Physics & Physical Science Demos, Labs, & Projects for High School Teachers

teacherI’m getting grief from my wife.  After 11 years of teaching, she’s starting to give me grief about my current career.  She doesn’t like that we can’t take vacations anymore, not like we used to.  She works all summer and I am finally not.  I don’t make the money I used to make in sales, not even close.  I’m not working in the summer and she’s heading off to work.

I’ve found a couple of articles about teachers going back to school, but they are mostly written for women teaching elementary school.  Male teachers married to women who aren’t teachers – we need a support group.  I need to talk about some of this, I’m stressed out.  My wife is asking me about getting back into manufacturing sales.  I don’t want to do that, I love what I do.  If I can make it just 10 more years, I’ll should have a pension that pays me half my meager salary every year.

So I’m not stressed out about shopping for my classroom, putting up posters (I had kids do it the last week of school), or oversleeping.

Here’s what I am stressed out about:

  1. Just being ready to start teaching 6 different courses (2 are at the community college).  Once again, I’m teaching a course for the first time, Trig/Pre-Calc.  That means a lot more work, especially since I will be using Standards-Based Grading in the course.  More importantly, having the mental focus to do all of it well.
  2. A lack of control – of who I have as students, the number of students in the class, the class schedule, having time for exercise and a healthy meal.
  3. The first couple of weeks are brutal on my body – finding time for bathroom breaks, teaching non-stop, talking until my throat is raw, being “on” at 8am, and teaching until 9pm on Mondays and Tuesdays.
  4. Back to school orientation where we learn about administrative changes, new paperwork, rule changes, and basically sitting too long doing nothing when I have a million things to do.
  5. Putting on long pants and shoes.  Seriously, I’m going to look like one of those scratchy sweater kids for the first couple of weeks.  I’m not sure my school clothes will fit.  I’m sure I can teach in shorts and flip-flops, I’ll wear a shirt with a collar if that will help.
  6. Grading.
  7. Keeping my mouth shut when I want to chew out a lazy teacher for being beyond useless.

I’ve tried to get started on my lesson planning, and it helps a little, but I really need the routine to get underway.  It’s kind of the same feeling before playing a team sport.  You can practice all you want and you are nervous waiting for it to start, but once the whistle blows, you are in the zone and it all just clicks.  Can I do this 10 more times?

 

 

SuccessMy year is almost over.  I’m not complaining, but I felt the strain of teaching too many different courses (Honors Physics, AP Calculus, 2 Robotics & Engineering classes, and Algebra 2).  Every day was a scramble to prep for class, make copies, and grade papers;  it took away from the time I got to spend interacting with the students.  Despite my insanity, I had a few notable successes.  Here are just two:

Story #1

I recently got two emails from the mother of a student.  Let’s call him Pete (no, it’s not his real name).  If you had asked me the first quarter of the year, I would have told you Pete was going to fail Algebra 2.  In fact, I was certain he was going to fail.  The first email came about a month ago:

Good morning. Just wanted to thank you for helping Pete with tutoring. He has come home excited about getting better grades in your
class. It is nice to see him working towards getting those “4’s”, and really wanting to keep his grade up. Thank you again for your time and encouragement.

And then just this week:

Good Morning, once again just want to thank you for helping Pete realize that with hard work he can “Master” things in math and life.
I was proud to hear that even though he was not feeling well on Thursday, he found a way to make it to the school to take a quiz, he didn’t want you
to think he was slacking.

Pete started staying after school for help one or two days a week for the last several months.  Sometimes he would just work out problems on the board for an hour.  Some days he took a quiz.  I never forced him to stay, I didn’t do anything except set expectations and keep the bar high.  Pete’s motivation developed as he starting mastering a single concept.  Little by little he started to have some success.  It was new to him, and he liked it.  The final is two days from now, but Pete will pass the course.

Story #2

Let’s call this guy Paul.  Paul was a royal pain-in-the-ass for the first half of the year.  I don’t think Paul had ever had any success in math.  He was a victim of “learned helplessness” and was often a belligerent student.  Paul is planning on going into the union and didn’t see much need to do anything beyond basic math.  It was pretty clear that if he was going to pass my class, it wasn’t going to be by much.

I didn’t give up on Paul, I made him work every class.  It took a while, but he mastered a single concept.  A little success made a huge difference in his outlook and after a short time, he mastered another concept.  Then something truly amazing happened.  Paul’s friends started asking him for help and his confidence started to grow.  With only a few weeks of school remaining, the students in the National Honor Society were asking Paul for help.  Whenever Paul was asked for help by his peers, I would make it a point of asking him how it felt.  I’ll take some of the credit for Paul’s turnaround, but I know for a fact that if I used traditional grading methods, he would have never mastered anything this year and would possibly be doing it all again in summer school.

