Category Archives: teaching

AP Physics 2 Syllabus, Units, Labs, and Pacing

I previously shared how I will be using the AP Physics 2 Big Ideas and Enduring Understandings as the standards for my flavor of standards-based assessment and reporting for AP Physics 2. Since then, I’ve been working on outlining my sequence of units, pacing, and labs. This allowed me to finish the syllabus to submit for the College Board Audit. I based my syllabus heavily on Dolores Gende’s syllabus. My syllabus is 1252560v1, in case anyone finds it helpful in preparing theirs.

The syllabus that I share with students and parents provides all of the specifics on the structure of the course.

My sequence of units and pacing is based on a fall semester of 15 weeks and 2 days (plus finals) and a spring semester of 13 weeks to April 22nd (at which point we start reviewing for the exam). We will be using College Physics, 3rd Edition, by Knight, Jones, and Field. My pacing reflects our first year physics courses which cover more of electrostatics and circuits than the minimum required by AP Physics 1.

Please share any feedback or questions that you have!

Fall Semester

Unit 1: Relativity and Computational Modeling

  • time: 1 week
  • Knight: Chapter 27
  • computational model:
    • frames of reference

Unit 2: Fluid Mechanics

  • time: 3 weeks
  • Knight: Chapter 13 (sections 13.1-13.6)
  • computational models:
    • buoyancy
    • Torricelli projectile
  • labs:
    • pressure beneath the surface
    • hydrometer
    • Archimedes
    • Bernoulli/Venturi
    • water projectile

Unit 3: Thermodynamics

  • time: 4 weeks
  • Knight: Chapters 10.5; 12.1-12.4, 12.8; 11.1, 11.3-11.8
  • computational model:
    • kinetic theory
    • heat transfer between liquids of different temperatures (thermal equilibrium)
    • entropy
  • labs:
    • heat engine
    • heat transfer
    • temperature and kinetic theory
    • entropy activity

Unit 4: Electrostatics

  • time: 4 weeks
  • Knight: Chapters 20, 21
  • computational model:
    • electric field/potential maps (3D?)
  • labs:
    • Millikan Movies
    • electric potential mapping
    • dielectric constant and parallel plate capacitor lab
    • simulations (field hockey, fields and potentials)

Unit 5: Electric Circuits

  • time: 2.6 weeks
  • Knight: Chapters 22, 23 (23.1-23.7)
  • labs:
    • conductivity/resistivity lab
    • Experimenting with constant current and voltage sources
    • RC circuits


  • time: 4 days

Spring Semester

Unit 6: Magnetostatics and Electromagnetism

  • time: 4 weeks
  • Knight: Chapters 24, 25
  • computational models:
    • charged particle in an external magnetic field
  • labs:
    • magnetism activities
    • mass of the electron
    • measurement of a magnetic field
    • electromagnetic induction activities
    • Faraday’s Law
    • electric motors
    • determine number of loops in solenoid
    • Lenz’s Law Demonstration Using an Ultrasound Position Sensor

Unit 7: Geometric and Physical Optics

  • time: 4 weeks
  • Knight: Chapters 17, 18
  • labs:
    • reflection activities
    • mirrors lab
    • refraction activities
    • refraction/total internal reflection lab
    • lenses activity
    • lenses lab
    • diffraction and interference
    • thin film interference lab
    • interferometer thermal expansion
    • holograms
    • Determining the Thickness and Refractive Index of a Mirror

Unit 8: Quantum, Atomic, Nuclear Physics

  • time: 4 weeks
  • Knight: Chapters 28, 29, 30
  • computational model:
    • half life
  • labs:
    • hydrogen spectrum
    • photoelectric effect
    • half life
    • stochastic nature of radiation
    • LED lab for Planck’s constant


  • time: (4 days for final exam) + 6.5 days for analysis and review
  • April 23-24, 27-28: final exam

Unit 9: Particle Physics and Cosmology

  • time: 2 weeks

2013-2014 in Numbers

The 2013-2014 school year by the numbers:

  • 88 students in the fall; 86 students in the spring
  • 71 recommendation letters for 36 different students
  • 30 standards in AP Physics B; 80, in Honors Physics; 20 in AP Computer Science
  • 596 tweets
  • 16 blog posts
  • 186 180 posts
  • 9288 school e-mails received; 4820 sent
  • 23 partial or full days missed; none due to illness
  • 0.55 FCI gain (n=18)
  • 4.484 average AP Physics B score; 4.407 average AP Computer Science score

AP Computer Science End-of-Year Survey Results

I recently reviewed the end-of-year feedback from my AP Computer Science students. This year we moved to a new textbook. Last summer, I focused on selecting new practice activities from the textbook and improving the summative labs that students complete at the end of each unit. I made the decision to invest most of my time in the development of the summative labs rather than the practice activities. My focus (and lack of focus) is evident in the feedback. In the following charts, a “1” represents strongly agree and a “5” represents strongly disagree.

