully tackle a challenge, does it really matter the volume of content we use to teach these skills?

I’ve had similar conversations regarding final exams. At 20% of the overall grade, finals do very little to move a student’s letter grade. Final exams provide me with little information I already know from weekly assessments, except for showing me who studied for finals and who did not. Our administration has directed us to give “holds harmless” finals, meaning a final exam cannot hurt, but only help a student’s grade. Many teachers are insistent on giving their traditional finals, even though the district is not providing us with a traditional finals schedule. Add to the fact that the PSAT has taken away one day during finals week (because, clearly the answer to learning loss is running the PSAT/SAT not one, but five times this year), and a second day is purely for enrichment and student support, yet teachers are going to force this upon students anyway. I cannot help but ask “to what end?” What is engrained so deeply in our own academic culture that we feel this is the only way learning can and should happen? Is it, perhaps, a byproduct of the Puritan mentality that every minute must be spent in productivity, that “time is money?”

There have been numerous reports that black and brown students have thrived in remote learning. Many of these reflect specifically on microaggressions in schools, but I cannot help but wonder if perhaps a component has been the ability for students to take ownership of their own time through asynchronous learning opportunities. I consider how, in my own circles, we often joke about “Greek time” or “Arab time” and wonder if the strict, factory-like bell schedules and “on time every time” mentality potentially creates another layer of hostility to the learning environment.

In a time of great opportunity to shift the narrative of what it means to teach and learn, so many have dug their heels into the ground of a crumbling system. If Schitt’s Creek and Arrested Development can tell a compelling story in 30 minutes, why can’t we teach meaningful academic lessons in the same time?


Not all SciComm is Excellent Teaching

I haven’t blogged recently, but in the midst of a pandemic, when teaching is really hard I take the art and the craft of teaching more seriously than ever. Unfortunately the phrase “those who can’t do, teach” has become a popular motto, bolstered by the way in which teachers are generally treated as simple public servants rather than highly educated and trained professionals. Along with this comes all of the opinions that everyone has about education. The common rebuttal is that just because I’ve been sick doesn’t mean I diagnose and treat myself…I go see the doctor. 

It seems that everyone thinks they can teach, but teaching is hard. Teaching physics is harder. Teaching so students can be successful on AP Physics 1 is arguably the hardest endeavor I’ve taken on. 

So The Physics Girl, Dianna Cowern, has decided that she is going to teach the world physics. Specifically for the AP Physics 1 exam. I have loved all of Diana’s work since I caught her “what is color” challenge video and I have used many of her videos ever since to excite and inspire students. Dianna has a degree in physics, worked and studied at top institutions, she has also done extensive outreach work prior to being a major scicomm personality and has received numerous accolades for her work in education. I love and have great respect for Dianna and her work. Naturally, I wanted to watch her Physics 101 videos to see if they would be a great resource for my students. I’m always looking for good resources, especially right now. 

Sadly, I was completely disappointed, although not particularly surprised. I shared a quick blurb on Twitter and quickly got attacked by random followers of hers. One even asking “as a baseline, what is your physics education” 

Over the years I’ve learned a great way to get a sense of a source’s pedagogy in physics is to check out how they discuss work and energy. You could argue that the whole of science is summed up in this topic. 

In my course, and in AP Physics 1, we start by defining systems. Then we can discuss how work adds or removes energy from the environment to the system and the transfer of energy within the system. We spend several days working with these conceptual models before even touching equations or calculations. Dianna’s video starts by defining work as force times distance. I will be the first to admit that this is exactly how I started the unit when I was a novice teacher! That is part of the trouble, as a novice you tend to teach how you’ve been taught, not necessarily through evidence based research methods (an unfortunate pitfall of too many teacher prep programs). From there, you have to get about half-way through the video before Dianna begins to explain the concept of changes, transfers and reference points. This part of energy is absolutely critical to comprehension, but it is a side conversation without any accompanying visuals or further discussion. Instead, she jumps into the potential energy calculation. 

Another topic that I’ve shifted over the course of my career is forces. Within the #iteachphysics twitterverse we had intense conversations about inertia (thanks Joe) and why the typical phrasing of Newton’s Laws is problematic. When I taught Newton’s three laws formally, I had my students change the words “action” and “reaction” in the third law to “force”. Furthermore, I now define a force, not as a “push or pull” but as an interaction between objects. This is so important because it now becomes really difficult for students to make up random forces. Students love to make up random forces on force diagrams. Fapp shows up all the time, but when you require students to define a force as an interaction and name the objects interacting, not only does the ambiguous Fapp become obsolete, Newton’s third law becomes a natural consequence. 

However, aside from these language and pedagogy criticisms, my problem with Dianna’s work runs far deeper. Physics has the reputation of being too hard for most people to do or understand. Dianna has this incredible platform that has made physics accessible and interesting to so many people. On top of it, she’s not an old white guy with spectacles talking about the secrets of the universe, she’s a bubbly, attractive young woman and she frequently features a diverse range of other scientists in her videos. This is such important work and cannot be diminished. She had an incredible idea to create these videos and they really could have served as an incredible launch point for students interested in physics thinking “maybe I can do this”

Unfortunately, in our nation only 24% of teachers who teach a physics course have a degree in physics. I don’t have the numbers, but I would argue even fewer pay attention to the latest in Physics Education Research and evidence based methods. The biggest challenge in teaching physics is helping students work through the first 6-8 weeks of the course. I am very clear with my students that this is a normal adjustment period that all first-year students of physics experience regardless of age or level of the course. The challenge in physics is that to truly tackle problems efficiently you need to be able to look at a problem, identify the big idea, and then pull out the necessary components about that big idea to apply to the problem. This is what has been defined in the research as “expert thinking” which differs from “novice thinking”. Essentially, a novice will see a problem and try to force it into a previous homework problem based on whatever minutia is presented to them. A great example of this is when my AP students are presented with a graph of velocity vs time of two objects and they are asked to determine if there is an external force. To be completely honest, most students just guess. They typically say “no” because the velocities end up coming to the same place on the graph. The expert recognizes this as an Impulse-Momentum problem. The expert will then find the change in velocity of each object and see if there is an equal transfer of momentum between the two. Asking students to approach problems in this manner has never been required of them before, especially at the high-school level. The only way to get students there is to model the process, and require them to actively engage and wrestle with the material frequently. None of this is about equations. Equations and math are simply the tool. Weaving the concepts together and identifying what is important is the art of physics. 

When I made my initial post I had a lot of backlash from random, non-educator followers of Dianna insisting that physics is math therefore I shouldn’t criticize the math approach in the videos. What Dianna’s videos are creating is a misleading sense of familiarity with equations, but familiarity is not comprehension, nor is it what is required of a physics student. Physics students need to be able to apply and synthesize concepts in order to properly apply the mathematics. I often tell my students that math will never be the hard part of this course. Half of my AP1 students are taking calculus, and the hardest math thing in AP1 is solving a system of two equations! As for familiarity with equations, if that was all that was required to be a great physics student then the equation sheet should serve as a cheat-sheet to success. Teaching physics is truly an art, and I am 100% confident had Dianna reached out to excellent AP teachers she would have had lots of wonderful ideas and support. Once again, teachers are put on the sidelines and our expertise is neglected.