Notes From Drew Vanden Heuvel Presentation To The Global Physics Department

I wrote down these notes when listening to Drew VandenHeuvel's presentation to the Global Physics Department. He is a genius who happened to student teach with me. I learned a lot.
  1. For a scale I wondered if there was something commercially available that were good enough for your students to use, like a food scale that all Meijer would have or something they could get from Amazon. I read of a teacher recently who used all online textbooks for readings and the like, and instead of putting a book list together made a equipment list so each student had these items for class.
  2. If you required an iPad for the course you could use apps like Screen Chomp, Explain Everything, or Educreations for problem explanations. There must be Android equivalents of these apps.
  3. As soon as you require a tablet, you can also assume they have a camera. Cameras should be huge in making online physics instruction come alive.
  4. Could you somehow take advantage of the fact that all your kids are in different places to make a single lab that required data from all the students to make the final lab data that is evaluated? I read this idea somewhere, but I forget where.
  5. Finally, I am reminded of the attached screen shot of a presentation by Ken Heller about Context Rich Problems at the Global Physics Department. Having students make problems for each other seems like a way of increasing engagement with each other online. If we move to have students make problems as part of their understanding what role to Heller's rules have for students?

Start the year by figuring out what the question is.

On Tue, Feb 21, 2012 at 5:01 PM, Kristin wrote:

Somehow over a month has past since I initially wanted to respond. Anyway, do you have electronic copies of the articles you use at the beginning of the year?

We used this activity, followed by a study of Matthew 25, followed by this activity with the linked articles below.

Big news about energy has been happening in Holland over the last year. You will be put into a group that will read an article about this issue. Discuss the article with your group and be prepared to share what your group says with others in the class. The person with the most white on their shoes today is the group scribe.

Expanding Holland's Coal Power Plant

Peter Garforth

The State of Michigan Sued!

What's the Plan?

Then we asked the students this: what big questions does a group of people in Holland need answered. This is the list the students came up with and the classes choose one as our question for the year.

Let the students write the standards.

This year we throw students into an inquiry on day one of a unit. We go for a few days, even a week with a goal for the inquiry but almost no physics words surrounding the goal. Eventually we invite the textbook and a problem set into the classroom. The day after that we give the students a list of standards, some from lists I made with another teacher, some from the state and some from other physics teachers who have published their standards.

I cannot say enough good about what I learn when I let the students write the standards. This week we gave them these to filter through their experiences:
  • Predict how the electric force between charged objects varies when the distance between them and/or the magnitude of charges change.
  • Explain why acquiring a large excess static charge (e.g., pulling off a wool cap, touching a Van de Graaff generator, combing) affects your hair.
  • Charged objects can attract electrically neutral objects by induction.
  • Draw the redistribution of electric charges on a neutral object when a charged object is brought near.
  • Identify examples of induced static charges.
  • Explain why an attractive force results from bringing a charged object near a neutral object.
  • Determine the new electric force on charged objects after they touch and are then separated.
  • Propose a mechanism based on electric forces to explain current flow in an electric circuit.

They gave us this list to choose from after running these through the filter of their inquiry, readings, and listening in class.

  • Be able to create enough static electricity to make a balloon stay in the air for more than 30 seconds.
  • Be able to use Coulombs law for real life situations.
  • Calculate the force when you're given the two charges and the distance between the charges.
  • Predict how the electric force between charged objects varies when the distance between them and/or the magnitude of charges change.
  • Be able to use Coulomb's Law to determine force when given a graph.
  • Know how to use Coulomb's Law in context.
  • Know what causes static electricity.
  • Be able to identify/recognize induction and conduction in real-life events.
  • Be able to calculate force, charge, and distance using Coulomb's law.
  • how to eat bacon w/o getting shocked by it's magical awesomeness
  • Understand the relationship between force and charge and how it relates to electronic fields
  • Being able to present this relationship to the class through an experiment
  • Coulomb's Law: be able to apply it in situations that you could encounter daily.
  • Be able to explain what makes something negatively charged, positively charged, and where the energy goes once touched against something.
  • Be able to shock someone.
  • Each individual should be able to conduct their own electrostatic experiment and be able to measure the force.
  • Be able to understand your static electricity knowledge by giving a demonstration of static electricity.
  • Know how to use Coulomb's Law in real life situations.

We loved all the highlighted ones, laughed at the bold one and picked the blue ones. We have crafted more lessons based on these student chosen standards so that they can make progress towards these goals. There are things we never would have thought of in here that motivate students to really dig into the topics. 