I see practice activities as the aspect of the class most in need of improvement. While the feedback was largely positive, it was as positive as I would like. I believe the feedback on peer programming was a result of how I introduced, structured, and facilitated peer programming rather than a poor reflection on the methodology itself.

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The feedback on summative labs was much more positive, which is good because I put forth a lot of effort to improve those! I plan to retire the ActorBox lab which was an early introduction to GridWorld. I may do a turtle lab instead. I also need to re-evaluate the Word Search lab. The lack of popularity may be somewhat due to timing rather than the lab itself. I may look for a different lab for arrays and ArrayList. I would love to create something with more social relevance. The DrawingEditor was fairly well liked but was too much of a challenge for too many students. I may consider replacing it with the new AP Elevens lab.

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The chart is a shout out to Canvas’s Speed Grader. I sung its praises in an earlier post.

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I was surprised how many of my students were planning to major or minor in a computer-related field. I would expect about three-quarters of them would major in a STEM-related field, not solely computing related.

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I had a very simple standards-based assessment and reporting system for this class. Summative assessments were scored on a 1-5 scale. Each unit that consisted of one exam and one lab. I almost never had a conversation with students about scores or grades. Lots of conversations about computer science instead.

Screen Shot 2014 06 22 at 1 34 55 PM

My focus for this summer is to improve the practice activities by selecting fewer and selecting those that students will find more relevant. In addition, with the practice activities, I want to achieve a balance between instructor-led examples, individual development, and peer programming. I specifically want to improve my facilitation of peer programming. I also plan on developing my own slide decks instead of using those that are included with the textbook. Finally, we will be using GitHub next year and I want to move the summative labs into GitHub to provide necessary scaffolding for the students. Looking forward to next year!

Monkey and the Hunter Conceptual Explanation

Back in mid-November, I posted to my 180 blog about the classic monkey and hunter demonstration. In that post I referenced a conceptual explanation as to why the hunter should aim directly at the monkey. Andy asked me to share the conceptual explanation and I’m finally taking time to do so.

For many years the best conceptual explanation I could offer was based on that of a student who came up with the following after seeing the demonstration. Imagine there is no gravity. The angle is such that in the time it takes the projectile to move horizontally, it will move the necessary vertical distance to hit the monkey. The effect of adding back gravity just adds the \frac{1}{2} a t^{2} part of the equation which is the same for the monkey and the projectile.

This year, I developed an alternative conceptual explanation. Put yourself in the frame of reference of the monkey. The difference in the vertical component of the velocity between the monkey and the projectile is the same and will remain the same due to the acceleration of gravity. Therefore, the projectile has a constant velocity and, if aimed directly at the monkey, will move in a straight line toward the monkey.

I received a GoPro for Christmas and plan to use it to film this demonstration from the perspective of the monkey.

CSEd Week

Due to space availability, we held our Computer Science Education Week activities a week early. My colleague and I and our students shared student work over three days in the cafeteria. We highlighted robotics, art, and games over the three days. We also provided the opportunity for students to participate in the Hour of Code. My colleague, @Mr_Alesch, created the following poster to promote our activities:

Download (PDF, 603KB)

I created the following video to promote computer science:

Computing at NNHS from Naperville North High School on Vimeo.

A handful of students completed the Hour of Code and many more students saw what students in the various computer science classes created. It was a good outreach activity and we learned how to make it even better next year. Students enrolling in computer science classes appear to be increasing; hopefully, this helped.

Recognizing True Professional Development

This fall, our school district adopted a new model for how professional development affects teacher salary. The new model provides various opportunities for educators to participate in professional development activates aligned to their personal career path. These activities may result in immediate compensation or “points” that can accumulate and move teachers across the traditional salary schedule.

Coming from the business world, the idea that employees would have a career path that they discuss periodically with their supervisor makes a lot of sense. I’m pleased that everyone will at least have this conversation as it is both a great opportunity to set goals as well as to identify opportunities for collaboration with teachers with similar goals.

I’m even more excited about the flexibility of the new model. The “bricks” that result in compensation or points can be coursework like in traditional salary models. However, they can also be earned by leading initiatives, participating in committees, creating and facilities professional development courses, developing curriculum, conducting research, and other professional learning experiences.

