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Day 2 of Physics Teacher Camp: Of prototypes and possibility

July 9, 2011

Today, at Physics Teacher Camp, we had another great day that energized me even more about the power of collaboration and the collective intelligence of groups, and just how rapidly people can connect when you’ve been getting to know each other for a long time via social media. So here’s a summary of most of what we did.

Physics Problem Solving Database

After our conversation last night to set up the design spec for the database, Andy, 1000 miles away from Delaware, put in a few hours to cobble together the following prototype of the database.

This is a totally awesome prototype, since it is minimally functional for testing purposes, but it also completely wows the user with one, “how did you do that?” feature, which in this case is full support for LaTeX equations. Long ago Andy figured out how to hack the codecogs.com LaTeX online equation editor to display equations quickly and simply, so he was able to copy and paste that code form an old peer assessment database he created to this new project, and it definitely impressed us with how cool this is going to be. We’ve started adding some problems to it, and once Andy has a chance to add a few more protections to it from malicious attacks, we’ll make it public for everyone to check out.

Matt Greenwolfe is a Modeling All-star

Matt Greenwolfe from Cary Academy joined us this morning, just as we were talking about how to how to graph and present data. It turns out that Matt has been thinking a lot about this, and he created an incredible set of visual basic macros to help students automate the tedious parts of making a graph (making the graph pretty), but also forcing them to do the hard parts on their own (choosing variables to plot on the axis and making the model fit the data). You simply have to see how this works to really get an idea of how cool it is, so I’ve put together a small and poorly narrated screencast showing it off here.

These macros are in active development and they work only in Excel for Windows 2010 and 2007 at the moment. There is some promise that we can get it to work for the mac. There are also bound to be a few bugs that you’ll come across, which is why you might want to play with it and test it out. Here’s a link to the download: Modeling_beta_7_7.xlsm.

You should also know that having Matt Greenwolfe come into your workshop midway through your conference is like bringing in Brian Wilson in the 7th inning to close our the game (Matt’s even got the Beard). Matt knows everyone related to Modeling and regaled us throughout the day with stories about the history of the program, conversations with David Hestenes and more tips and insights that you can handle.

More movies

We then showed off a number of the movies that we created yesterday, and I was impressed with just how quickly Josh is able to turn raw footage into awesome looking WCYDWTs, which I’m sure he’ll be posting soon. In the meantime, you can check out this video Mark Hammond made showing how to properly use a protractor to recopy a vector.


And in the afternoon, we recorded the following videos for a great WCYDWT for momentum. Here’s the raw footage to give you an idea.

Lab Practicums

We then moved on to working on Lab Practicums. If you haven’t heard of these before, a Lab Practicum is lab students do to demonstrate that they’ve mastered a particular model in the modeling curriculum. One of the classic practicums many physics teachers do is the “land the ball in the cup” practicum for projectile motion.

Frank and Fran shared the excellent resource book, Practicums for High School Physics Teachers (pdf order form). The book is $26, and well worth it in my opinion.

We also had a discussion on whether and how to grade practicums. Kelly felt that she only wants to grade things that show individual understanding, and so practicums aren’t graded because students work collaboratively on them. Matt said he doesn’t grade them because the lab itself gives the student the feedback he/she needs as to whether they understand the concept.

We tried to brainstorm up some additional practicums for units that don’t lend themselves easily to the topic. One very cool idea that was brought up was a test for unbalanced forces they did were they present the student with two ramps, inclined at 5\,^{\circ} and 10\,^{\circ}, and then students are shown a single car rolling down the 10 degree ramp from a predetermined point. Students are then asked to calculate where you need to place a second cart on the other ramp in order for the two carts to reach the bottom at the same time. Students then worked on their own for a double period (90 minutes) to try to calculate this, and when they thought they had an answer, they could go to the teacher and test it. If it didn’t work, they just went back to their table and kept working at it. This seemed like a great assessment for understanding that breaks the standard test mold, really gets students thinking, and set up arbitrary punishments for not getting the right answer the first time.

Kelly and Brian put together some videos and photographs further explaining this lab, and so I’d look for it on their blogs in the near future.

