Sunday, July 28, 2013

Putting the Phun Back in Physics

Physics is required for most of the high school students in Texas. Unfortunately, it can be a tough course for many. The fact that most on-level students do not see the connection between physics and their lives makes it seem even more difficult. This year on-level physics students are the recipient of a rare gift, time to learn how physics applies to them. The gift came when Texas discontinued both of the standardized tests that loom over the eleventh grade students; STAAR End of Course Exam (EOC) for physics and the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). This is a gift not to be squandered by lowering the bar. This change gives the opportunity to implement engaging learning methods that were previously dismissed due to lack of time and an overabundance of curriculum. With the flipped classroom already implemented it is time for an additional improvement. The choices for improving class time include so many intriguing methods to engage students in learning; peer-instruction, mastery learning, inquiry based learning, project based learning, universal design for learning and the list goes on.  

Students arrive in physics class with a working, sometimes off base, knowledge of physics. The improvements to class should help create meaning for the student, pique some curiosity and give the student a reason to learn more about the topic. Ideally each unit will start with some way to reach this knowledge, address misconceptions and further understanding. This a tall order when combined with the practical requirements; approval by the curriculum cadre, meet time limitations, be implementable with three new teachers on a six teacher team and add some fun to physics class. Inquiry lessons should meet these requirements. 

As I have learned more about using inquiry I have realized that it can be implemented with careful planning. Inquiry lessons are more flexible than I had realized and do not require the amount of time I had originally assumed they required. At the start of the year we can introduce short, fun and more directed lessons to acquaint the students and teachers with the process. These lessons will still include the abilities and understandings of inquiry as well as introduce elements of exploration and play into physics. Students will be asked to play with a concept using their knowledge and experience and some guidance to create a question and an investigation to pursue throughout the unit. They will be tasked with deciding what they need to learn to answer the question they have designed. Working with the teacher the students will be able to determine how to find the needed information and design a successful procedure. By the end of the unit the students should be able to take what they have learned in the provided lessons and combine it with their work to answer their questions.

By helping students realize they already know some physics and that it is part of their everyday world, the class will become more interesting to those who only consider the subject something required to graduate. Perhaps they will accidentally have fun in a science class and learn to embrace their inner nerd. I know I will enjoy watching students replacing completing assignments with learning some physics.

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