Historically, I’ve been pretty frustrated with how my professional development has been recognized and rewarded by my district. My time, like everyone’s, is limited and valuable. I choose to participate in those activities that will have the greatest affect on my professional development and my students’ learning. I carefully choose the conferences and workshops that I attend, the committees and professional development activities in which I participate, and the graduate courses in which I enroll. Only once in my seven years as a teacher has my assessment of professional development value and my district’s aligned. I received graduate credit for the Modeling Instruction workshop that I completed five years ago. The most frustrating was when I was denied credit when I was a Teacher Research Associate at Fermilab National Laboratory over one verb in the corresponding graduate course description. That summer, I worked on the Holometer collaboration and wrote a series of articles that explained the experiment at a level high schoolers and general public could understand. It was an incredible experience. I hope, with this new model, no teacher will ever experience the frustration that I did when pursuing such a rich professional development experience and not having that recognized by the district.

Now I’m about to test the flexibility of the new model.

I just finished writing a brick proposal for the “Discovery, sharing, execution, and enhancement of research-based and field-tested best practices for physics education.” I’ve come to realize that the most valuable professional development that I experience is with my online and Chicagoland colleagues. That’s why I invest my time in my weekly physics PLC Google Hangout, monthly Physics West meetings, my blog and 180 posts, and reading all of your posts and tweets. I tried to convey the significance of these experiences in my application:

This brick would be an example of blended learning. It would involve my participation with my online colleagues through a weekly Professional Learning Community (PLC) physics meeting comprised of physics educators throughout the country (and world) that I most respect and through less formal interactions via Twitter and blogs. For example, check my blog Pedagoue Padawan and my 180 blog: Pedagogue Padawan 180. It would also encompass in-person activities with the Chicagoland Physics West group, which meets monthly at area educational institutions. Interactions with each group are shared with the other as well as with my colleagues at Naperville North. To provide some context, every significant change (e.g., standards-based grading, Modeling Instruction, peer instruction, computational modeling) that has dramatically affected student learning and my professional practice has been profoundly impacted by the interactions captured in this brick; significantly more so than any other professional development experience I’ve done in my seven years of teaching.

I’ll keep you all posted on how this goes and thank you in advance of your continued support of my professional development.

Happy New Year!

Introducing Growth Mindset and Deep Practice to Students

I read Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck and The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle this summer. The three of us teaching Honors Physics this year agreed that we should share the concepts of mindset and deep practice with out students, emphasize them throughout the year, and measure how our students mindsets change throughout the year.

Inspired by the efforts of John Burk and Mylène. I put together some materials that focus on mindset and learning attitudes. There are a coupe of surveys, some in-class activities, and some readings for homework and in-class discussion. I think focusing on these concepts can have a significant impact on our students. I also wanted to collect some data that measures the impact of our new approach to Honors Physics.

We started with John Burk’s intelligence survey which is a short survey to be administered before discussing mindset and deep practice. We assigned this survey for homework and captured the data in Canvas.

Some results were quite promising and indicative of more of a growth mindset than I expected:

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You can greatly change how intelligent you are.

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You can greatly change your ability to understand science.

And some indicate that there is plenty of room to change attitudes about learning and physics:

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How well you can memorize mostly determines how well you can do in science.

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Watching an instructor do examples is the best way to learn new material.

After students completed the intelligence survey, we introduced the concepts of growth vs. fixed mindset and performed activities from The Talent Code to demonstrate deep practice and chunking. At home they watched Angela Duckworth’s TED talk on grit. Here are the slides:

Download (PDF, 2.08MB)

We then assigned The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids a New York Magazine article for reading at home. We also distributed copies of Diana Hestwood’s slides about how the brain learns.

The next day in class, we had a great discussion about this article and the slides. Several students really identified with the boy Thomas in the New York Magazine article.

The final piece as to administer the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey (CLASS) which was developed by the PER group at Colorado Boulder. We wanted to administer this at the start of the year to capture student expectations and then again at the end of the year to capture how student attitudes have changed. Administering this survey was a bit tricky since these students don’t have a previous experience with a physics class. So, we encouraged them to complete the survey based on their expectations.

To achieve our goal of having a significant impact on our students, these activities must only be the beginning. We will have to make a concerted effort to reinforce growth mindsets explicitly throughout the year and implicitly with a culture in which a growth mindset can flourish. While I fear that the traditional school environment fosters a fixed mindset, I hope that at least our classroom (especially with standards-based grading) can provide a refuge for the growth mindset.

Summer Reading

I have a theory that how much I enjoy the summer is directly proportional to how much I read during it. This may be because I make little time to read anything of significant length during the school year. However, during the summer, I find it easier to make time. This summer was a good one for reading!

Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas by Seymour Papert

I had been meaning to read this for a while and received a copy as a Christmas gift. I found it so enlightening and surprising that I previous wrote about it.