Project Based Learning

After Lunch, Rosalind Echols lead us in a discussion about project based learning (PBL), and I really came away with much better understanding of what PBL is and isn’t. First, PBL is a fantastic way to motivate students past the “why are we learning this questions” that can plague many physics curriculums, and frame the big ideas they’ll be learning. Rosalind creates these great presentations that pump students up to step into the role of litigators in a courtroom arguing whether a person deserves a ticket if they were photographed being next to another car that was traveling at 80 miles an hour, or to form a rock band and build and test their own musical instruments from scratch (big push here for Rosalind to create a blog and post some of this excellent stuff). Some pro tips I came away with are:

  • PBL works best when the project is tightly integrated with the unit. Don’t just introduce the unit—do a bunch of different stuff and come back to it 3 weeks later.
  • Don’t do projects right after tests. Kids learn the physics through doing the project. Rosalind has replaced almost all the tests in her class with projects.
  • PBL doesn’t mean you have to do projects that takes months to complete—in many ways WCYDWT is PBL, distilled down to 30 or 40 minutes.
  • When creating a group, survey students on their various strengths (design, construction, mathematics, etc), and then assemble groups with eye for balance across different areas.

Exam Recitations as awesome way to study

I won’t write a lot about this since I’m sure Kelly is going to blog about it, but Kelly and Mark have an awesome way to review with their students for the final exam. They give them a set of really hard physics problems that cover all of the material from the semester (or year, for the 2nd semester)—1 problem for each student. Students then draw names from a hat, and choose the problem that they would like to present to the class (they’re encourage to pick what they think is the hardest problem, so they’ll build up mastery in something difficult). Then students are given 3-4 days to work individually on all the problems. On the last few days before the exam, students present the problems they were assigned in 12 minute sessions, and other students (and visiting faculty) question and comment on their work.

The problems Kelly asks her students to do are gut wrenchers, and the packet itself looks totally intimidating to a sophomore, but by the end, her students have surmounted all of them and leave with a tremendous feeling of accomplishment, feeling very well prepared for the exam.

During some of the back and forth of our group Brian Carpenter said

In this group there are people who don’t agree, but we still work together well.

I totally agree. So I’ll close out with a couple of other tips and tricks that I remembered to write down:

  • Frank suggested replacing the broom in the traditional broom ball activity (where you hit a bowling ball with a broom to understand ideas of inertia), with a rubber mallet, since students aren’t aware of the amount of force they exert with the broom, and the mallet forces them to exert a small series of impulses.
  • Matt suggested a wonderful circular motion lab—the pendulum. Simply attach a force sensor to the string to measure the tension force, and use either energy analysis or a photogate to measure the velocity of the mass at the bottom. Subtract off the weight of the bob, and you’ve got a measurement of the net force on the mass when it is at the bottom of its motion. Josh suggested that if you did this measurement elsewhere, you could also explore centripetal and tangential acceleration, and how the simple uniform circular model doesn’t hold up in this instance.

And one more thing—tomorrow morning we’re going to kick things off with a discussion of Standards Based Grading. Kelly and Matt have some very interesting ideas for ways to make it even more awesome. And we’d love to extend an open invite for you to join us via skpye. The discussion will probably take place around 10am or so. If you want to participate, simple drop me an email or a DM.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2011 11:45 am

    Sounds like you are all having fun. The floating-dock videos need some sound editing (silence is better than the “starting recording” voice, and some light music would be ok).

    If these are to be WCYDWT videos, are they 1st act or 2nd act? What questions are you trying to elicit from the students? Or are they just demos, not WCYDWT?

    For graphing, I usually recommend gnuplot, but like many open-source projects it has succumbed to “creeping featurism” and is now almost impossible to install, needed dozens of obscure and arcane libraries to be installed first.

    • July 10, 2011 1:44 am

      The videos definitely need editing and sound correction. I think we will turn them into a nice WCYDWT, but to do that, we need to incorporate two more videos we filmed today, showing the weights of the students. GNUPLOT is a great recommendation, but it might be a bit over the top in terms of learning curve for some teachers and students. Also, it doesn’t quite do what Matt’s simulation does in terms of forcing you to fit the relationship by manually adjusting the parameters of the fit.

  2. July 9, 2011 10:02 pm

    sounds great what the gang is doing. I am always working towards more projects, I also need to get them tighter with standards, especially since I am doing SBG. Thanks for sharing

  3. Matt Greenwolfe permalink
    July 13, 2011 10:41 am

    Jjust want to let you know how much I enjoyed the conference and how much I learned from all of you. This was a great idea, and the informal structure let conversations continue as long as they needed to. As I got to know each person, I found myself trying to glean what was unique about their teaching practice. The ideas were coming so fast, I definitely couldn’t hold on to all of them. I would definitely come back if you have it again, and have started talking to people in North Carolina about how to do something similar here.

    Also, John Makous and Mike Turner from Providence Day School in Charlotte should be credited with the excel graphing app along with me. We had all discussed the the way other graphing programs failed to support modeling as we would like, but it was John’s idea to use excel to write the app and his initial design of all the elements and how they fit together with the spin buttons for the constants, etc. I did the programming to make it more interactive.

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