Monthly Archives: January 2012

Resources for Middle School Science Activities

When I visited National Instruments and shared my experiences with STEM in high school, a talked to a few friends who were involved in various types of science programs for middle school youth. They were interested in activities they could use to help develop fundamental scientific understandings (such as scale) as well as be engaging and provide an opportunity to learn about various phenomena. I don’t have any experience at the middle school level, but I reviewed the various projects that I’ve done (or hope to do) with high school students either in class or as part of Physics Club.

If you have a few favorite activities that would be appropriate for these students, please leave a comment. I’ll pass along a link to this post to my friends back in Austin.

Science and Engineering Projects


Citizen Science

Great resources:

No More Credit for Homework

As a previously shared, I am not making many changes in Honors Physics this semester. However, we are making two significant changes related to homework. Despite my strong belief in standards-based assessment and reporting philosophy, I have always provided some credit for completing homework. I’ve previously shared my attempt to justify this policy.

To minimize the overhead of checking homework and discourage blatant copying, we use WebAssign for homework. It worked well and certainly didn’t require much effort once I had created the problem sets. However, at the end of this semester a huge problem hit my colleague and I like a brick wall:

You get what you reward.

We rewarded a student submitting the correct answer for 80% of the homework problems in WebAssign and that is exactly what we got.

The behavior that we were unintentionally rewarding began to become clear when I would help students outside of class. The dialog would go like this:

S: “Mr. Schmit, I have a question about a homework problem. Can you help me?”

Me: “Of course! Let me see your notebook and what you have so far.”

S: “It is problem number 38. I’ll show you in the text.”

Me: “Okay, but let me see what you have written down so far.”

S: blank look

Me: “Let me see your sketch, diagram, list of givens, equation with variables, substitution of values with units, …”

S: blank look

S: I just solve the problem on WebAssign.

Me: blank look

S: I just type the numbers into my calculator and enter the final answer in WebAssign.

While I don’t have this conversation with every student, it is not at all uncommon. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, the students are exhibiting the exact behavior that I’m rewarding.

So, this semester, no credit for homework. None. I will still create homework assignments on WebAssign since students do like to check their answers or to ask for another version of the same problem for practice. This change will at least stop rewarding the behaviors we don’t want.

While hopefully students’ experiences during the fall semester will be sufficient to encourage them to adopt robust and organized problem solving methods, I realize it won’t for everyone. So, the second change that we are making is that before reassessment a student must show me clear, detailed, and robust solutions to the homework problems related to that standard.

Yes, I realize that many of you have been doing exactly this from day one. I’m a bit slow to catch on as it took me two and a half years. Better late than never.

As a humorous endnote, one student solved a circular-motion, car-on-banked-curve problem on the semester final exam without showing any work at all. He wrote a note about how he did the whole thing on his calculator and didn’t expect any credit. He also noted how it would be quite ironic if he got the answer wrong. He didn’t.

Honors Physics Reflection

I previously shared my end-of-semester reflection for my regular physics class. I wanted to do the same for my honors physics class which is significantly different from my regular physics class. We do not use Modeling Instruction, and it is a fast-paced, problem-solving focused, class. It is basically an AP Physics B class that covers all topics except for fluid mechanics, thermal physics, atomic physics and quantum effects, and nuclear physics. We actually cover some topics beyond the scope of the AP Physics B curriculum. That said, it does have many progressive elements. We are now in our third year of standards-based assessment and reporting. There are no points as it is a mastery-based system. Many labs are not scored but serve as discovery labs through guided inquiry. We leverage some aspects of Modeling Instruction such as whiteboarding and socratic dialog.

We move through units at a very fast pace. In the fall semester, we covered Giancoli Chapters 1-7 and 9. While the curriculum is “a mile wide,” it isn’t “an inch deep.” The mastery system requires our students to develop a significant understanding of these topics. That said, multiple representations are noticeably lacking. I’m always surprised when I see that graphical representations for kinematics is an optional section in Giancoli (but not in the class).

Since implementing SBAR, I’ve been pleased with the learning that occurs in honors physics despite its more traditional elements. To check if I’m completely misleading myself, I administer the FCI at the beginning and end of the fall semester. This year’s gain was 0.58 which was just a tad lower than the gain of 0.60 the previous two years.

My reflection regarding honors physics this fall has been focused on why the structure of the class seems to be working. Should I be satisfied with the degree to which students are replacing and refining their preconceptions about mechanics? Would I see a deeper level of understanding if I moved to Modeling Instruction? At what cost?