The Quantum Story: A history in 40 moments by Jim Baggott

I don’t remember how this book ended up on my reading list, but I’m glad it did. I find the history of modern physics fascinating and my students appreciate learning about the historical context in which scientific advancements were made. I found Quantum Story riveting. I flagged dozens of pages to reference in class when we study modern physics.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Dr. Carol Dweck

Several teachers that I respect have strongly recommended this book and Dweck’s research on fixed vs. growth mindsets. AFter last year, I was concerned about many of my students’ mindsets. I found this book helpful in that it provided a good foundation for understanding mindsets from a cognitive psychology perspective. I’m working on a future post on how I’ll introduce students to fixed vs. growth mindsets.

The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How by Daniel Coyle

This book was a great pairing to Mindset. Coyle focused on very similar ideas from the perspective of neuroscience. I flagged a couple of the examples in this book to use as activities with my students. I hope that the combination of the ideas of mindset with that of deep practice will have a powerful impact on my students.

National Geographic Angry Birds Furious Forces: The Physics at Play in the World’s Most Popular Game by Rhett Allain

It took me longer than expected to read this book because my son took it before I got started. It is a wonderful, accessible, fun, and engaging introduction to the world of physics through the lens of Angry Birds. Rhett’s casual writing style is a perfect fit for this book. I plan to keep it out in my classroom for students to browse and enjoy.

The Einstein Theory of Relativity: A Trip to the Fourth Dimension by Lillian R. Lieber

I believe I learned of this book in The Physics Teacher and was intrigued by the reviewer who claimed this was the best explanation of tensors, ever. I ordered a couple of copies: one to gift to a student who was graduating and one for myself. I was wonderfully surprised by the writing style and the illustrations throughout the book. I must admit that I’m still in the middle of the book, but I hope that my reading won’t be interrupted now that school has started!

Pedagogue Padawan 180

I’m going to attempt to keep at 180 blog this year. I infrequently make time during the school year to write long blog posts; so, I hope I can share more of what we do via Pedagogue Padawan 180. I don’t have 180 days with students; so, I’ll include some extra days along the way. I’m starting today because it is the first day back for teachers (students won’t arrive until Wednesday). I’m starting with Day 0 since I teach computer science as well as physics!

A couple of days ago, Fran Poodry announced on the AMTA list a Modeling Instruction-focused 180 blog aggregator. If you are interested, answer the related survey.

Honors Physics Changes

Several factors combined into a perfect storm that set the stage to make major changes to our Honors Physics course. One, last year was rough and several aspects of class were disappointing. I’m not going to dwell on those here. Two, we have an extra section of Honors Physics this upcoming year and another physics teacher will join my colleague and I in teaching Honors Physics. She is a really good influence on us! Three, we want to pilot the AP Physics 1 course to prepare for the first official year of AP Physics 1/2 in 2014-2015 and prime a pipeline of students ready for AP Physics 2. As a result, we are changing almost every aspect of this course.

First is the curriculum. We are aligning our curriculum to that of AP Physics 1. This changes the emphasis from content to understanding and skills. As a result, we will finally be able to implement Modeling Instruction in Honors Physics! The shift to Modeling Instruction, which we have been using in General Physics for a few years, will have a tremendous impact on these students. We are also taking some of the most successful aspects of my AP Physics B course and incorporating them into Honors Physics. We will have formative quizzes for each unit and we will have peer instruction to focus on conceptual understanding.

This change in curriculum and pedagogy required us to redefine all of our units and materials. All new standards, in-class packets, quizzes, lab activities, lab practicums, and exams. Fortunately, we didn’t have to create too many materials from scratch. We started with Kelly O’Shea’s Honors Physics Standards. We used worksheets from the Modeling Workshop along with portions of Kelly’s packets. We used peer instruction questions I compiled for AP Physics B. We combined quiz and exam questions from a variety of sources. We kept our favorite labs and found or created new ones.

We are also trying to incorporate and emphasize certain themes throughout the course. One is growth mindset. Reading Dr. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code this summer, helped me to find the commonality of behaviors and attitudes that some physics students, especially honors physics students, have that make them really struggle in the course. I prepared a mini-lesson (upcoming post) to introduce the concepts of fixed vs. growth mindset and deep practice. Another area of focus will be measurement uncertainty in labs. While we have a good set of measurement uncertainty activities, we don’t sufficiently reinforce these concepts throughout the year. At the most recent QuarkNet Workshop at Fermilab, we heard and discussed how critical it was for students to understand and appreciate the concept of measurement uncertainty.

A good sign that we are on the right track for this revamped Honors Physics course is that I’m excited and looking forward to this class this year. Without these changes, I don’t think I would be saying that….