Engineering to Learn Science

I teach a one-trimester 9th grade course called Engineering & Physical Science.  For the engineering standards, I fell into the same kind of engineering projects that I’ve seen many science teachers fall into.  My students did a short straw tower project that did an okay job of teaching the nature of engineering standards from the Minnesota Science Standards and was something the students enjoyed, but connected to science concepts at a superficial level, at best.  I was well aware that, since students were not able to apply their knowledge in a meaningful way to design their towers, the project was really just tinkering.

This summer, thanks to a combination of my district’s participation in the University of Minnesota EngrTEAMS project and a generous grant from 3M, I was able to not only get some professional development over what good engineering instruction looks like, but I got the significant curriculum writing time and the materials budget that developing more meaningful engineering instruction takes.  The past two weeks in my 9th grade classroom, I had the rewarding experience of implementing the unit I developed with a teacher from St. Paul Public Schools and an instructional coach from EngrTEAMS.

The unit began with instruction over Newton’s Laws to prepare students to design a cargo carrier that would protect an egg in a head-on collision after rolling down a ramp, a variation on the classic egg drop project.  To keep students focused on the cargo carriers, where they could apply Newton’s Laws most directly, we provided cars the carrier could Velcro to.  The cars also had a spot on the front to attach a Vernier Dual-Range Force Sensor to measure the impact force when the vehicle crashed.

student project

A student project ready to head down the ramp

Realistically, students could create an effective cargo carrier without knowing anything about Newton’s Laws, so a major instructional task has been to give students a reason to make the connection.  Next week, students will be delivering presentations where they make a pitch for their design, which must include references to Newton’s Laws to justify design decisions.  To prepare students for this task, I’ve been spending a lot of time going from group to group to ask them to explain what they are doing, and I’m excited about the results.  Students who are normally checked out were not only able to articulate connections between Newton’s Laws and their designs, but some even started participating in class discussions intended to extend their understanding to other contexts.  Even when I just listened in, rather thank asking about connections to Newton’s Laws, students had a lot of great conversations about how to use Newton’s Laws to improve their design.  Next week, students will be preparing presentations intended to serve as a pitch as their design and will have a chance to share what they’ve been thinking with the entire class.

The past week and a half, while students have been designing, building, and testing, my classroom has been chaos, filled with noise and mess and activity.  Because that chaos is a result of students who are engaged and excited about their work, I was glad to embrace it.  My challenge now is to find ways to bring some of that same energy and ownership into other topics in the 9th grade course.

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Free Fall and Assessment

The bulk of this week was spent wrapping up acceleration by doing some problems with free fall.  It took some time, but my students are getting comfortable with graphical solutions instead of more traditional approaches.  Students continue to talk about what’s happening in the problem, rather than the formulas, which is great to see.  A few kids are trying to memorize formulas, but watching their peers who use the graphs apply what they know to new situations with relative ease has helped convert the memorizers.

Whiteboarding a free fall problem

Student work on a free fall problem

This week was also the first test in physics, and a lot of kids “took the bet and lost.”  Based on the reading and thinking I’ve been doing about assessment and grades, I’m grading a lot less than in previous years.  The trick is, students used to the way most teachers grade translate not graded as not worth doing.  Not surprisingly, these students were not prepared for the test.  That said, even when I’ve graded almost everything, I’ve had students find ways to copy or otherwise get out of doing the daily work, then have the first test hit them like a truck.

To try and address this problem, I stole an idea from Frank Noschese and have been giving my students weekly, self-graded quizzes.  In addition to all the other benefits of frequent, low-stakes assessments, I hoped my students would figure out the benefits of engaging in the daily work early on.  It worked for most of my students, and I saw more students digging into their work after the first quiz, but the stakes were too low for others to catch on.

I’m doing a two-stage collaborative exam for this test, so students will have a chance to recover come Monday.  I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes.  In the future, however, I’d like to work on strategies to get students away from the idea that not graded means not worth doing a lot earlier.  I may make those early quizzes worth more points (at least on paper) or split our 1D motion into separate tests over constant velocity and uniform acceleration so that students will be taking the first test a lot sooner.