How many hits on YouTube should a student video get?

For the last unit of physics this semester we worked with the local utility to produce a list of businesses that had used municipal dollars to reduce their energy use. The students then went out in groups to interview the business owners and had to make a short video promoting the energy saving changes the businesses made.

I am a physics teacher. My goal was not making videos, my goal was awareness of the program and the rather active community of energy savers our small town has. I wanted awareness for my students in the context of their study of energy and awareness for the community at large. The project also dovetails with a local video contest going on. So instead of all kinds of rubrics about the quality of the video my co-teacher and decided that one of the standards for the unit would be, "Students video will get X hits on YouTube." We negotiated X with the students. We opened with 200, and they talked us down to 90.

I found this to be a remarkable tool. In many of the conferences I had with groups making videos I would say things like:
  • Do you think people will want to watch it to the end?
  • Do you think your title is good enough to make someone watch?
  • Would you want to watch this 90 times to achieve the standard?
  • Would you watch a YouTube over 3 minutes?

All of the crazy detail questions that you get are answered by the students when you put it in practical terms. I loved how this turned the conversation immediately to things that great video makers do and away from my standards as a teacher. Plus now I have had people in the community talk to me about their energy use and how it can change.

Some notes: I know they could do the 90 views themselves. In this case go back to one of my goals, that the student be aware. If they watch their video 90 times, they will be aware. Even if they take the effort of putting it into an automatically rotating play list. Most achieved 90 by posting to their Facebook with they please watch this my teacher made me get 90 YouTube views. Meets my goals and theirs.

What makes you groan during lab presentations?

One of my other hats has me thinking about the professional development of all of our teachers 7-12. This is a really fascinating job that is challenging in so many ways I cannot begin to describe it. As a part of that I am part of a group exploring how to better teach writing at the secondary level in a technology rich environment. Once a month this year I am learning about Writers Workshop with a group of volunteers from our faculty.

In the workshop model students are expressing themselves within a context that the teacher provides but in their own words and their own context as well. To translate to the physics audience they create their own data from their own questions and then apply general techniques to analyze that data. It is really cool.

So one of the coolest parts is all the research that teachers of writing have done on giving feedback and actually getting kids to learn from that feedback. Some highlights:
  • limit the negative (Seriously, many recommend stopping after finding two problems. If you find more and even point them out the students wont bother to even fix two. So if you go on and highlight more they will not learn anything, but if you do less and stop highlighting they will at least learn the two things you point out. I cannot tell you how powerful this insight is.)
  • be specific with the positive (good verb, not good job)
  • talk to students rather than write
  • give as much feedback as possible before the final product
  • spend very little time on the final product (once you grade it the process is done therefore the learning is done)

So here is how all this work with writing has changed my physics class. Every inquiry unit ends with a presentation of the research the students have done. I have put very limited requirements on these presentations, but I do provide an increasing long list of guidelines. I thought to myself,  these presentations have not been changing much over the years in spite of me providing this list. So this past unit instead of just spending time going through the list again and giving some time in class to work together on their presentations I picked the two that annoyed me most. Bad procedures and bad graphs. I made a mini lesson about procedure (no more than 7 minutes) and then set them to applying what they learned to their data. Next day same thing with graphs.

Results: actual improvement in the quality of presentations. Students even pointed out the improvements in other students work. So here is my question to you: what makes you groan during lab presentations and how can we work together to make a list and improve them, one skill at a time?

Science vs. Engineering

I have read a couple of article lately exploring the difference between science and engineering and how to walk that line as we design inquiry labs. I loved this line from The Science Teacher in an article called Science and Engineering.

Explore and apply: Instructional design should involve labs in which students first explore a concept by studying the relationships between causes and effects (Marek, Maier, and McCann 2008). Once students have developed an understanding of how important variables affect an experimental situation, they can be challenged to use the engineering model and apply their newly formed conceptual understanding to generate a product or maximize an output. In this manner, the science model is employed early on in the exploration phase of the lesson, and the engineering model is used in a subsequent phase of the lesson as an application of student understanding.

I am going to try to add this distinction into my inquiry design. I find that is tend towards engineering experiments in physics class because the have definite easy to describe goals. Even if I design the inquiry around a big engineering question I should always ask myself: where in this unit is the science inquiry?

The whole article is worth a read, sorry it is not free on the internet.

Have you found any other useful distinctions between science and engineering? Do you have a checklist of that you go through when designing an inquiry?

