Dot Physics

Spring 2010 Course Reflections

And lo and behold. Another semester has ended. I was going to post about somethings from my physical science course (for non-science) majors. Then I noticed that both Ethan at Starts With a Bang! and Farady’s Cage posted about their semester reflections. I vote that the academic blogging community make this a tradition.

This semester, I had 3 courses. Here is a brief overview of what I learned.

Physics for Scientists and Engineers II

This is the electricity and magnetism part of the intro physics course. As I said before, I used Matter and Interactions (Chabay and Sherwood). I am not going to really talk about how awesome this textbook is, instead I will talk about how class went.

First, there were not too many students in this course. On the order of 15. I think I found a plan that works for these students. Here are the details of the class.

  • Homework is assigned on WebAssign. WebAssign sometimes has its issues, but in this case it does the job. First, the homework problems are already in there and I think the ones that go with Matter and Interactions are pretty good.
  • The homework is worth zero points in the course. I was pleasantly surprised to find that most students did it. It was nice to have discussions about homework where they were trying to figure out the material instead of trying to get the points.
  • For class, I started off the semester just doing “clicker” questions (student response system). The instructor materials for Matter and Interactions includes a fine set of multiple choice questions to use in class. We would look at a question and sometimes have very excellent discussions.
  • Along with the clicker questions, I would give a “practice” question that was of the same type they would see on the test. I would let them work on this in class using whatever they wanted (they could ask me questions too). After they worked on it, we would discuss the answer or a student would present his/her solution.
  • Towards the end of the semester, I started to give short lectures on the material before doing the clicker questions.

So, what did I learn? I shouldn’t have done the lectures. I don’t think the students really got anything out of them if they hadn’t read the textbook. If I just go straight to the clicker questions, it is clear they should be reading the textbook. Also, clicker questions and responses are great. One day, only about 6 students showed up and I didn’t use the clickers – that was a mistake. Always use the clickers. It gives students ownership of their responses and you can wait until everyone has had a chance to think about the questions.

Physics for Elementary Education Majors

There really isn’t too much to say here. I have been teaching a learning facilitator for this course for a really long time, and I really like it. First, it is a 5-contact hour course – so it counts as a lecture and a lab. The curriculum is awesome (Physics for Everyday Thinking – Goldberg, Robinson, Otero). I love seeing some students really make the transition from “learning as repeating what the authority says” to learning as the building of ideas. Not all students make this transition, but enough do that I am happy.

Did I learn anything in this class? Of course. First, I should say that I did give homework, but it is not graded. I used to grade it because it was important (to me). I found that too many students were just copying it, that I stopped grading it. I still say that it is required, and I will look over turned in homework as well as give feedback. Some students still copy (I have no idea why – I guess old habits die hard). So it turns out that many students just don’t do the homework. They should. I constantly encourage them to do so.

This semester, I tried something new. I gave a bonus project. This may seem like a conflict of ideas where the bonus seems a lot like a homework. However, in this case, it really isn’t worth a significant amount of points. The initial reason for this bonus project was to serve as a pressure release valve. Students kept asking for something, so I stole a project from the other faculty that teaches this course (thanks Gina!). After using this project for a semester (only about 8 students did it), I think it has some use other than just bonus.

For the bonus project, the idea is that students (future teachers students) will take some idea from the class and do an activity with some kids (as few as two will work). They have to then record the activity, transcribe it and write up an analysis of how it went. I added the final feature that the student and I would sit down and discuss how this went and agree on a grade. For most cases, we had great discussions. It was surprising to me how much I could learn about how well the student-teacher understood the ideas. Also, it seems like it might be difficult for these student-teachers to lead and activity where they don’t really have a good grasp of the material (although it seems like they should be able to). I also saw that some student-teachers were very willing to positively reinforce when their kids would repeat the “magic words” they were trying to learn. Some of the student-teachers realized this was a problem (but some did not).

Physical Science for People

That is not the official title of the course. It is course for non-science majors that covers physics-y stuff in a large lecture format. Here are a couple of key features of the class.

  • I used clickers – really, should this be a surprise?
  • Homework was assigned, but not collected or graded. I always started class asking if anyone had any homework questions they wanted to talk about – but rarely did anyone respond.
  • The text for the course was Hewitt’s Physical Science textbook. After thinking about this, I probably should have gone with Hewitt’s Conceptual Physics text instead.
  • Most classes consisted of power point lectures with embedded clicker questions
  • I tried some of the worksheets that come with the text, but it didn’t go too well.

First note – clicker questions. This is tough. Mostly I used the clicker questions that came from the powerpoints that came with the instructor materials. You want good clicker questions. Ones that are not too easy or trivial. Ones that can be answered on the material presented. Ones that promote discussion with other students in the class. These students did not want to get involved in the class (for the most part – of course there were some excellent students in here).

Student attendance was weird. There were obviously some students that had been trained that they should always go to class. However, what did they do in class? Sit there and listen to their ipod. Seriously. Why would you do that? Wouldn’t it be better to just not come? Attendance is not part of the grade.

In the end, I am convinced that the next time I teach this I will have to use some different curriculum. The PET guys are working on a Large Enrollment version (LEPS), but it is not finished yet. I tried it out in my physics for elementary teachers class, it seems to have a quite a bit of promise. Essentially, it is the same as the PET curriculum, but the experiments and activities are replaced with video demos and clicker questions.

In the end, I have to ask myself. What is the purpose of this class? What do I want students to take away from it? In short, the most important thing in the class is the nature of science. In terms of important physics concepts, I would say:

  • Conservation of energy
  • Newtonian vs. Aristotelian motion (forces)
  • Light stuff

Ok, this post is longer than I wanted it to be. Can I put it in my annual evaluation? I am going to.

Comments

  1. #1 Cherish
    May 18, 2010

    Thanks for the ping! :-)

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