Inquiry Three: Investigating Extreme Temperatures

I know it has been a while. Life. One post a day, every day of break. A goal.

At the end of my last entry on the project to Nicaragua I asked where I should head. I headed in the direction of investigating heat energy. I thought this was the easiest on ramp to understand the most we would need to understand about energy to begin to build efficient and useful devices for energizing Nicaraguan schools.

The challenge I presented the student with was this. Produce a graph of a temperature held steady for 5 minutes above 103 Celsius and 15 minutes below -3 Celsius. I allowed them to use our Vernier GoTemp! probes and let them start writing grants.

My idea is that this would make them innovate a little and that the students would take one of two approaches. They would either take the path of finding something with a freezing or boiling point in the range and let said item freeze or boil for the allotted time. This would emphasis heat being different from temperature. It would show that heat can do work as well as increase temperature. It would make it clear to groups that heat is energy stored microscopically, which was one of the standards of the unit.

The other approach I anticipated was that students would pick something to depress the freezing point (like salt) or increase the boiling point (like salt) and then take away or add heat as necessary to keep the temperature stable. This would be a different approach and would emphasis that heat is constantly flowing from hot to cold (heater to water when making the solution hotter, water to room when you remove the heater). This also was a standard.

There were many interesting experiments. Much success and some failure. I had hoped that the presentations would show students both concepts and I encouraged groups that had chosen one method on the cold experiment to try the other method for the hot experiment.

At that point we were off to the races. Here are the rest of the standards for the unit.

Drawing Pictures as a First Step to Solving Problems

During a literature review for the class I am taking this semester I ran across this bit.

The teacher or textbook may say that it is important to do such things as to "draw a diagram," but they seldom say why, and the student can see that the answer comes from a formula, so why bother with a diagram? (1987, p18)

One of the best parts of this school year has been my students drawing pictures. I have never had so many pictures. I had so many I complimented them and scratched my head about why. I wonder if because we have entered all our topics with real questions about the world and started by looking at the world as a real place and noticed how hard it is to describe it mathematically if the pictures became important. My students are starting their problem solving by relating it to the real world, with diagrams. All I really know is that they are drawing more and better diagrams this year. 

Hestenes, D. (1987). Toward a modeling theory of physics instruction. American journal of physics, 55(5), 440–454.

I am never sure how to cite offline work, so at the bottom please find the APA cited reference. A link to Amazon (or WorldCat or Better World Books if you would like to reduce commercialism) means so much more today than a cite. 

David Hestenes, 1987

David Hestenes, 1987

As awareness of a national crisis in science education has increased recently, substantial federal funds have been allocated to cope with the crises on the secondary level. However, little of this is directed toward significant pedagogical research, and much of it promotes a reactionary "back-to-basics" approach. I am not alone in the dour prediction that the main result of this movement will be more bad science teaching and in the opinion that substantial pedagogical research will be essential to a more salutary outcome.

from: Toward a modeling theory of physics instruction. Am. J. Phys. 55 (5), May 1987, pp 440-454.

Inquiry and Play

Part of the change in physics this year as we move towards helping those who need energy is that the students need more freedom to create. This has caused me to use a lot more inquiry than ever. What has been great about this is I have been giving each cycle of inquiry time to unfold. One thing that I have noticed is that students, like adults, dig right in when they have a challenge at hand. It is only when they are asked to produce a final product that they go back and structure up their work.

I think this is good. I think we call it play. Playing is really imagining the world as something different than it is. Eventually that is what my students will need to do. They need to imagine a world where poor schools in Nicaragua have lights, fans and CD players. Before they can do that they should probably be allowed to play qualitatively with some temperature probes and immersion heaters. So that is what we did today. We played. We got used to the new equipment. We learned how to avoid spilling on our laptop and we started experimenting with what we might do when we formalize our experiment. And what is the goal of that experiment? For that you will have to keep reading.

For now suffice to say that I was happy as a clam all day helping kids play with physics equipment. We learned a lot of qualitative conclusions. But I was shock how the great subject of thermodynamics reared its beautiful head early and often. Groups called me over and asked why the boiling water was not raising its temperature. You cannot pay for moments like that. Plus when the real experiments come the students all will have gotten a lot of the ugs out of their systems, all from playing with the physics. A great day.

So, on the best test ever, what grade did you give the kids?

Lately I have been getting a lot of email about my blog. I love it. This question rocked. Here is what I responded. If you want to evolve the conversation yourself feel free to comment, email, tweet or contact me in some other way.

