I began teaching the way I was taught. I followed the typical flow through
physics: start at the first topic on
the course outline and try to make it to the end. If I talked fast, used all of the lecture time and some of the
lab time for lecture, and didn’t care about the ultimate results, I could
almost make it through all of the relevant chapters in the text. But, my first experience with the PEPTYC
project and a TYC Physics workshop in ’94 started my transformation from a
dynamic didactic deliverer of copious quantities of content to a constantly
questioning champion of constructivism.
MBL I & II and the CE/OCS workshops got me thinking
about how I could do things differently.
I spent the next 6 years trying to integrate all of the tools an techniques
that I learned at those workshops and AAPT workshops and personal research and…
I’ve used MBL, CBL, Interactive Physics, Video Point, Electronics Workbench,
Workshop Physics, Real Time Physics, ALPS kits, ActivPhysics, Modeling Physics,
and Spiral Physics to deliver the content and develop the competencies required
for our courses. While my students
began doing better on measures like the FCI, I still had the feeling that I was
still presenting physics (as David Hestenes says) as “…just one damn thing
after another.” Enter the 11/’00
Physics In Context (PIC) workshop at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, OH…
After attending the PIC workshop, I decided that I wanted to
make my courses much more project-based.
I dropped the topic-driven approach and focused on exploring the physics
within specific contexts (mousetrap-powered cars for 1st semester
and digital control circuits and robots for 2nd semester). My students responded well and I know I
enjoyed myself. However, both courses
have additional topics that I can’t fit into these contexts. Furthermore, I didn’t do a thorough job of
identifying all of the relevant physics nor did I do an adequate job of
integrating the physics we did do into the contexts. The purpose of this project was to design contexts that will
accommodate all of the topics required by our two semester algebra/trigonometry
based physics courses.
I began with the assumption that physics is more about
skills than subjects, techniques more than topics. When I ask faculty of “downstream” courses (those that require
physics as a prerequisite) and technical employers why they want their
students/employees to take physics, they typically cite problem solving as the
most important outcome. Teamwork,
technical communication skills and willingness to experiment also usually
outrank content in my anecdotal interviews, but these results seem to resonate
with other, more formal, surveys.
Therefore, I see my role primarily as helping students learn the process
of physics within the contexts of the content.
I teach at the Williams Campus of Chandler-Gilbert Community
College (part of the Maricopa Community College District (MCCD)) in the Phoenix
metro area. I typically teach 3
sections of PHY 111 General Physics I and 2 sections of PHY 112 General Physics
II each year to classes of 18-24 students.
Classes are usually limited to 24 students and we meet for roughly 3
hours twice per week in the physics lab.
We share the Williams Campus with Arizona State University’s College of
Technology and Applied Science, so nearly all of my students are either
aviation-related or technology majors with ASU. While the courses that I teach are not Technical Physics per se,
the student population is ideal for having a technical emphasis. My administration has given me a great deal
of support and latitude over the last decade as I’ve struggled to help students
learn physics better. Furthermore, my
division chair, dean, and president are all located at another campus. So, I have the near perfect environment to
experiment with reform J
To implement this curriculum this semester, I have
structured my classes into three five-week segments with presentations, reports
and student notebooks due at the end of each segment. During the workweeks, we will spend one day in guided exploration
of fundamental physics concepts as well as modeling and technical tools and the
other day will be devoted to project work.
I plan to run the project portion of the course in a Problem Based
Learning format wherein I serve as a guide, not as a source of information.
I think that each of the projects will require some
fine-tuning, but I am convinced that my students and I will all learn a great
deal this semester. Stay tuned…
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