Archive for the ‘Teaching Physics’ Category


     Class periods at my school are either 44 minutes long on a regular day or 38 minutes on a short day – every Wednesday.    I feel so time crunched!   7th-grade students can barely settle down in 4-minutes to do a bellwork assignment.   I want the learning to be as hands-on as possible but to accomplish an activity involving equipment, they need to process it, set-up, explore, and clean-up in approximately 34 minutes with time allowed for closure.   In addition to the short time we spend together daily, we started the curriculum in one of my classes two months late and the other classes were a month behind their pacing chart.  

     Students pick up on a teacher’s mood, actions, habits, etc. almost immediately.   I need to find a way to be more relaxed about the time pressure so that I can better help them to relax and enjoy science.   

     Next semester, we will start new new units, new topics, and even new science concentration areas.   Have I mentioned that I will be happy to move on from Biology to the more familiar terrain of Earth Science, Chemistry, and Physics?   In the words of one of my colleagues, “Biology is the coolest use of Chemistry on the planet.”   On the other hand, a few chemistry-heavy topics – such as protein synthesis, energy conversion,  and macromolecules such as the porphyrins in hemoglobin and chlorophyll – intrigue me;  the rest of it, not so much.   I am definitely squeamish about the blood and guts part of it – give me my fire and clean glassware anyday.



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     Recently, at a meeting designed to support new science teachers, we were asked to describe our high school experience.   A simple question:  “Where did you go to high school?”    People are asked this all the time and for most it is an easy question but not for me.   In five years, I went to four different schools in three different states.

     In 8th grade, I was in my last year at a parochial school that I attended since 2nd grade.   In 9th grade, I was in a segregated public school in a basically suburban town.   In 10th and 11th grade, my family lived in the projects in a medium sized city in New England while my dad finished grad school;  this school had a very diverse population and a big gang problem.   In 12th grade, I lived in a very small, rural town in upper Appalachia.   Diverse doesn’t even begin to describe it.

     The current emphasis in science teacher education seems to be all about “not teaching how you were taught.”     I really want to teach science as I was taught because at the largish, urban high school with a tracking system including seven levels, I had the most amazing science education that you could imagine.   I think the National Science Education Standards (NSES) (NRC, 1996), which emphasize inquiry, were based on the teaching of my Chemistry teacher, Miss Maguire, and my Physics teacher, Mr. Sterns.   Either they did hands-on, inquiry-based activities all the time or that is all that I remember and I’ve blocked out the worksheets.

     Mr. Sterns could build anything.    He had eight wave tables available for us to explore; all manner of ramps, pullies, and falling objects; when he taught momentum, he came in on a skateboard, writing on the board as he glided past.   Miss Maguire taught us about the chemistry of photographic film and Mr. Sterns extended it by having us expose film using a strobe while dropping a light and then develop and use it to determine the acceleration of gravity.   Miss Maguire also did a wide variety of labs with us including titrations and generation of hydrogen and oxygen from water in addition to the aforementioned candle observation lab.    I don’t remember either of them lecturing but I suppose that they might have.

     I really hope that I can teach half as well as I was taught!

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… or is it possible to teach science without arithmetic?

© Diane Diederich - istockphoto.com

     I finished my first student teaching block last week.  It was difficult to leave as I had grown quite attached to the students.   As I look back on the experience, I am amazed at how much I learned about myself, my teaching, and middle school science.   It was a great placement with a very experienced teacher who connects with his students so well that there is a constant stream of high school aged visitors stopping in the classroom.  The students were enthusiastic to the point that it was very difficult to practice wait time because many hands shot up after each question.   The staff and environment were incredibly positive and friendly plus I had another student teacher from my program just down the hall.

     One of the difficult parts of teaching science was the near complete lack of ability to do simple arithmetic for most of the students.    They are not allowed to use calculators and the numbers are manipulated so that the arithmetic only involves whole numbers yet… they struggle.   For one of the last labs, I let them use calculators and they regularly reversed the numerator and the denominator.    We worked on motion and speed calculations – sadly there is division involved and there the brain freeze occurs. 

     Today I met with my cooperating teacher for my next placement.   He said that for the general chemistry classes, the work is mostly nonquantitative.   Sigh.   I guess I will learn to teach science without numbers.

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Physics as Destiny

     I found out Friday that I will teach Chemistry for only two weeks before switching to Physics in my student teaching block starting this week.    This was a bit of a disappointment because although I aspire to teach Chemistry, most of my teaching experiences have been Biology at Get Real Science Camp and Physics with the Science Stars.    In my Field Placement;  we have been doing Chemistry since the beginning of the year.  I have done a bit of teaching (lots of assisting, grading, getting to know the students) and was looking forward to the upcoming textbook chapters on acids and bases, bonding, etc.   The bright side is that I’ve already taught some of this Physics with Stars so I have a head start and some good ideas!

     Perhaps it is my destiny.     I was thinking of doing just a bit more course work and getting dual certified in Chemistry and Physics but had backed off because I soooo want to be done with school.   Do you think this is a sign?


Odds and Ends:

– We had our final Science Stars conference today but I’ll hold off posting on that in the hope that our blogs will get fixed and pictures will be an option OR I’ll have five minutes to monk around with Flickr and get that option working.   I got some great shots of kids in action doing science.

– I was treated to the sound of over 200 low brass instruments – tubas, euphoniums, and baritones – at a Christmas Concert this afternoon.   My 11yo son played euphonium in it and the age range was from two to ninety.   It was something!