On Mon, Oct 25, 2010 at 9:02 AM, Henry wrote:
Oh yeah...I have been reading your blog.  I have you as someone I follow on Twitter so I link off of that.  So, on the best test ever, what grade did you give the kids?  All the same or did you still give individual grades?  I liked the getting the group consensus on a question and having anyone defend it--just didn't know how that fit the pressure of giving a grade.

Thanks so much for asking the question. It is so helpful for me. In rereading my post I realized I had not really talked about the grading at all. This adds so much to my attempt to clarify what I am doing this year in physics, I hope others will comment and contact me as well.

So there are two solutions in the pyramid testing option [PDF]. In a traditional points based grade book you might weight each section of the test to match what you are emphasizing that day. So a very generic match might be 50% of the grade is your personal attempt, 30% is the group's grade and 20% is the almost always totally correct class grade. It seems to me that this is a fair way of putting these grade into the book.

Here is what made me truly excited about what happened in my class on Wednesday. I have been using standards based grading. The unit we are in has four standards. The questions that I asked in class each focused some combination of two of the four standards. As students were working on the questions I had the standards in mind that I was evaluating. I would ask questions about why a student choose something (during the personal time) or I would listen into a group conversation. Then I would run up to my computer and record scores. I also asked if students wanted to hand in their work at the end of the hour. Some did. Others did not. Great work was handed in.

I am going to give one more attempt at each of the standards, so I am not too worried about them handing in something yet. If they do not after hand in something after the second attempt then their grade will not be good. They will be allowed to challenge that. Students are allowed to challenge any one standard on a given day. They have to name the standard and tell me what they have done to improve their knowledge. There is a long list of resources for them to use to improve.  I then give a quiz or just talk the standard through with them.

The main point of this is that the conversations I had with students were wonderful and very instructive about where they were at. The period moved quickly but without stress. There was no tension in the room like a normal test can bring. It was the first time I can remember feeling like I was evaluating while knowledge was increasing.

The Best Test Ever

I gave up on giving tests a long time ago. I am not saying that I hate them, just that I have not found a need in a long time to give one. On Wednesday I was wrapping up a unit and I thought I would try to make some authentic assessments. This was news to my students, and I never even really told them that the goal was assessing.

All this was because of standards based grading. I took into the class examples of work that students should be able to do having almost completed the work of our inquiry into mechanical energy. I put up the problem or the question and allowed them to try it on their own. After that they had a chance to claim their work. If they wanted to put their name on the paper and turn it in they could. If not I asked why and helped them figure out what was wrong. They can always meet the standard later.

On the next standard I asked a more conceptual problem called a ranking task, and used a strategy called pyramid testing. I asked them each to commit to an answer on their own. Then all submitted their answer and they had 10 minutes to come to a group conclusion and commit to it. Finally, I left the room and told them to put a class answer on the board. I told them that I was going to pick a random number and that person on the class list would have to explain the class decision. I

As I listed to groups talk I gained a ton of understanding about how my students were meeting the standards. Even the classes ability to convince each other of a final answer on the conceptual question gave me a lot more insight into their knowledge than I expected. The hour was lively, filled with discussion and learning and assessment. The best test ever.

The Frustrations

I write this to a physics teaching friend today. He helped me brainstorm the standards that I am working from for the year. I am unsure of the direction to head in next though. Now I put it out there for the crowd. I would like your help and I need it soon.

I started the year with a study of essentially the work energy theorem, because they had no idea what energy was. I am sure they are all in a better place on that front, but they only have a GPE/KE/Work understanding at this point. I would like to move them into the next topic, but I am really unsure about where to head next. Here are my ideas and the concerns I have about each. Mainly you could think about these and comment back or just tell me to calm down.

My comfort tells me to move on with energy into thermodynamics. This would get at your key concept, "Heat is microscopic energy, or energy stored microscopically." I have an idea of what labs to do to introduce it and how they will go. I worry that this is me controlling the direction too much.

I think the kids would like to start work on circuits. We have identified what we will need to put in the buildings, fans, lights, CD players. To do this we are going to need to know about power and circuits and generation of poser and storage of power. This gets at key concept, "Capacitors and batteries store energy." and "Work stores energy" (generating electrical energy).  I have added to that key concept two more key concepts: batteries do work (e.g. run fans, turn cds, make speakers move, light LEDs). My main concern here is that this is entirely uncharted territory for me. I did a little with DC circuits in the past, but nothing to this level. I do not really know where to start without getting really bogged down in a lot of details. I would rather have the students find out what they need to know. This will put each group in a radically different place with radically different details. I guess that is what I signed up for.

