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

Archive for the ‘Assessment’ Category

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.

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.

A few weeks back, my principle asked me to talk to the faculty about my experience with Standards-Based Grading.  Our professional development begins this week and I will be presenting on Tuesday (8/28/12).  This is my first public talk on the topic, I hope to present a more refined version of this talk at a conference later this year.  The slides aren’t glamorous and it’s a lot wordier than I like, but it feel the PowerPoint needs to stand on its own without me talking over it.  I’ll embellish with anecdotes and energy.

There are some comments in the note section on some of the slides, so you probably want to download the slide show rather than just view it directly on Dropbox.  I’ve also included an annotated set of spreadsheets that I will be using during the presentation.  Hover over the commented cells to see my thoughts on the patterns that show individual student development.

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/s9f2r2jjko65ehs/5ooodjg10L

I would really appreciate any feedback, negative in particular.  If you find slides are unclear, confusing, any typos, or if I’m you think I’m missing something, I need to hear from you.

This is me. It’s been a good year.

This has been an incredible year for my students and me.  They continue to give me unsolicited positive feedback over the courses and me as a teacher.  I’m not going to lie, it feels great to know they appreciated me.  The students have seen a direct correlation between their effort and their grade, no more learned helplessness.  Even better, they’ve really learned the material.  I’ve become a better teacher by doing less and letting the students control their outcome.  It’s the kind of story you want to shout from the mountaintops.

So how does a year of SBG wind down?  The AP exam is done, so the students are done, right?  Nope, they are working harder than ever and I’ve become an observer.  Those last few concepts that we started in the fourth quarter were probably the hardest of all.  The kids want those grades to improve.  Every day, they come into class, join up with a classmate or two, meet at the whiteboard and work out problems on whatever concept they want to improve.  This has been going on for over two weeks now and it blows my mind.  The routine has been to stop when there is 15 minutes left in the class.  They erase the boards and I hand out a concept quiz to anyone who wants one.  Everyone is working bell-to-bell and I’m sitting back and watching them help each other master integration.  This is teacher heaven.  As we enter the last week of school, I’ll allow two concept quizzes in a day, not just one.  The quizzes have to be on two different concepts.  Its crunch time and they are feeling it.  I don’t want to pull the rug out from under them now.

First time through using SBG is a hell of a lot of work.  I’d say I got 80% of it right, the other 20% needs tweaking.  Some of my early quizzes were too hard, others were too easy.  I gave some insane quizzes on domain and range.  I’m sticking with WebAssign for Calculus, but I’m giving it up for Physics.  I’ve added a few inquiry labs to my physics routine and I’m hoping to add one or two more next year.  Calculus has been officially approved for the AP label, but honestly, the class isn’t going to be much different.

The biggest difference to me is the connections I have made with these students.  Usually by now I want them gone.  Not these kids.  I don’t think they are really much different from previous years students.  I think the real difference is the way they were mentored through the classes, rather than just lectured to.  I have more students going on to study engineering than in any previous year.  When the pressure of every quiz or test is gone, the classroom becomes more relaxed.  This year we covered more material in every course and had a lot more fun doing it.  Best of all, I have relationships with these kids that are stronger and more lasting.  I’m going to miss them but I’m also going to keep in touch.

I can’t wait to do it all over again in September.

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.

Lame graphic, I know. Sorry.

As I mentioned in my 3-part update, my students absolutely love SBG in Calculus and have requested I move the system into my Physics classes as well.  However, after studying the problem at length, I have to take the tact that Frank took.  SBG as it is implemented in my Calculus isn’t a clean fit in Physics.

I’ve had to make some modifications, and I’m pretty sure there will be modifications in the future.  Instead of solving two problems perfectly to achieve mastery, Physics students will have three, but they will be tiered.  Here’s how it’s going to work:

  • Most concepts will have three levels of problems: C-level, B-level, and A-level.
  • Students must get a C-level problem perfect to take a B-level quiz.  The B-level problem must be perfect to take the A-level quiz.
  • If they get the C-level correct, they earned a 75% in that concept.  A correct B-level gives them 85%, and a correct A-level problem boosts the concept score to 100%.
  • C-level problems are basic.  Everyone should be able to solve them.  B-level problems are a little more advanced, but everyone should be able to get these correct with practice.  A-level problems are challenging and most of the class will not get these unless they really put in the work.
  • The 4 point grading system in still in effect, there is no partial credit.  This makes grading much quicker.  A 2 on a C-level is worth 60%, a 3 is worth 70%.  (UPDATE Feb 2012)  A 3 on a B-level problem is worth 80%, and a 3 on an A-level is worth 90%.

Quiz day will not have a standard group quiz.  I have lots of 1/2 page concept quizzes.  A student gets the quiz level for each concept based on what they have mastered.  Yes, this is a hell of a lot more work, but my classes are small.

Here is how I divided up the concept “Upwardly Launched Projectiles:”

  • A C-level problem is a projectile launched and landing on the same level.  They are given an initial velocity and an angle.  They have to find the time in flight, max height, and range.
  • A B-level problem involves different elevations for the launch or landing, or a building or mountain to hit or go over.
  • An A-level problem requires more math, like simultaneous equations or the quadratic to solve for initial velocity.

Points for the concepts are going to vary based on the depth of the concept.  Projectiles will be worth 50 points while Relative Motion is only worth 30 points.  Some of the topics will only have two levels, a B-level and an A-level, simply because there isn’t enough difficulty to warrant three levels.  But those levels, like relative motion, will also not be worth as many points in the system.  I’m still keeping grades for  Homework (5 pts), Labs (25 pts), and the occasional WebAssign (around 15 pts).

We had our first quiz today and it went well.  A few of the better students got 4’s on the C-level problems.  I was able to grade about 15 full quizzes in under 15 minutes because of the 4-point system.  I was also able to be a real stickler on the significant figures because the kids have time to correct their mistakes and get it all right.

I’m incredibly optimistic about the change.  The students are a bit nervous, but they’ve heard so many good things from my calc kids that they know this is going to work to their advantage.  I know they will be doing a lot more work and keep at the lessons longer than they would under a normal grading system.  I’ll keep everyone apprised.


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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