Author Archives: integratedintention
Application: Lab Practica
In order to compliment our written tests, I’ve been experimenting with a lab test or lab practica. In many ways, the lab practica is an opposite to the written test. Where the written test is solitary, the practica depends on a team effort (students earn team grades). Where the written test rewards theoretical knowledge, the lab practica is as much an engineering challenge as a theoretical one. In the practica, strong laboratory skills, construction aptitude, common sense and interpersonal skills are critical to success. Surprisingly, the students who do the best on the written tests often have the most trouble with the practicas.
One simple example of a lab practica I have used pits students against two different battery powered cars. Students must predict where the cars will collide starting from arbitrary starting positions. Each group is able to use an array of tools to come up with any of many ways to predict where the cars collide. However they can’t manipulate both cars at once. When they are ready to test, they roll a dice to determine where each car will start and then have three minuets to use their solution method to predict the collision point and run the test.
Lab practicas are always intense class periods. With a significant portion of the lab practica grade relying solely on the accuracy of the predicted result for the single test, everyone usually gathers around the group who is about to test. Many groups will accurately predict results within 3% or less. Others are wildly off. Many times the smallest detail is responsible for huge errors – not unlike the NASA rocket that blew up because engineers forgot to convert English units to SI units.
Although students sometimes stress over practicas (uncertainty is inherent), I think they are very powerful. I rarely see students more focused then during a practica. All those soft skills suddenly become important – and students know it. Working together on something that matters to everyone is a huge team builder for physics groups.
The Big Picture
Although the lab practica format is specific to science, the larger idea of creating a real world performance based group test is applicable anywhere. I think there is hesitation about grading based on performance (outside of established performance-based subjects like the arts, speech, & foreign language) Additionally, having students earn grades as a group instead of individuals presents some obstacles. With care, I think both of these concerns can be managed to a reasonable level. And ultimately, adults are almost exclusively evaluated on performance instead of knowledge. Additionally, and especially in the future, team performance is often just as important as individual performance. It’s not perfectly fair, but then no one said it would be.
While reading through my student’s Wiki time logs and checking their contributions thus far (spring break was a partial deadline), I came across a comment I had not expected!
This was actually kind of fun and very helpful! Can’t wait to see next quarter’s Wiki!
This same student was very skeptical just three months ago! At that time, she felt like it was the “blind leading the blind” and seemed unsure how to contribute to the Wiki.
Likely because of the spring break deadline, the site has improved greatly even since I posted a couple weeks ago (check out a history page to see how it evolves). There is still much that can be done to improve it – but eventually I think it has the potential to approach the breadth and quality of a professional site.
I am a little behind where I thought I’d be so we have not actually started the energy challenge yet – I will post a recap (& pictures!) once it happens (right after spring break). Anyway, the basic idea of the energy challenge is to build a completely autonomous Rube Goldberg Machine that is capable of popping 3 balloons in a specific order. Students also earn credit for involving multiple energy transformations (i.e. a falling mass releases energy stored in a spring). To accomplish the task students are given a wide variety of household materials including masses, springs, popsicle sticks, cardboard, string, magnets, wheels/axils, pulleys, mouse traps, pvc pipe, thumbtacks, pins, plastic track, textbooks, supersized rubber bands, clothes pins to name a few.
Last year, when the first energy challenge occurred, I was floored by the diversity of ideas. I’m not exaggerating when I say no two designs were even remotely alike. Some groups of students designed machines so complex they would have impressed Goldberg himself. Others designed elegantly simple machines. Either way, you could see how excited students were to match their creativity against such an open ended challenge.
Another thing I think was neat about this activity was that it could have fit under solution fluency or collaborative fluency just as easily.
The Big Picture
Obviously this activity is best suited for physics. However, I think this project demonstrates some of the components that Ken Robinson wrote of in Learning to be Creative. First, creative projects require that many possible routes exist to a solution. Second, most creative activates require resources. Third, to inspire creativity, students need to buy in to the activity. Finally, since creativity is applied imagination – there must be a clear way to evaluate student’s creativity.
My students have started constructing their Honors Physics Wiki. Right now the site is quite raw. We are almost exclusively creating content, mostly text-based. There are some errors on the site and it’s not polished yet. I’m itching to correct the errors, but I’m holding back because I think peer revision is an important part of the process.