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Graphical Solutions

This week, students started using graphical solutions to solve problems for an accelerating object.  I was introduced to this approach by Kelly O’Shea and Casey Rutherford at a workshop this summer.  Rather than showing my students the usual assortment of kinematic equations, I’ve been hammering what has physical meaning on a graph, especially when on velocity vs. time graphs.  When given a word problem, students sketch the motion graphs that describe the problem (especially the velocity vs. time graph) and use it as a tool to solve for the unknown information.  I didn’t get a chance to snap a picture of a student sample, but here’s a problem I did.

graphical_solution_example

I really like this approach so far.  When I’ve listened in while students were working problems, I hear very different conversations than in the past.  I used to hear a lot of talk about the formulas with students focused on either formula hunting or trying to figure out hard and fast rules for when to use each formula.  This week, I heard discussions about what the objects in the problem were doing, and what were the implications of that.  It was great to see.

Another aspect I really like about this approach is how clearly students see the connections to calculus.  I’ve had several students who took calculus last year say they are gaining an appreciation for why calculus is useful, adding a layer of richness to their knowledge.  Even better, the students who are currently taking calculus feel like they are taking what they’re learning in calculus straight into physics class.

The big challenge I encountered this week is some of my students are struggling with the demands I’m placing on them.  The graphical solutions require them to pay more attention to what is actually happening in the problem than approaches I used in the past.  Students also completed some labs and open-ended worksheets that required them to determine an appropriate approach to the problem at hand.  As a result, students spend at least some time each class period dealing with confusion or struggling with a concept.  I think this is a good thing, but a lot of students find this uncomfortable and wish the class had more direct instruction and traditional worksheets.  Students are consistently getting to where I want them to be by the end of the class period, so I think I’m on the right track  with the scaffolding I’ve been providing.  What’s lacking is a growth mindset a’la Carol Dweck.  Its time for me to re-read her book and work on explicitly incorporating strategies in my classroom to help students develop a growth mindset.

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Motion Graph Mania

This week in physics was all about making sense of position vs. time and velocity vs. time graphs.  Since I’m planning to have my students use the graphical solutions approach I learned form Kelly O’Shea and Casey Rutherford this summer, motion graphs will need to be second nature to my students.  To make sure my students have motion graphs down, I’ve dedicated a lot more time to them than the previous physics teacher did.  Based on the progress I saw this week, the time was well spent for most of my students.

The one group that grumbled a bit were my students who took AP Calculus BC last year.  I already knew the teacher, Karen Hyers, works very hard to place math content in meaningful contexts and did some work with motion graphs in her calc classes, but I hadn’t really appreciated how thoroughly she covered motion graphs.  My students who took calc with her last year easily recalled how to do just about everything I put in front of them this week.  Around 1/3 to 1/2 of my students fall into this group, so next year I want to work on some strategies for differentiation to keep the calculus students challenged.  The upside is several students commented they didn’t realize how connected physics and calculus really are.

There was also some pretty cool peer instruction that happened thanks to the calculus students.  Most groups had at least one calc student, which means someone knew what the answer should be and I didn’t have to worry to much about whether groups would get there.  However, because that person was another student, the rest of the group wasn’t afraid to question them and argue a bit before agreeing on the correct answer in ways that don’t often happen when a student is talking to a teacher.  These discussions helped many of my students to actually understand the graphs, much preferable to simply memorizing what the graphs for certain cases should look like.

But the best part of the week?  A student told me what’s hard about physics so far isn’t the content, its the way I’m making them think about it.

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A New School Year Begins

This week was the first of a new school year.  I’m trying to shift my approach this year to make inquiry a central feature of my classroom, pulling ideas from a few different sources, including Modeling Instruction and the 5E model.  Whenever someone tries to change things, some aspects will be great and some will have room for improvement.

