Teaching Methods

Radical Renovations: The iOLab

I visited my alma mater today. The entirety of Green Street on campus is closed to traffic due to all of the construction. Buildings have gone down and come up and I half expected time to still be frozen in the year 1967 in the physics building.

When I walked in I found quite the opposite. Not only newly renovated rooms, but there is actually a women’s bathroom on the fourth floor. (This was always a running joke)

The reason I spent 6 hours in my car today, however, was to visit the Physics 101 class. iolab_remotes_redMy former adviser, Mats Selen, has been working on a new project: the iOLab. The concept is simple, it’s a multisensor system in a box. And it can do everything your $10,000 of Vernier equipment can do… for a little over $100. It connects wirelessly to your computer and runs with free, opensource software that does all of the analysis our expensive programs run.

On the other side of the coin, however, is a radical change in how the introductory level classes are being taught. When students walked into the lab, they had done a pre-lab experiment earlier…..at home…..with their iOLabs. Quite simply, they made a stack of books, put another book on top by its edge and then looked to see how the force changed with the iOLab as it was placed at different distances from the book stack. Data were submitted ahead of time for credit. Students discussed the results at the beginning of the lab and then were given their task. It’s the classic peg-board demo, however, students had to find a way to relate the force to the placement of the probe if the pivot was located in the top corner.

This was the sum total of the direction given to students.

Within about 20 minutes all students were taking measurements. Some were looking only horizontally, others were looking both horizontally and vertically. Questions arose about the approach: if we change the angle at which we hold the probe the force will change. Are we supposed to do this with a horiztontal force too? I think that’s impossible.

They were told it’d be great if they came up with a mathematical relationship, but they’re just looking for the trends.

Within an hour students were plotting their data, recognizing it was an inverse relationship and running the curve.

One group really wanted to get the formula.

Another group recognized the torques should be equal and started calculating all of the torques. Percent uncertainty was one of the objectives focused on, so I wanted to see how well they were grasping that concept. I looked at the torques and noticed the values were .14, .14, .14, .15, .16. So I asked them how they were going to decide that those were constant and not increasing. They responded that they would have to determine their percent uncertainty and compare what was acceptable to those values.

Now, clearly there are major differences between high school junior and seniors and pre-med juniors and seniors, but at the same time, it was still remarkable how they were approaching the lab, developing their experiment and writing up their labs. It is something that very much excites me about the potential use in the high school classroom (and online classrooms, and college classrooms etc)

I also asked students about their previous physics experiences. About half reported they had taken physics in high school, ranging from regular level to AP Physics 1. ALL students reported that they felt they had a FAR BETTER grasp of physics now in this course, compared to their high school course. Several students who said this felt the need to insist they still had a great high school teacher 🙂

The message, however, is clear: we need to give our students the opportunity to design and evaluate their experiments.

Also, the iOLab is a very exciting new piece of equipment. Morten Lundsgaard, currently the Coordinator of Physics Teacher Development
Instructor, is hoping to run workshops and/or a camp for high school teachers. If you are interested you should contact him!

Teaching Methods · Uncategorized

Teaching to Reach the Introvert

My second-grade teacher called my mom concerned that I didn’t play with any of the kids at recess: I read a book under a tree instead. When my mom asked if this was a problem the teacher reported that I wouldn’t have any friends. I was elected to represent our class for the school council that year.

Research indicates that as much as 50-74% of the population is extroverted. It is generally viewed as a valued quality: put yourself out there, be friendly, be social. These are the rules society dictates whether it is on the elementary playground or in the workplace. Our culture favors extroversion, and many of the qualities associated with introversion are erroneously viewed as a failure to be able to advocate and insecurities with oneself.

Nowhere does extroversion seem to get a higher reward than in the classroom.  There is a huge emphasis on team and group projects, and the excellent teacher is often seen as the one where energy runs high in the room, rather than examining student behaviors and conversations. During the majority of my high school experience, most classes had a participation grade. If I did not speak in class I was guaranteed nothing higher than an 80% for participation, regardless of the fact that the rest of my work was A-work. I despised the participation grade. Some teachers pride themselves on their use of the Socratic method, but research has indicated that it’s execution this can offer the opportunity for gender bias: male students are more likely than female students to shout out or offer answers to questions, regardless of if they are correct. Teachers, in turn, are more likely to respond to those students and the quiet students are left in the dust.

I want to make perfectly clear that I am in no way, shape or form suggesting that classroom participation, presentations, and conversations should be abandoned, far from it! All of these skills are important and required for any field and for success. At the same time, if we are trying to reach all students in a way that they learn best, then we have to offer comfortable environments for the introverts in addition to the extroverts.

present
One of my extroverts discussing the solution to the problem. All students in this group worked on the same problem in pairs, then came to consensus before presenting to the class

Science is all about collaboration and presentation. Students who think otherwise are in for a very rude awakening as they approach their senior year of college and enter the workforce or graduate school. A method I have recently adopted is whiteboarding. At the spring meeting of the Chicago Section of AAPT, Kelley O’Shea presented on standards-based grading in physics and lead a workshop on whiteboarding methods. (See her blog!) One of the most important aspects of whiteboarding (and teaching, for that matter) is fostering an environment where it is safe to share and safe to be wrong. In the lab setting, this consists of all of the students putting their lab results on a large whiteboard and standing in a large circle. Students comment on similarities and ask questions about differences on the boards.

 

whiteboard1
Sample board and commentary from students. Students assess each other’s final answers and reasoning in addition to the quality of the presented work. 

I have used this method in my teaching, but I have also included a variation on the model. Occasionally (and in the interest of time and space) I have students circulate the room to examine each of the boards. They are still asked to consider similarities and differences, but I ask them to write questions and comment down on a smaller whiteboard next to each of the large ones. After we have done this, students return to their boards, read the feedback and then I open the floor to comment on similarities and differences. This provides the introverts with a huge advantage: they still get to collaborate in their small groups, but they receive the wealth of information in the large group as well as having another avenue to participate in the whole group discussion.

 

The second whiteboarding method I find to be highly effective with my introverts, shy students and students who struggle is what Kelley fondly dubs, “whiteboard speed dating”. In this exercise, students are paired at a board and the entire class is given the same problem. Here’s the catch: the problem is goalless, it does not end in “calculate the _____”. Students are two write anything on the board they can (diagrams, equations, graphs, etc) in the time allotted (1-3 minutes). When time is up, partners split, everyone moves around the room to an adjacent desk and now they have a new board, a new partner, and a new perspective. The first time I tried this I, admittedly, was anxious for my most introverted student. She did not speak. ever. even to me. ever. even when asked a question. about anything. Within 3 rotations she was explaining the problem to her partner, and I’ll add: not a student she typically worked with. Working in this manner gave her the confidence to collaborate with another student. Would she get up in front of the class and explain the problem? Not today. But maybe eventually.