Our first peer-comment was posted a few days ago! I’m hoping that as more and more of the obvious content appears on the site, students will begin to shift some of their attention to multimedia creation, revision, organization, and refinement. I’m excited to see where this site goes!
I don’t teach computer science and I don’t teach fine arts – but I found this short study very interesting – and completely applicable to physics (and most other subjects too, I think). The study looks at two apparently similar programs, one in computer science and another in information technology. One is firmly rooted in 20th century learning while the other is embracing new ideas. The study shows that it’s going to take a new paradigm to tackle challenging educational problems (in this case: the gender gap in computer science). The specific & practical recommendations made were intended for computer science teachers, but could easily be extended to most any discipline.
Application: Expert Method
As a physics teacher, solution fluency is a skill always on my mind. All too often students respond to a physics puzzle with “I don’t know,” as if the solution was a bit of forgotten trivia. Instead of taking small steps that build toward solution, students attempt a single giant leap towards the answer. When this strategy fails – as it inevitably does for challenging problems – they are left with nothing.
As a part of a master’s degree I am pursuing with three other physics teachers, we are conducting action research into problem solving in physics. Although all four of us had already attempted to teach problem solving in our classes, our instruction was mostly ineffective (see psudoteaching). To be sure, our students could tackle problems relying on algorithmic like procedures. It’s hardly solution fluency to blindly follow memorized instructions though.
From the research we read, we discovered that the common types of “example problems” are grossly ineffective at improving student’s problem solving abilities. In hindsight, this is almost embarrassingly obvious since it is the teacher who builds up the problem, the teacher who supplies the logic and the teacher who evaluates the result. Problem solving, and physics in general, are not spectator sports. You can’t learn by watching experts any more then you could basketball.
There seems to be general consensus that experts effectively solve problems by systematically working from general to specific using the following steps:
- Translate the problem into their own words/pictures (i.e. understand the problem)
- Qualitatively describe the problem (i.e. what major ideas are relevant to the problems solution?)
- Quantitatively describe the problem (i.e. apply specific pieces of major ideas to understand the problem in more depth – in physics this often takes the form of a series of equations).
- Execute a solution (i.e. calculate/solve equations or graphs etc.)
- Evaluate the solution (i.e. use multiple independent checks to determine a solution’s validity)
We took this general problem solving strategy, applied it specifically to physics and then printed out papers for students to solve problems on called the “expert method.” (a picture is below)
Although our research is very much ongoing, there are promising signs. Completely on their own, one of my classes asked if they could have expert method sheets on the final (Yes!!!!!). Additionally, since I require students use the expert method on problems they get stuck on, and most of the steps can be completed even without getting the right answer, it is very easy for me to distinguish between those who didn’t get the homework because they didn’t understand vs. those who didn’t get the homework because of a lack of effort.
Overall, I think this expert problem solving method has potential far beyond its obvious applications in math and science. Just like we have powerful reading strategies, I think we should empower students with specific problem solving strategies. Hopefully students will internalize these strategies with practice.
Reddit is something I recently discovered and am pretty excited about. Reddit is a social news/discussion/question site with many very specific communities.
In AP physics this year we have been programming to create computer simulations that ideally mimic reality. Programming is powerful because you don’t just discover/measure physics, in you’re little computer created reality, you create it. Even though we are using a very intuitive programming language (Python), it can still be technical/frustrating at times.
Reddit was mentioned to me as a place students could post their programming questions and let more experienced programmers chime in. I wanted to see how it worked so I asked a programming question. Within 24 hours I had two quality responses. I hope the answers will help my students program with less frustration.
Although I’m planning on using Reddit for programming questions, it has all kinds of specific communities from current Israeli news to types of cooking to cognitive science and even an entire section on trees. If your students have specific questions, Reddit seems like the place to go.
If you have a spare second I highly recommend Frank Noschese’s “Action-Reaction” teaching reflections blog. Frank is a prominent high school physics teacher who’s extremely thoughtful posts go far beyond physics. Some of his most interesting reflections involve psydoteaching which he defines as
something you realize you’re doing after you’ve attempted a lesson which from the outset looks like it should result in student learning, but upon further reflection, you realize that the very lesson itself was flawed and involved minimal learning.
His “Khan Academy is an Indictment on Education” post was nominated by Edublog for most influential blog in 2011 and his “$2 interactive whiteboard” won the 2010 award for most influential post from Edublog. Whether you are interested in practical technology application, Khan Academy, or standards based grading his posts will make you think.