 In the past, the other physics teachers and I have introduced constant speed by measuring the time at set positions for a bowling ball rolled down the hallway.  The lab works fairly well, but the logistical issues (including the number of people and the space needed to collect the data) mean that the lab is done as an entire class.  I wanted to have each group collect their own data and played with various options using equipment we have.  I settled on using ticker tape and dynamics carts.  Since this would be their first exposure to ticker tapes, I knew students would need instruction over how to use them.  I started with a discussion (borrowing some ideas from Kelly O’Shea) to determine we’d need to measure position and time, then showed students how to use the ticker tape to measure each of those.  I wanted students to make some experimental design decisions, so all I added is that students should have a table of their cart’s position and time by the end of the period.

It did not work.  I underestimated how much mental effort using the ticker tape would require from my students, so they had a lot of trouble dealing with the other decisions I asked them to make.  I also wasn’t explicit that students should make a written note of what they were trying to produce, so a lot of students forgot what they were supposed to do by the time they managed to get a tape with a nice series of marks.  During my first hour, I ended up pausing the lab a couple times to give some extra direction when I saw multiple groups struggling with the same issues.  In later hours, I provided a lot more structure right from the start, including prompts for students to write down information they would need to reference later.  Fortunately, my first hour students were pretty forgiving; I think it helped that I’ve talked to them a bit about the shifts I’m trying to make and why, so they saw where I was coming from.

I was pleased with how the analysis of the lab went, however.  I’d hoped to have students try creating a few different types of graphs using Plotly to get at why a scatterplot is the best option for a position vs. time graph, but I wasn’t able to get my hands on a netbook cart, so stuck with a short discussion.  My students were able to agree pretty quickly that a scatterplot was the best option and were able to articulate why.  Each group then graphed their data and performed a linear regression using either Desmos or the TI graphing calculators most of them have.  Groups sketched their graphs on whiteboards, and we had a class discussion looking for similarities and differences in the graphs.  Thanks in part to how many students have already taken AP calculus, students were able to pretty easily identify and articulate what on the graphs had physical meaning, which meant I didn’t have to deliver any lecture on constant speed.

Moving forward, I’ll save tools unfamiliar to my students, such as the ticker tape, for labs where the data collection is pretty structured, rather than try and use them for open-ended labs introducing a new topic.  This year, that may mean some compromises, such as collecting data as a class or other large group and keeping items (like motorized constant speed buggies) in mind for this spring’s order.

I also want to keep working on how to have effective class discussions.  I had several students tell me how much they loved that I lectured less than 10 minutes in the first week and I have every intention of keeping that number as low as I can.  In order for students to continue to get the content out of discussions, I need to improve my skills at facilitating them.  That will mean lots of reading, lots of formative assessment (to see if my students know their stuff), and lots of reflecting on how discussions went.

All in all, I’m excited about the shifts I’m making.  I’ve loved seeing more of my students’ thinking on display this week and they’ve been very engaged so far.  There will definitely be more hiccups and missteps, but those are just opportunities to learn.

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Why Use Interactive Notebooks

I’ve been thinking a lot about interactive notebooks the past few weeks.  In addition to the usual preparations for a new school year, I was asked to co-lead a workshop on interactive notebooks as part of my building’s welcome back week.  Preparing for the workshop forced me to articulate why I use interactive notebooks in my classroom and what benefits I have seen.

The idea behind interactive notebooks is to provide a single place where students keep as much of their work as possible, usually with a table of contents to make it easy to locate specific entries.  The notebooks are typically structured so that right hand pages contain entries where students gather information, such as data collected during labs, notes, or reading assignments.  Left hand pages are then used for students to process information in a variety of ways.  Sometimes I use those pages for analysis on a lab.  Other times, I have students do a short writing assignment that may be as simple as explaining how a science concept appears in the student’s own experience or may be more complex, such as an assignment I give for students to come up with and explain their own mechanical analog for a circuit.

The most obvious benefit of using interactive notebooks is organization.  The simple fact is most students do not have an effective system for keeping track of their work, leading to folders and lockers that are a mess of rumpled papers that make it difficult to locate a specific page when it is needed.  With a clear structure for interactive notebooks, I’ve seen some of my most disorganized students manage to keep track of their work.