Finally, I have a silly idea about teaching velocity but doing it in the context of wiring LED throwies. This would skip any mathematical understanding of circuits (for now) and replace the math with projectile motion and velocity. I would then somehow use the throwies to make videos to analyze. This would hopefully help us get at the concept of velocity being free.

Thanks for listening.

Lab as Story

A quick post as my students are working on making presentations on their labs. I am absolutely convinced that giving them time to really dig into their data, and then making the present their results and compare their results to "book answers" is producing great learning. Here is how I know. In most cases there is a story line that has developed. The students have uncovered something about the world or themselves that they never would have known about, and they are working on how to incorporate that into future inquiry and other student's inquiry.

qBits | MSNBC selects Air Sketch for use on Air

I have been using this program in a similar way to use the iPad school is letting me play with to control my screen. Today I had several breakthroughs that are moving me closer and closer to thinking that this is the way to go. In the past my classroom has used the awesome combination of Skitch and a Wacom Graphire Wireless, and I still love and recommend that combination to anyone looking at a traditional interactive white board. Much cheaper, much more student, subject and learning focused and significantly cheaper. Above all this, it just works. Teachers do not use stuff that does not work every time.

That being said I am trying AirSketch on the iPad. Why? because it is cheap as well. The combo that I use is about $300, but if you buy the pads from Promethean or Mimio they will set you back north of $400. Lately I have see iPad popping up on the refurbished list for $450. So if you can make it work as well as these other options, for only $50 more you also have a iPad instead of a hunk of plastic. And, since the connection is through your wireless network there is little chance of interference like there is with my Wacom.

Some things happened today to make it click that AirSketch might just be the right thing. First, I accidently two finger zoomed, and sure enough I could fill in details in a section of my drawing. Details are much easier to draw with a pen than a finger. The AirSketch app makes detail possible by allowing you to zoom in and work in a small area. Before I knew this I was not able to fit an entire problem on a page.

Second, I figured out how to take a screen shot using my iPad. Any screen shot is only a fw clicks away from being a background to draw on in AirSketch. For me this is essential, since most of my homework is online. I used to surf to a problem that a students asks about and screen shot it with Skitch and go. Now I surf on the iPad to the problem, screen shot it by pressing the Power button and the iPad button at the same time, then switch to AirSketch and pull it out of the photo gallery and draw on it to help the students.

Third I found that if I toggle on full screen mode in Chrome while using AirSketch it makes my screen a ton less busy so we can all focus on the learning. Enable full screen mode in Chrome by pressing Command-Shift-F.

What is super cool is now I can also give it to the students, since they can see where they are writing. If only the iPad had four finger swipe application switching we would be all set.

Fermi Problems

After the introductory days of the course I felt like I had been blabbing at them too much and I had a block day to plan for. At out school we have a pretty normal 7 period day, but on Tuesdays and Wednesdays we run a block schedule with 90 minute periods. I thought that may be another day of trying to discuss would kill the students so instead I thought I would take the liberty of introducing them to a very basic topics of physics, a Fermi Problem.

From my assignment for the day (in a Forum post)

A Fermi Problem is a great exercise in making estimates of answers to burning questions on people's minds today. Really. They are a powerful tool that physicists use to make sure their answers and experiments make sense before they commit to them or make decisions based on them. Enrico Fermi would use them to warm up the crowd at physics conventions in the 1920's.There are several forums below and each is a Fermi problem. Randomly choose five and solve the problems with a partner. Problems usually solve this way:

  1. Decide what pieces of information you need to know.
  2. Make powers of ten estimates of those values (which might require some research).
  3. Combine the information into a final power of ten answer.

As you write your responses please include your thoughts on each of the points above, and if you did research include links to where you found the information that you needed to complete the problems.

After they play around with these for a while I asked them in another forum to make their own Fermi problems and try each others out. It is a fun day and it gets at the basics of breaking problems down into their parts, qualitative guesses, and a little of the history of physics.

What I did not know is how well it would dovetail into my next necessity. I needed them to ask questions about power needs in Nicaragua. Well, after we were done with regular Fermi problems we did just that, and some great questions came out of that. Most especially, how much energy will a rural Nicaraguan school need? I asked them:
  1. How many Joules will we need per school?
  2. How many people know what a Joule is?
  3. Have we arrived at our first thing we need to know?

What is energy and what is a joule? We had discovered our first unit of study.