 Epilog

I think if there is a moral to these stories it’s that students will rise to meet expectations.  Set the bar low and they will easily reach it.  Set the bar high and they will struggle, learn from their failures, and gain confidence in themselves.  But consistency is important.  If you start down the path to SBG and wavier or back down, you’ve permanently lowered the bar in the students’ eyes.  Don’t do it.

inclined planeI had been wanting to add a lab where the students determine friction on an inclined plane.  Students seem to struggle with the complexity of the problem and I thought a good lab would help.  I wasn’t really happy with any of the labs I found on the internet, but I also wasn’t really up for creating one of my own.  (Having four preps really sucks the life out of your creativity.)  What I decided to do was to put the kids into groups, give each group a variable inclined plane (exactly the one in the picture), a couple of blocks, and lab weights.  On the board I drew the force diagram of the block on a plane being pulled upward along with the appropriate formulas.  The goal of the lab is for the students to be able to calculate the coefficient of friction between the incline and the block.

I gave the class the following instructions:

“You are creating a lab for next year’s students.  You are going to need to decide on the lab procedure, required data and graphs, and the analysis questions.  You need to write up the procedure and the lab results, but I only want one per group.  I am going to take the best parts of each of your labs and use it next year.”

I asked them to start with only a single block, but they could add another if they think it will improve the lab.  We discussed setting the incline from 0 to 40 degrees in 10 degree increments.  They are using their phone to take pictures to include in their instructions and write-ups.  They have one more day and then the paperwork is all due at the end of the week.  I’m hoping for work that is a step above their usual lab write-ups.

I’m thinking maybe I lied to them.  I originally did want the students to create a lab for next years’ students, but I might just give next years’ students the same assignment.

kuta imageI started teaching yet another course a my high school this year, actually two other courses if you count teaching at the community college.  In addition to Physics, AP Calculus, and Robotics & Engineering, I’m also teaching a section of Algebra 2.  My fellow math teachers have been using Kuta Software for the past couple of years, but it didn’t have a Calculus module, so I never got to play.  When I was assigned Algebra 2, I was given the license codes and found they now have a calculus module as well.

I’ve used other software in the past, but Kuta is just fantastic.  I can create a custom worksheet for homework, quizzes, and tutoring in under a minute.  Each section of problems has different options.  For example, multi-step equations let you decide if there are variables on one or two sides, if they have to distribute once or twice or not at all.  Each concept has lots of other specific controls, but you can also just use their Easy, Medium, and Hard problem selection button.

If you have a worksheet or quiz already made, just select a problem, hit the space bar, and the problem changes, but stays within the parameters you set.  This is perfect for Standard-Based Grading where you need another quiz.  Just open an old one, select each problem and space bar, and you have a brand new quiz.  Of course it can also generate multiple versions at once.

I can go on and on.  Visit their site at http://www.kutasoftware.com and look at the free worksheets.  Then download the 14 day trial and play.  I can’t say enough good things about this software.  We purchased unlimited 3 or 5 year licenses for Pre-Algebra through Algebra 2, and a single license for Calculus.  I wasn’t part of the purchasing, but it seems like there are more purchase options than are shown on the web page.

ipad blogOur school has added a number of iPad and Mac carts.  The technology push is on and I’m not generally excited about it.  You have to understand, I am the technology guy.  I sold top of the line engineering software to the defense and manufacturing industry.  I’ve presented technology solutions to the Secretary of Defense’s office, Senators, Congressmen, Admirals, Generals, and heads of fortune 500 companies.  I am not afraid of technology, I love technology.  I have an engineering degree; I can program in half a dozen computer languages, and I’m competent in 3-D CAD.  But handing me an iPad and telling me to use it in class is like buying a 12-piece screwdriver set and hoping screws will suddenly get loose.  It’s a solution in search of a problem.

It took a brain-storming session with my department head to realize I do have a screw loose, I have a problem that technology might just solve.

I have been really unhappy with lab reports.  I’ve gone full circle with what I want from the kids.  Here is a brief history:

  • Year 1-2 – The students were required to have hard-bound composition notebooks.  Students were required to type the report (3-4 pages) and the notebooks were graded.  I had about 100 students – grading was a nightmare and the work was poor when it was even done.  Many of my students didn’t have a computer or a printer a home.
  • Year 3-4 – I changed over to one-page labs where the students would fill in responses as they went.  They were much easier to grade, but the rigor was gone.
  • Year 5-7 – Students purchased Carbonless Lab Notebooks.  They were to record observations and show their work as they went through the lab.  This never worked as planned.  It was a constant battle to get them to only write in the lab notebook; they wanted their report to be neater, so they took notes on the handout.  Reports were hard to read because I was reading a copy of unreadable students’ handwriting.  Students didn’t like that they couldn’t edit, mistakes were to be crossed out.

It is time for a change, again.  Maybe technology will by my answer this time.