During the workshop, organization ended up being the focus of our presentation.  We’d been asked to give the workshop as part of an effort to make sure every teacher had at least one effective organizational strategy to implement and organization is what first got my co-presenter and me to try interactive notebooks.  But, having used notebooks for several years, I would argue that organization is the least interesting benefit.  Organization is also what generated the least interest from my colleagues who attended the workshop.

What people were more interested in, and what I’ve found to be the most significant benefit, are the ways interactive notebooks have helped my students to develop a sense of ownership over their learning.  With very little effort on my part, I’ve seen a shift in the kinds of questions students ask me.  I used to get a lot of students who wanted me to give them a definition, formula, or other piece of factual information previously addressed.  Notebooks make it much easier for students to retrieve this information, which means I now spend my time working with students on more meaningful questions.

Using interactive notebooks pushed me to include more writing in my class and shift to assignments that shift to higher-order tasks.  I noticed very quickly that these kinds of assignments lead to students organically sharing their work.  Its exciting to see my students take so much pride in their work that they can’t wait to show it to their peers or to watch students ask how their classmates approached a task because they are genuinely curious about how someone else approached the task.  As I’ve shifted to using more and more open-ended inquiry, I’ve had the privilege of seeing this excitement from my students more and more often.

So far, I’ve only used notebooks with my 9th grade physical science students, but this fall I’m taking over the 12th grade honors physics course.  Moving forward, I’m thinking about what I want notebooks to look like with more advanced students.  I’m making some significant revisions to the course in an effort to integrate a lot more inquiry and I should be able to give my 12th grade students labs that are more open-ended than I’ve used in the past, especially since the 12th grade course is a full year while the 9th grade course is only 12 weeks.  Since lab notebooks are a natural fit for this kind of approach, my current plan is to focus on using notebooks for students to keep a good record of their work in the lab for this year.  As the year goes on and I get the hang of the new course, I can be more intentional about the writing students do in their notebooks.

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Teachers as Educational Engineers

At this summer’s AAPT meeting, I spoke briefly with a few people about the idea of teachers as educational engineers.  This idea started rattling around my head earlier this summer when I participated in an NSF-funded program called EngrTEAMS looking at meaningful STEM integration (I’ll be writing more about that as the year goes on).  A good place to start is with what the engineering design process looks like.  Just like the scientific process, it can’t really be distilled into a neat package, but the EngrTEAMS folks have a version I can live with.  Moore et al. provide some of the rationale for this model of the design process in their Framework for Quality K-12 Engineering Education.

Courtesy of engrteams.org

Courtesy of engrteams.org

It turns out, this is also a pretty good model for how a lot of teachers develop curriculum.  Just as a good engineer always starts with the problem to be solved, teachers start with the objective or standard to be addressed.  During a lesson or a curriculum unit, teachers mirror the implementation and testing phases of engineering design.  As part of this, we collect a wealth of data that includes classroom observations, formative assessments, student feedback, and summative assessment results, all of which we use to evaluate our teaching.  We constantly cycle back to the plan phase as we revise what we are doing, whether on the fly in the middle of a lesson or over the summer when we have time for more thoughtful reflection.  Teachers regularly visit the background phase, too, as we try to find out what’s working in someone else’s classroom or learn more about our content area.

This analogy can do a lot to inform how teachers (and students!) think about assessment as well as suggest a process for developing, refining, and revising curriculum.  I’ll save all of that for another day.  For now, I want to focus on the aspect that came up during AAPT, which is what thinking of teachers as educational engineers has to say about how we should interact with researchers.

I went to a lot of talks at AAPT that fall under the umbrella of physics education research, or PER, and noticed some patterns.  The majority of the talks were only 8 minutes long, and most of that time was spent on methodology, including data analysis.  This information is important and, as a teacher, knowing a bit about the methodology can help me decide how seriously to take a given study, but its the PER types who seem to get the most out of those portions.  I usually have two questions: what does this mean for my classroom and how does it fit in with what I already know?  Just like an engineer watches scientific research to find what will help build a better car or a smarter phone, physics teachers look to PER to find what will help us give our students a better education.  Give me the bottom line and an overview of the big picture and I’ll figure out how to make it work in the classroom.

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