While musing on these questions, I thought back to my own experience in high school and college. As best I can recall, I learned physics in mostly traditional classrooms. How was it that I developed a decent understanding without many misconceptions in these environments?

The conclusion that I have arrived at is that I perform a mini-modeling discourse and modeling building with myself as I listen to a lecture or practice solving problems. I have an ongoing commentary in my head where I’m asking myself questions that connect one idea to the next, finding patterns, building models, testing models, refining models. I never was, and still am not, good at memorizing stuff; so, I had to construct and derive solutions on the fly.

I appreciate that not all of my students in honors physics do this, but I believe that many do. Whenever I hear that students cannot learn from lecture, I wince a bit since I believe that some students can. I think that those that can intrinsically do what many progressive pedagogies do explicitly with the entire class.

I don’t think that the current structure of honors physics is perfect by any means. While we are going to make some minor SBAR-related changes this semester (post coming soon), I don’t anticipate any major changes next year. Instead, I’m going to focus my efforts on preparing for a new AP Physics B class that I will be teaching. Furthermore, before I make any significant changes to honors physics, I want to see the new AP Physics B curriculum. I have a feeling that it will require significant changes to honors physics if not replace the course entirely. That will provide an opportunity to reassess all of these ideas.

If you think I’ve missed something major in my analysis, please don’t hesitate to call it out. Likewise, if you’ve come to a similar conclusion, I’d appreciate the reinforcement.

STEM Talk at NI

Yesterday, I had the honor of presenting my experiences this past summer working on the Fermilab Holometer as well as my perspectives on STEM education at the high school level at National Instruments. Since my contribution to the Holometer project used National Instruments products and my family was vacationing in Austin, Texas, I offered to visit and share my experiences. I was a bit surprised when I was also asked to share my perspectives on STEM education in high school.

My presentation about the Holometer was pretty much the same as the one I gave the Global Physics Department. (I’ve written several posts about the Holometer.) I added more technical details on the NI products involved and how the signal analysis was performed to better match the audience.

At first, I didn’t feel qualified to address National Instruments employees, who work for a company that are amazing supporters of STEM in K-12 with their efforts with FIRST and LEGO. As a result, I started my presentation with disclaimers:

  • I do not have a master’s degree in STEM education
  • I am not a STEM education expert
  • I have not attended conferences and workshops in STEM education
  • I have taught at a one high school for five years

However, once I sat down and started thinking about what I would share, I realized that I, like most physics teachers, am qualified to at least share my perspective because:

every morning I get up and try to inspire students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics by leveraging my experience as an engineer, an interviewer, a supervisor, and a teacher.

In my case, I specifically left National Instruments and software development to become a physics teacher to make some small contribution by inspiring students to pursue studies and careers in STEM-related fields.

I structured my presentation around three high-level themes which I elaborated with photos, videos, and stories:

Inspire Students with Experiences

I shared that few students are inspired because of something they only read or hear or see; they are inspired by their experience doing it. I shared the experiences of my FIRST Robotics Team, Science Olympiad Team, and Physics Club. Physics Club is an after school, student-driven, low-commitment group that allows all students opportunities to play, inquire, create, share, and explore. I shared our past experiences with near-space ballooning and the ping pong ball cannon. The second theme is:

Inspire Younger Students with Older Students

The main ideas for this theme are that students respond best to other students and students can loose interest in science during middle school. To address this, Physics Club and the FIRST Robotics Team perform outreach activities where younger students see projects done by the older students and build their own smaller-scale projects with the assistance of older students. The third theme is:

Inspire the other 98% in the Classroom

I was somewhat disappointed when I realized that all my efforts with FIRST Robotics, Science Olympiad, and Physics Club only involve 2% of the students at my school. I shared that this is a significant challenge but the most important theme. Many changes to a traditional classroom are required to inspire students about STEM:

  • Change Perceptions
  • Change Mindset
  • Change Pedagogy
  • Change Culture

I shared the importance of bring professionals into the classroom to share their experience and helping students appreciate that science is an active process done by real people. Despite significant local press about standards-based assessment and reporting, I shared how critical it is in my classrooms. I talked about Modeling Instruction, guided inquiry, project-based learning, and Project Lead the Way.

At the end, I felt compelled to take advantage of this opportunity to encourage those in attendance to help inspire students about STEM. I charged them to:

  • Be Aware
  • Promote Reform
  • Provide Support

I was honestly surprised at the level of interest in my presentation based on the attendance and the number of positive comments afterward. So, for those of you like me who are career changers, if the opportunity presents itself, share your experiences as a teacher with your former colleagues. We may gain more allies in the challenges that we face everyday.