Moving toward project based learning—part 2: the end goal—Be like Rhett
In my last post, I detailed the frustration I felt this year with feeling that I was teaching my students to be expert problem solvers and not much more. In particular, I want my students to move beyond solving the problems I give them and instead find their own questions and problems, develop their own ways of solving them, and then develop ways of evaluating their solutions.
In short, I want my students to be like Rhett. I can’t imagine there’s anyone out there who reads this blog and doesn’t know Rhett Allain, the godfather of physics blogging, but let me explain why Rhett is the perfect intellectual role model for my students.
- Rhett is a master problem finder. He’s the guy who wonders just how hard you have to pedal to make a human power helicopter fly, figures out the power source of a light saber, calculates the cost of data in all its many forms, debunks power balance bracelets, and much more. Rhett also isn’t just doing analysis, he’s devising his own experiments, Measuring the radius of the earth, finding drag force on a Nerf vortex disk, and the location of the accelerometer on an iPod touch.
- Rhett is constantly learning and developing new problem solving strategies and techniques. He uses tracker to measure camera shake in order to debunk viral videos, tracker to measure spectra, and even more cool, he makes posts explaining his methods for his fans to follow along at home, e.g. How to Make Your Own Angry Birds Experiment.
- Rhett makes mistakes and shares them openly. This is huge. Watch Rhett go through a detailed analysis of a ceiling fan, only to realize at the end his enthusiasm to analyze had caused him to neglect the changing acceleration, or see him explain his mistakes in his preliminary analysis of Angry Birds Space.
- Rhett is a master at evaluating and extending his solutions. Rhett rarely stops when he’s found an answer. When he calculates how many Lego pieces it would take to make a scale model of the Death Star, he has to go further and calculate the cost of those pieces and the energy required to put them in orbit, and even what it would look like in orbit. And he often invites his readers into his work by assigning homework questions, like figuring out the time it would take to construct this model.
- Rhett emphasizes understanding over calculations. You can see this by reading just about any of Rhett’s posts. He never presents a naked equation; every equation is accompanied with an explanation of its meaning. He spells out clearly the significance of his findings, like he did in calculating how an 85 mi/h speed limit would affect your car’s gas mileage.
I think you can see these are some pretty amazing skills for students to learn. Really, these are just the traits of a good scientist, but they will serve my students well wether or not they choose to pursue a career as a professional scientist.
I know what you’re thinking—Rhett is a tenured professor of physics who has been studying physics for more than two decades. Is it really reasonable to expect my students to do all the awesome things he does? No, of course not. And my guess is that if Rhett’s physics education is anything like a typical physics student’s education, his early physics course may have been setting him up for just the same “physics as problem solving worldview” that my students learned. But somehow, Rhett transcended this view, and I want to help my students to do the same.
I do think my students can also be like Rhett in a scaled down way. A great example of this is his analysis of whether expensive batteries are worth the cost. This is a beautifully simple experiment that my students could easily perform themselves, and I’m sure at least one of my students has asked this question the question when standing in line at the drug store trying to decide which battery to buy. I think my challenge is to get my students to do more than just wonder, and instead make them feel compelled to do something to find the answer.
So how do I teach my students to be like Rhett? First, I hope that’s something Rhett will weigh in on when he reads this post. I’ve got a few ideas for how to do this myself, and I’ll put those in the next post in this series.