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An interesting exchange

August 27, 2010

I got the following email this morning from a parent at a far away school.:

Dear Mr. Burk,

My name in <redacted>. I currently live in <redacted>. I came across your name while searching for some help for my daughter who has just starting taking physics this year. I was searching for help with the Modeling workshop physics course and ran across your blog from when you were teaching at Sidwell Friends School. What I am interested in is if you know of any online programs the help in learning physics that would correlate with the Modeling workshop course. Sadly, my daughter’s teacher has been of little help in that regards.  I took physics 15 years ago and don’t remember much. I think that if I could find some online help that I could review and then help her. Any help you could give would be appreciated.

Geeze, I didn’t realize my Sidwell blog was still up. I’ll have to check that out.

My response:

Dear <redacted>,

As far as I know, there are no online modeling courses. This would pretty much be against the sprit of modeling, which really tries to get students to see how science flows from direct experiment and observation. You are very close to where the modeling curriculum was originally developed at Arizona State, and it might be worth checking out some of their freely available material to get a sense of the modeling approach.

If, your daughter simply wants practice with problem solving, and a bit more direct instruction about physics, there are lots of resources that might be helpful.

The physics classroom is a free online textbook that is pretty good. It even has some problems that guide the student step by step through finding the solution.

Kahn academy, which has been in the news a bit lately also has a number of physics videos that are free and probably useful.

The key to success in modeling is really understanding what a model is—that it is a collection of ideas (not just equations) that can be used describe and predict the behavior of things we observe around us. The most important part of the process is discerning when a model is valid for a particular system, ie. a constant velocity model can describe a plane flying to LA from NYC very well while it is in the air, but it cannot make good predictions of its motion during takeoff and landing.

The curriculum works to get students to discover these models through genuine experiment, guided by careful questions from their teacher. It can often be a bit of a shock for students who are used a another approach to science where the teacher simply presents the formulas to be memorized, however, a fair amount of research shows that this approach leads to a richer and more lasting understanding of the subject. My experience has been that students who are initially uncomfortable with this approach do grow into it, and by the end of the year, really appreciate its value.

Hope this helps,


His response:


Thank you so much for you insight. You have truly helped make a difference as we approach this material. I didn’t really understand the whole modeling approach until today.

thank you and God bless,

Wow! I just wish all my interactions with parents could be this easy. 🙂 But seriously, it was nice to help someone else see a bit of what I find enjoyable in physics.I hope I live up to my words in my classes, and my kids (and their parents) are writing teachers across the country about how little help I’m giving them.

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