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

Archive for the ‘Teaching Techniques’ Category

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?

 

 

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.

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.

year in review 2012It’s been a pretty mundane year.  No drama, no great leaps, no alien invasion or Mayan apocalypse, pretty much the same stuff, new year.

Hey, this would be a good time to assess the pro’s and con’s of standards-based grading (SBG) in my physics and calculus classes.

The Good

My spreadsheets are working great.  It may seem like a small thing, but it isn’t.  A well designed spreadsheet is the key to keeping SBG running smoothly.

It’s nice to have a bank of questions and quizzes at the ready.  My first year of SBG was non-stop quiz creation.  Now I need to make maybe one or two new physics questions a week.  I probably have 300 individual physics questions divided among the C, B, and A-level quizzes.  The hard work is done, weekly quizzes cause me no stress at all.

The kids all love standards-based grading.  One of my students told me she couldn’t imagine taking calculus using a traditional grading system.  The kids are all on board.

The Meh

Probably the biggest problem with SBG is determining who is in danger of failing at the interim report.  Half way through the quarter, the class average is in the 50’s or 60’s.  One of my students emailed me over Christmas break asking me to call her mom.  She is an A student, but her 60 average at the interim was going to get her grounded for the break.  This is after I sent home letters at the start of the year and at the interim explaining why the averages are low.  The kids who plan on failing just don’t come in to take quizzes or get help.

I’ve noticed that the lack of testing pressure has caused the kids to put off studying for the weekly quizzes.  Now they look over the problems right before class.  It’s hard to determine if this would be any different with traditional grading; this year’s class is academically quite lazy.  They have been warned, there is no curve.  They can all get A’s and they can all get F’s.  Amazingly, it will be a normal distribution curve.

What’s Next

I’ve been thinking about what changes I would like to make.  I’m considering a small change to the calculus grading system.  Right now it takes two correct problems to master a concept.  The first perfect quiz gives them 40/50 points.  The second moves that to 50/50.  I’m thinking of scoring the second 45/50 and the third 50/50.  My concern is that they are earning the label of “mastery” before they really get there.  On the other hand, the kids probably understand the material so much better than they would through traditional grading.  Any thoughts?

One little thing I would like to do is color code the physics quizzes.  I’d like to copy all the C-level quizzes onto a pale yellow or pink paper.  Maybe a light blue for the B-level, and leave the A-level quizzes white.  The colors would give the student and me a quick visual check of everyone’s progress.

Considering SBG?

If you are, I am willing to share everything I’ve created; my spreadsheets, quizzes, experiences and ideas.  Just ask.

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.

I do.  They frustrate me a bit because there are just so many and I don’t know most of the speakers.  You can spend an evening jumping from one talk to the next.  I prefer recommendations, here are two I recommend.

The first talk is by Dan Meyer of the dy/dan blog.  His blog was the source I used to get started on Standards-Based Grading.  Plain and simple, this talk is an eye opener.

The second TED Talk is by Simon Sinek.  His talk was recommended by Frank Noschese at the AAPT meeting.  Excellent recommendation Frank.

If you have some favorite TED Talks, please share the link or the name of the speaker.

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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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