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

Writing About Physics

Posted on: March 25, 2012

Scared, and for good reason

When we did the egg drop challenge a couple of weeks ago, I asked the students to write about their design and the concepts involved in safely landing the egg in their structure.

For them, they had fun and were rewarded for their hard work with no lab report, just a dialog of what they built, why they built it, and the concepts we’ve been studying.  I wanted them to talk about forces, gravity, momentum, impulse, collisions, and any other concept we’ve studied in order to explain the physics behind the effort to save the egg.

I’m thinking the egg got off easy.  I had to read phrases like “depending upon how fast you dropped the egg,” and “the impact of momentum, ” and best (worst) or all, “the egg has many things to be concerned about it not to break”

Other than labs, I haven’t given a writing assignment before and I now think it needs to be a regular event.  Clearly the students can not talk about the concepts.  Although we spend weeks problem solving, discussing, and working in the lab, they can’t put the concept into an intelligent sentence.  How did this happen?  I feel like I’ve failed.


7 Responses to "Writing About Physics"

I see this too, and wonder how to begin to get students to be better at writing scientifically. Two quick ideas I had:

1. More scaffolding—one of the best books I’ve read about teaching writing is Geral Graff’s They Say I Say, which proposes teaching academic writing by giving students very careful scaffolds and models to use to help them understand academic discourse, and he suggests starting them with content that they are very familiar with, eg, whatever interests them. He wants to help students see some of the basic moves of academic writing through the lens of things that interest them. If that happens to be cars, he wants them to think of writing in phrases like “Car and Driver says that the 2012 Ford Mustang 450 horsepower delivers an exhilarating ride, however, I find that the weight of the car and its terrible fuel economy quickly bring the driver back to earth.” I’ve seen English teachers have some success with this model, and have often wanted to take the time to create some basic skeletons to help students understand how to create good scientific arguments.

2. Along the same lines, I think understanding how to read and break apart scientific arguments might be a good first step. One thing I’ve started to do more of is asking students to mediate a fictitious argument between students on an assessment. Something like this: 3 students are arguing about the reason why an egg dropped from 1 meter will break when dropped onto a floor, but won’t break when dropped onto a pillow.

Student A says that the egg on the floor breaks because it doesn’t absorb the momentum of the egg as well as the floor, and therefore breaks.

Student B says that the pillow absorbs the force of the egg, and prevents it from breaking.

Student C says that the pillow spreads out the impact over the surface of the pillow and so the force acting on the egg isn’t as large as when the egg just hits the bare floor.

Whit which student, if any, do you agree? Explain your reasoning.

This is a pretty common question in the physics by inquiry/tutorials in physics series created by the McDermott research group out of the University of Washington, and I find it pretty helpful for getting students to improve their reasoning ability. I haven’t used it consistently enough to see a marked improvement in writing.

I’ve seen the same inability in my students to correctly explain phenomena using appropriate terms. Synthesis is really tough for high school students, even honors Physics students. I agree, we ought to force them to explain their thoughts more often. If it is a task that is focused on all year long, by this point in the year I think we’ll have more success getting our students to correctly articulate their thoughts. Good thoughts, John Burk.
Side note, I might have you beat for worst written comment on an assignment. On a movie physics analysis: “…the force of inertia…”
Yeah, I feel like I’ve failed too…

i’m writing a story and the kids are in 12th grade and are in physics class. they just got back from spring break and I dont really know much about physics. I’m taking physical science but i know its somewhat different from physics but like what would be some topics they’d be learning toward the end of the year? (it can be college physics idc as long as it’s physics….)

Mark, I’d say the end of the year varies by teacher and school. I’m just starting an astronomy section, then we move on to electricity and magnetism. Some teachers are teaching sound and optics around now, others could be teaching thermodynamics. I hope that gets you started.

Not sure it was your fail… but it was definitely a fail. At this point in the game, many students want to get off easy. I hate to give them an excuse, but I’m finding that my seniors lack serious motivation. And I understand it… I was there too in high school. But it just means we need to go the extra mile to make sure they realize the importance of finishing strong.

First of all, let me introduce myself. I’m a teacher, teaching physics for pre university students.
I did this egg crash activity for my practical classes last week to replace our regular experiment about momentum and impulse.
The outcomes, surprisingly it’s so fruitful. My students managed to build and explain the concept applied in safety device. They were so excited and ask for more activity like this.
Now I’m planning to present this activity to my superior so that we can apply this as our compulsory experiment for the whole program in my country, Malaysia.

Thank you very much for the idea. Looking forward for more activities from you.


I think there are two distinct problems here. For the first, I am reminded what an ESL teacher once told me, “For most of my students, the problem isn’t that they write English poorly. The problem is that they write poorly, period.”

Many high school students have major difficulties writing on any subject. This is a problem that has to be addressed in elementary and middle school. In an ideal world, it would be well on its way to being solved by the time they reach high school. Then we could concentrate on the specific demands of writing history or writing lab reports.

Alas, we do not live in that world.

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