Tuesday, April 14, 2015

It's been nearly a year since I wrote here

I've thought of many posts I wanted to write, but I've been busy learning things, traveling and working. Can't do everything I guess.


Last summer I participated in a workshop about Modeling Physics Mechanics. All of the physics teachers in Whittier USD participated, while about half of the students came from other districts. I had heard a lot about how modeling is a tried-and-true way to teach science to pretty much everyone, but I wanted to try it out for myself.
Learning how to use Vernier data
We acted as if we were students, with time out every once in a while to put on our teacher hats. A modeling lesson usually starts with a short demonstration, video, or possibly a min-lecture introduction, but mostly there were demonstrations to wake our curiosity. For example, the first demo was a few washers swinging at the end of a long string hanging from the ceiling. The class discussed what we saw and suggested which variables could be changed to find out more about what we were seeing. Then we split up into groups, which changed for every new topic. Each group picked one of the variables to change, as the independent variable, (number of washers, length of string, distance pulled to the side), and which dependent variable and then did 10 trials. We had to figure out how to do what we planned and measure the dependent variable. In some labs we measured things using Vernier equipment, which was my first introduction to that. In our notebooks, we drew the set-up, wrote about what we were doing, made tables and graphs, and attempted to make some sort of mathematical equation. All of these things are part of the model of the pendulum.
Preparing a white board
Then each group presented a white-board of their experiments in a "Board Meeting". Sometimes we got similar answers, sometimes something went wrong. Often there were various ways to get to the same conclusion. We learned that getting something wrong can be a better way to learn that getting it right. The other students were expected to comment respectfully on the others' white-boards, preferably by asking questions. In that way we all learned from the various approaches.
I am planning on taking either the follow-up course this summer. - on waves - or a first modeling course in chemistry.


We had long wanted to take my grandchildren to the wonderful Danish island of Bornholm, where I taught English and German at the island's high school for 7 years in the 1980's. 
My daughter's plans, though, were to visit us in California first, so we met at Yosemite and then had several days at home in Fontana where my youngest grandchild particularly enjoyed our pool. My son even managed to come by with his new fiancee, so we did have a short reunion here.

But we also managed to bring my older grandchildren to Bornholm, which they loved as much as we do. We hiked on the cliffs, rode bicycles and went swimming off the rocky shore. We found some old friends living near our summer cottage, and wandered through the halls of the school where I taught, and even found a group picture of the faculty, including me!

And since the grandchildren live in England, John and I also took a few days both in the countryside and in London before picking them up (since their school ends in late July) and taking them home again.


I took a very interesting distance course called Matter & Interactions last fall, which used a Momentum first approach, which seemed like an excellent way to structure physics curriculum. We also learned to use the VPython programming language to make small simulations of what we were learning. I wish the modeling curriculum were based on this structure, because it is a very intuitive way to present Newton's 3 Laws. I am continuing with the material of the second semester on my own, since there are videos of all the lectures online.
I'm now taking a MOOC through Stanford on Reading to Learn in Science, since so many of my students seem to have trouble comprehending content in what they read for science classes.


Of course all this learning was to give me a good basis for teaching science. I was offered a job as science teacher at a school for Independent Study, which unfortunately, turned out to be mostly desk-work, where students came in to take multiple-choice tests and then moved on to the next. The charter had developed an innovative NGSS-inspired Integrated Science curriculum, which would have involved teaching classes, but there were no available classrooms, and the teachers were very skeptical about it, so very few students were starting it.
Luckily, before Christmas I was offered a classroom job teaching General Physics, which I entered very enthusiastically. Starting to teach in the middle of the school year turned out to be an impossible situation, because the students already have expectations about the course that can be hard to change. The students had been taught science up to that point very traditionally, so it was a struggle to convince them that
  1. science can be fun and you can learn something at the same time. 
  2. making mistakes is a good way to learn, if you try to learn from the mistakes. 
  3. you can help your fellow students by giving them constructive criticism (which is why Modeling teaches to ask respectful questions) 
  4. you don't have to learn many different formulas if you understand where the formulas come from. 
I used the Modeling curriculum, starting with Momentum to teach Newton's Laws, and supplementing with the VPython programs I'd done for my online course. We had a nice collection of Vernier equipment to use, so they got to play with some very advanced toys as well. Unfortunately, the District needed a definitive observation about a month after Christmas, when I was still in the process of convincing students all of the above, and the results (in district minds) were not up to par. So I left my students with the curriculum I'd planned for them in the hands of the best subs I could hope for, and now have time for my blog and courses again.
Some day I will find the school that is convinced that the NGSS is the future and that we need to prepare for it, and that hopefully will allow experimentation in methodology to find the best ways to encourage students to love science.

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