– I went to the library earlier this evening but it got late, Saturday night crazy and I came home.   I have huge amounts to accomplish in the next week and a half.   Actually, tons left for Monday.   My mantra is – one step at a time and remember to breathe.   Refer to previous post on Raking in the Starlight.

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© Geoffrey Holman – istockphoto.com

     Scaffolding.   I spent the first three months of grad school having no clue what educators meant by this term.   Even when I asked, I either didn’t get an answer or didn’t get one I could understand.    Now that I understand how the word is used in education, as a metaphor for the amount of information or structure you provide to students for a given task or project, I’ve become aware that targeting this appropriately is extremely difficult.

     At Science Stars this week, we were doing graphing with 7th graders.   All the girls successfully created a graph using PowerPoint with beautiful colors and, for most of them, no useful information.   On the one hand, it’s a good thing that I am not underestimating their abilities.   On the other hand, my overestimation of their abilities leaves them floundering at what I think will be a simple task.   This is especially problematic given the tight time constraints for pulling together a final presentation.  

     I keep thinking that teaching is about giving students the freedom to determine how to do things on their own, to make mistakes and revise until they are satisfied, and to learn from that process.    The reality is that there isn’t enough time.   I am very afraid that we will spend the next two sessions spoon-feeding these wonderful girls a presentation.


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     The weather cooperated magnificently for Science Stars this week.   It was sunny and 70 degrees with a light wind.   My partners, Mike and Dylan, already wrote about our astonishment that, even with the nice weather, the students did not want to go outside.    The girls pictured above collected data on eight launches and were adept at using the equipment.   Working with these amazing students – they named their group “Girls with Brains” – is the best thing about the program.

     One of the next best things is working with my colleagues in the science teaching cohort.   We meet as a large group before the time with the girls to talk about our plans and get input from each other.   At the end of the session we review the session and talk about what went well and what could use improvement.   I have learned a great deal from them including things that I will incorporate in my future practice:

– Many of the groups have done a great job using icebreakers – described here on Kristin’s blog and here on Sean’s blog – that I think have led to better group cohesion.   This doesn’t come naturally for me but I will need to work on using classroom cues, which we talked about last week in Seminar, to create a ritual framework and structure.

– All the groups have been using concept maps in one form or another to help the students understand modeling and the reiterative nature of science – one method is described here on Jim’s blog.   A variety of approaches have been tried but it seems like having “preprinted” factor blocks to move around has been the most successful for the groups and we will use that approach next time we meet.   I am thinking about ways to make concept maps a natural part of instruction and reflection in my own classroom.

– Time constraints have been an issue as we try to keep things open-ended but yet keep things moving to meet the objective of wrapping up a complete investigation in early December.   Discovering the quantity of scaffolding necessary to support the students without guiding them excessively is part of this balancing act.   My experiences with Get Real Science Camp this summer, Science Stars, and my field observation have made it clear that I need to get used to feeling time pressured.

      We met on Tuesday which was also election day.   I wore my “I Voted Today” sticker and the girls, who had voted in a mock election at school, all had stickers too.   We talked excitedly about who we hoped would win the presidential election.    I was pleased with that result;  however, the setbacks in California (Proposition 8), Florida, Arkansas, and Arizona make me realize that there is much more work to do to eliminate the -isms that divide us.

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     It was hard to believe that it was still October as we stood outside this afternoon with an air temperature of 40 deg and wind gusting above 20 mph.   I was pouring water between two soda bottles and if they were more than 1/2 inch apart, the wind blew the water away before it reached the lower bottle.   The wind chill factor was below 30 deg – I’m glad that I didn’t know that before we headed outside.   The girls were in good spirits despite the weather and had fun launching rockets.    We split into two groups to look at different variables.   Our group was using a stopwatch for observations and the other group was using the force plate.  We did five trials at various conditions – I think we got some data that will make for a good conversation and new avenues to explore.   We seem to have gotten the scaffolding right with a generic data sheet that was just a grid with space for variables and observations;  they selected the variables but had a way to organize the data in their science notebooks.

     I led an activity to introduce the equipment we have for data recording.    We have Vernier Labquests that connect to a force plate, basically a digital scale with a fancy name and a digital output.   The Science Stars took to the electronics immediately and one of the girls quickly became an expert.   We started by having them look at a graph from a rocket launch I did over the weekend and talk about what they were seeing.  We started the exploration of that equipment by jumping on the force plate and examining the data.  Next, they made predictions as to what a large jump and small jump would look like.    Then we talked about elevators and they made predictions about the forces and what the force plot would like like on the elevator; after a few trials to get the timing down, we recorded data and checked our predictions.   I’m glad that I was able to lead the lesson – I am definitely less certain of my Physics knowledge than my Chemistry knowledge.   It will be interesting to teach consecutive lessons to the same class and watch the changes as I improve with each reiteration AND to see how long it takes me to get a good plan nailed down for the first time I teach a lesson.   I wonder if the lesson to lesson changes would qualify as an action research project.

     No blog post about Science Stars this week would be complete without a thank you to my sons.   They helped me run experiments this weekend to test the equipment.   They were glad to help me with my homework and I was glad to spend time with them.  My older son was enamored of the electronics and wouldn’t let me learn how to use it.  The younger one just likes launching and chasing rockets.   We found a 1-liter soda bottle that would work with the launcher and how to attach the launcher to the force plate.  The adhesive didn’t work as well in the frigid weather today as it did in the sunshine and warmth in the picture below.  The forecast for next Tuesday is 60 degrees and sunny – although I recognize that they really don’t have a clue at this point, I like the general trend.

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