Skip to content

Do College Admission Policies Provide Motivation for Sit-n-Get Education?

This summer I’ve joined Twitter and begun blogging, and what I’ve read from both about getting students to “do” science has really resonated with me and inspired me.  As a former engineer, I’ve always agreed with this and designed a very active and hands-on curriculum during the 8 years I’ve been teaching.

For the first time ever I’ll be sharing the 9th grade physics teaching duties at my school this year.  My talents and the talents of my colleague actually complement each other, I think.  We hold different opinions when it comes to the level of structure.  I would characterize my course as less structured and exploratory.  My colleague’s course is more structured and scripted and would probably cover more material.  In a recent conversation about which topics we should cover, I was impressed at my colleague’s level of detail and concern over my intent for a lower-structured classroom.  I soon realized the reasons: 1) my colleague had reviewed the SAT physics exam and 2) has a daughter entering 9th grade at our school and she may take the SAT physics exam early.

A discussion regarding our respective classroom philosophies ensued.  One point I offered was that college professors complain that their students don’t come with a good conceptual understanding of the material.  My colleague offered that unless the student gets at least a 780 on the subject exam they can forget about getting into a prestigious college.

She has a point.

So again I return to wrestle with my nemesis: what is the balance between a low-structure, open, and exploratory classroom and preparing my students for standardized tests that could have just as much impact on their future as instilling a love of learning?  Does the product of these functions have a maximum?  And does “doing” science even have a chance if college admissions policies remain so heavily dependent on test scores?

How many teachers have actually squared this circle?  Please comment.


8/1/11: Just saw this blog post and thought it relevant to this discussion.



ToPPS Workshop Update, Teacher in Transition

Yesterday I finished up the ToPPS (Teachers of Physics and Physical Science) and AAPT/PTRA workshop on Kinematics and Dynamics.  I documented the workshop on this Google Site.  Other than being really tired and forgetting my luggage at the school (who does that?), it was a great experience.  It was a week full of investigating, exploring, experimenting, questioning, struggling, laughing, collaborating, and sweating (it was over 100 degrees F each day).

It’s interesting how easily teachers turn back into high school students.  And I am not referring to getting shot with a NERF gun.   (BTW, they missed.)  I mean how they react to certain assignments.  When the teacher-participants were given a low-structured challenge, they became truly inventive.  They didn’t feel constrained to their lab table.  Some went out in the hall and some even crawled on the floor to test their ideas.  I often found myself saying, “hey, that’s a cool idea,” or “I never thought of that.”

When given a scripted or canned or cookbook investigation (you know what I mean: multiple pages, white paper, black ink instructions and answer lines), I observed wrinkled foreheads, lowered eyebrows, and expressions of frustration.  I often got, “So what are we supposed to do?”  Even though what they were supposed to do was written on the paper, the paper itself made their minds numb.  We talked about this informally, but I wonder if they could sense the same thing from their “student” perspective.

All this is not really surprising, of course.  But, honestly, I am a creature of habit, and I still have a boat-load of the latter type of lab investigations.  Guilty.  But now when I make a lab handout it is usually one page and never more than two.  Sometimes none.  Dilbert’s boss was right in this regard: less is more.  My curriculum is in transition, and, it would seem, so am I.

First Day of ToPPS Kinematics Workshop

Teachers from all over Oklahoma gathered in Alva, OK at the physics facilities of Professor Steven Maier at NWOSU.  This was the first day of a week-long workshop on kinematics.  It’s hot (over 100 degF) and they haven’t had rain since April.  Still, 30+ teachers traveled from all corners of the state and arrived ready to engage in activities and share some of their own teaching ideas and experiences.  Some teachers have over 40 years teaching experience!  Many teachers are the science teacher at their school. i.e., they teach all sciences to all grades.


We are digitally documenting the workshop at this Google Site.  (It’s in the early stages yet.)

Smartest People I Know

The other day a technician was installing the satellite dish for my downstairs neighbor’s but he couldn’t get a signal.  So my neighbor asked if he could put the dish outside my balcony.  Of course, I said.  I watched the technician climb up the outside of the building (I offered to let him use my door after that), balance himself while he drilled-in the lag screws nice and perpendicular to the post, checked for level in 2 directions with a bubble level, made fine adjustments and re-checked for level, checked the satellites’ signal strength, torqued down the adjustment screws, made the electrical connections, looped the cable at a minimum radius for strain relief and future adjustments, and stapled-down the coaxial cable.  A few things came to mind: 1) there are some definite math and science skills required here.  2) how much of this did he learn in school?  3) I wonder if he can get the World Cup matches?

1) and 2) are interesting for this blog entry, however.  I got to thinking about the “smartest” people I knew.  I’m not immediately sure how I define “smartest,” but some of the people who came to mind were carpenters, mechanics, and machine shop technicians.  All these people have to be quick, creative problem-solvers.  And all of them work with their hands and implement fixes so simple it makes me smack my forehead because I  didn’t think of it.  It also speaks to the issue of hands-on work having elegance and dignity.  (Check out Matthew Crawford’s book.)

As a student of physics, I could define torque and how to calculate it.  But it took my father to show me how to hook two combination wrenches together to increase the torque to remove a stubborn bolt.  (My dad, the oldest of 12 kids, had to quit school after 10th grade to go to work.)

I wish I could have a classroom in which students got to build things with their hands, try to solve real problems, wrestle with failure, and experience the fist-pumping satisfaction when they figure it out.

I can feel it in my bones that this is the right approach.  But how do I do this with 20+ kids in each class?  How do I budget for the upcoming year?  How do I convince parents who are paying to prep their kids for a good college?  (Indeed, how would colleges value this work?)  And can I even attempt this in my IB classes, which have a very specific curriculum and are very time-pressed?


One day I hope I will have a clear vision about teaching physics.  Right now it’s like I have to step off the cliff and learn to fly on the way down.


Animating Physics

Just saw this site come across my screen: Automatoon.  Just wondering how I might us this.  Probably in my 9th grade class.  Could students use it to explain inertia, 2nd Law, collisions, current, alpha decay?  Probably.  I’m wondering about the learning curve, however.  Please let me know if you have any experience with this in your class.

Do We Trust Our Students?

Read this blog post today and felt I should do what I can to spread the word.  The question is valid and promotes reflection more than anything I’ve read lately.  Over the years I’ve done a lot of cool and relevant projects in my physics classes, and these, to a large extent, require students be self-motivated.  I think I can say I trusted them.  I’ve never batted 1.000, however.  There have always been kids who fritter the time away socializing or goofing.  Has anyone batted 1.000?

Resource for Physics Teachers

I found this resource for physics teachers from our friends “across the pond.”  Some of the resources here I’ve seen before, but I haven’t looked through them all.