13 April 2012

Modern Physics, for and by students

One advantage to teaching at a private school is that I am not held hostage to the year-end New York State Regents test.  So, when it comes time for atomic and nuclear physics, I can de-emphasize the mathematics and emphasize the history and timeline of discovery.  Which also means that I can hand over the day-to-day work to the students.

This started a few years ago when I was thinking of ways to combat the final few weeks of senioritis.  It was also at a time when the Principal wanted us to move away from final exams for the seniors and toward using "alternate assessments".  So, I decided to have the students teach the other students the units on Modern Physics.  Even if the seniors tune out the rest of the time, they will at least know something about one part of atomic-nuclear physics.

May starts in January

Every year I tweak things a little, but I have the basic framework in place.  Shortly after the January Exams, I show my guys the topics to be covered and the grading rubric which are then posted both in the classroom and on the class website.  About a week later, I publish a schedule for those presentations.  They then have about a week to chose a partner and decide on topics of interest.  The first couple of years, I would have the teams give me a list of desired topics (in order of preference) and days on which they would be taking AP exams.  I would then spend many hours trying to make everybody happy (you know how that ends up).  I now make it easy on myself.  

No Blood Please

On decision day, I have my guys work things out themselves.  I gather the seniors in the back of the room, put down a copy of the schedule, and tell them "I don't care how you decide, as long there is no blood.  I just want you guys to agree as a group on what teams will do what topic."  To cover my butt, I do remind them what it means to be a Jesuit-educated gentleman, and that I reserve the right to make the assignments if I think that things are not working out, but I have not had to do that yet.  The guys generally do spend some time making sure that most teams are satisfied with the assignments.  After the seniors have made their decisions, the juniors have their turn.

E-books are real books

Our students live on-line. So that my guys at least know a lot of good information can be found in books and not just on websites (and that Wikipedia is not the end-all-and-be-all), this year (2013) I spent time showing my classes how to find and download ebooks from our local library system.  Since we live in New York State, we are also eligible to get a card from the New York Public Library. I showed them how to apply (with the warning that there is a 2-3 week turnaround time). The reason I like the NYPL site is that there are a lot more physics-oriented books there. Also, since some of my seniors will be going to college out of state, I let them know that the NYPL will not know that they have moved. They will have one more resource available to them to help make their college career successful.    

Drinking from a firehose?

Am I  showing my guys too many books? It is well-known that when presented with a plethora of choices, many people give up and just make random choices. I sense that that is what is going on with some of my guys. I am tempted to make a list of appropriate books for each of the topics, but I don't want to spoon-feed my guys. Please give your opinion in the comment section below.  

An Outline can't be Copied and Pasted

The teams then have 2-3 weeks to write an outline for their projects (timed so that they have the Feb break to work on this if they want).  I then review those outlines for the basic material I want covered and make some "comments for improvement".  The teams then have 2-3 weeks to work on the drafts.

Not a First Draft

Notice that I do not use the term "first draft".  To most high school students, "first draft" means "I can just throw some stuff together at the last minute to pass in, but I will wait to do the real work the night before our team is up to present."   I tell my classes at least three times that I am using the academic and bureaucratic definition which means the draft is the proposed final version; it is being reviewed only for minor revisions.  I know that most teams will still need major revisions, but I want them to do some work at this time.  

I then review the drafts and "make comments for improvement".  I try to time this so the the teams have the Easter break to work on their final presentation (although the solar-lunar cycles don't make this possible some years).  I have learned to tell my guys that I am reviewing only for content, not for veracity.  One year, a team made a glaring mis-statement during their presentation.  When I called them on it, they pleaded that when I gave the comment "Looks good" on their draft, it meant that to them that all aspects were good.  

The presentations are scheduled for the two weeks of the AP exams and the two weeks after.  I sit in the back, marking the rubric.  At the end of the presentation, the students ask questions, then I have my turn.  If there is time, I will use the end of the class to "amplify" on some things that I think need be discussed.

While still a work in progress, I have found this approach to atomic and nuclear physics a decent one for high school students.                 

1 comment:

  1. I can say with nigh certainty that this project sparked my interest in the subject that my partner and I chose to present on. I knew next to nothing about the frontiers of theoretical physics (string theory, in this case) and by the end of my presentation, I felt that I knew a passable modicum of the history and theory behind it.

    I was never a wonderfully proficient Physics student, but that project in particular sparked my interest. I'm currently reading "A Brief(er) History of Time" by Dr. Stephen Hawking.

    If nothing else, Mr. Magnuson, you can say that you've got people thinking. :D