Imagination Produces Empathy

I collect thoughts about imagination, mainly because I think there is too little of it. Here is a passage from Wendell Berry's Hanna Coulter.

It is hard to live one life and imagine another. But imagination is what is needed. Want of imagination make things unreal enough to be destroyed. By imagination I mean knowledge and love. I mean compassion. People of power kill children, the old send the young to die, because they have no imagination. They have power. Can you have power and imagination at the same time? Can you kill people you don't know and have compassion for them at the same time?
I love the picture. As I play with how to best teach physics one of the powerful motivators is to imagine ourselves using our new talents in physics to change lives for the better. This has produced powerful images for students that truly motivate them through the harder parts of learning physics.

The Physics of Osmos Contest « The Physics of Osmos

Welcome to the Physics of Osmos Contest!

Students in grades K-12 are invited to explore the endless physics embedded within the beautiful game Osmos.
Create a one-minute video illustrating the physics concept that you discover in the game. The top student entry will win a $500 gift card to The top three runners up will also receive prizes.


To submit your entry, follow the instructions below.

  • Download and install the Osmos free demo. (Or purchase Osmos from the App Store.)

  • Experiment with your gameplay to illustrate physics concepts using Osmos as your virtual lab.

  • Review the official contest rules

  • Create a video illustrating a physics concept.
    (If you want to record your screen, try Jing or ScreenChomp)

  • Upload your video to YouTube, Vimeo, or

  • Complete the submission form by 11:59 PM PST. December 18, 2011.

Winners will be announced on December 25.

A good friend of mine came up with this contest idea. I think this will motivate a certain type of physics student. Give it a try.

By the way this idea is part our ongoing conversation around the question, what would a compelling online physics course look like. Lots of questions and no answers yet.

What is your real world? or In this problem assume no friction.

I have to drop a connection on the crowd. I was reading John Burk's post with the same title as this blog post and loved the comment his student dropped on him. I felt my head nodding in agreement. Reflections like that would make my day as a teacher. Later in the comments another teacher takes issue with the post. @adchempages has been all over the physics blogosphere with his message. I know he gets his students to achieve their immediate goals, he is famous on the AP Chem list serves.

A few days later I read this post trying to define where the real world is. It brought back to focus that my world is what I prepare kids for, and that is probably the same for teachers everywhere. @tkamps sent me this link to an edutopia blog series. I love the graphic in the last post. I love how everyone has a role to play. I love that the roles all have their basis in the same ideas. This is the world that I live in, and therefore the world I teach. I can see how other teachers who live in other worlds with other commonalities in the pyramid would value different outcomes. They are doing the same thing I am, getting kids ready for the world as they live it.

Our principal just sent home the monthly news letter. It begins with the transcript of a speech given by a student to members of the community, mainly business people.

So why do I love this place so much? What makes it unique?

First of all, the teachers. There are some incredible people here. I think what stands out about them is the conversation they want to have with all of us -- they aren’t simply there to tell us some information and then get on with their day. They want us to question and doubt and, as my English teacher would say, “wallow in complexity.” They care about what we think and want to hear what we have to say -- and want to see us pursue our individual passions. Just one example of this is an independent project that was required in my Physics class last year. We spent the last couple months of the semester researching a topic of our choice and presenting it in a way of our choice, so it was completely open-ended. Physics is really not my thing, but being able to incorporate my interests into a project definitely worked for me: I was able to combine my love of English with the excellent technology resources we have here, by reading three books by great physicists and then blogging and ultimately creating a website to show what I had learned. Another cool thing about this project was that I was able to focus on debates of religion versus science, which is probably not something I would be able to explore or discuss as fully as I did at other schools. And in the end, though I did learn a lot about Physics, I learned the most about how to create an effective project, all because of the wonderful balance of freedom and mentoring that I received from my teacher.

This is why I teach. I love exploring the world God has given us. I love to give students the tools to explore well, the passion to continue to explore and perspective on what they can bring to the exploration. I love that the school I teach in reflects those values as well.

P.S. I marvel at the people who can teach, blog, and keep up their family life. I am so past due for a blog post that I am embarrassed to even visit the space.

Welcome Physics Teacher

Welcome to those who came because you saw my article Introducing Rotational Motion With EXIF Data in The Physics Teacher. I am not the most prolific blogger in the physics world. If you want that see this post. I am also not the most on fire blogger in the physics world, or the most interesting. But if you landed here because of The Physics Teacher magazine, I am happy you stopped by and would love to have you look at some physics posts or some of my favorites.