Here is the plan as it currently stands (in my head).  Students will be given a basic report layout on the Mac using iBook Author.  They will build on the layout to construct a full lab report.  Having the Mac in their hands during the lab will allow them to take pictures of the set-up and the results.  Ideally, they will be able to record data directly into tables and turn it into graphs, charts, and anything they feel is appropriate.  Reports will be turned in electronically.  What they turn in will be a unique, well-documented report, hopefully of a much higher quality than I received in the past.

The down-side is quite significant.  First, there is going to be a learning curve for iBook Author.  Second, the students don’t have their own Macs, so the entire lab report will have to be created during class time.  What was a one-day lab will probably turn into two or three days of class time.    Third, I’ll have to figure out how to transfer data from the Vernier to the Mac.  I’m hoping the quality the iBook reports will make up for the lost teaching time.

If you are a follower of this blog, you may have noticed I posted this entry and then promptly unposted it.  I thought the software I saw demonstrated was called iBook, but I couldn’t find the application for the iPad.  I spoke with my principal today and she confirmed that I had it right.  However, the authoring app does not exist on the iPad, only on the Mac.  When I went to download the app for my Mac, it said it needed to be running OSX 10.7.4 and I’m running 10.6.8.  I tried to update my Mac but it says no update is available.  I admit, I’m a bit confused.  The tech guy from school is the one pushing the app, so I’m sure he will get everything taken care of once we are back.  I was just hoping to spend some time this summer exploring this idea.

If this works out, I should have some really nice files to post here in about two months.  I’ll let you know either way.

MasterYoda-UnlearnI have a steady stream of teachers asking if I would be willing to share my SBG files and spreadsheets.  My answer is always a qualified ‘yes.’

I have over 300 Physics quizzes, 200 AP Calculus quizzes, and various spreadsheets and other files.  If I dumped all of those files on you without a detailed explanation, you would probably be overwhelmed and get nowhere.  So what I ask is that anyone requesting my hard work do a few simple things:

  1. Go back and read over all of my SBG posts from the beginning.  I spent hours on research and reading before being convinced SBG would work for me.  I documented the how and why pretty thoroughly here.
  2. Ask me questions, as many as you want.  I promise to answer promptly and thoroughly.  Only with some discussion will SBG really start to make sense.  You can’t buy in part way.  As Yoda might say, “SBG – do or do not.”  Sort-of doing SBG doesn’t work.
  3. Don’t make changes to the system without discussing it with me.  After research and discussions with other teachers, I was able to avoid a lot of mistakes.  I have tried many tweaks and made a number of  incremental improvements each year.  Don’t reinvent the wheel.
  4. As you implement this and come up with your own tweaks, add to the dialog here.  I want to learn from your successes and failures.
  5. Once I provide you with my files, do not publish any of the questions.  They came from textbooks, I do not own the rights to most of the questions, so I can’t give you permission to publish them.

That’s really it.  I’ve done all the work for two courses, now it looks like I’m picking up Algebra 2 Honors next year.  Time to start work on a third course.

helping handI did this engineering challenge last year, but it didn’t go the way I wanted it to.  I provided the kids with a stick, about 25″ long as the basis of a reach device.  My mistake was allowing them to split the stick in half.  As a result, they all made a big scissor and then made some small modification to make it grip.

This year, I have added a whole new level to the challenge.  The stick can not be cut, only drilled for brass fasteners.  They are given a budget and each item has a cost.  I made sure they can only purchase a single stick with their budget.  Purchasing two of them will put them immediately over budget and cost them lots of points.

The challenge came from pbs.org/designsquad, they have a few things there worth looking at if you are into engineering challenges.  I downloaded the information a while ago.  Here is the link for the activity:  http://pbskids.org/designsquad/parentseducators/resources/helping_hand.html

Here is how I modified the activity for use in my classroom:  Helping Hand Challenge.  If you use this, let me know what you add or change.  I will be using this tomorrow.  The scoring rubric is at the bottom.

Update:  I’m still angry over how some of the kids approached this.  A couple of the really lazy ones did nothing but complain for two days.  At the last second, they purchased a foot of tape, wrapped it around the stick and then tried picking up the objects with the sticky tape.  Naturally, I changed the rules so that can’t happen next year.  Tape got very expensive.  I also changed the grading to downplay the points earned for moving the object and increasing points for the design.  Essentially, I changed the grading to reflect effort and creativity.  With the change in focus, I will need to watch for students copying ideas.

To be fair, I had a couple excellent designs.  Some were quite well thought out.  I had one group use rubber bands at the tip to increase friction of the grabber. Helping Hand 2013-03-22 09.38.51

What’s New in 2013/2014?

Every year brings a change, this one is no exception.

I will be picking up the sophomore honors Algebra II class to keep them separate from the juniors. This should help accelerate them and put them on a stronger track towards Calculus. Looks like there will be only one section each of Physics and Calculus, but still two of Robotics & Engineering.

Hot topics this year are going to be the Common-Core Standards, Standards-Based Grading (SBG), improving AP Calculus scores, and somehow adding Python, maybe as a club.

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