Monthly Archives: May 2012

Inspiring Younger Students with Near-Space Balloons

On Sunday, my school’s Physics Club launched their third annual near-space balloon. It was a fantastic success this year. Our first year, we simply focused on launching and retrieving our payload with photos and videos. Last year, we focused on gathering data (temperature, pressure, radiation). This year, we focused on inspiring younger students in our school district.

High school students in Physics Club contacted former teachers at the elementary and middle schools and asked if they would be interested in collaborating on the design and construction of an experiment to be launched to the edge of space. Four schools accepted the challenge. The high school students visited the classroom to introduce the project and followed up with additional visits in person or via video conferencing.

The ideas generated by the younger scientists were amazing. One elementary classroom wanted to see what would happen to Jello and popcorn throughout the flight. Another explored the effect of pressure on Peeps and sealed rubber duckies containing water or air. One classroom painted craft sticks with nail polish that changes color based on temperature and UV radiation. Another put condiment packages in a payload and filmed them throughout the launch. The final experiment was testing how a battery powered light changes throughout the flight.

We launched from a new location this year to provide a greater buffer between the predicted landing zone and the no-fly zone around Chicago due to the NATO summit. We didn’t want a F-16 shooting down our experiments. We experienced a near-failure due to under filling the 3000-g balloon, but we recovered and had a successful launch. Due to a grant we received from our district’s educational foundation, we were able to purchase new equipment so we could track the balloon throughout the flight. We installed an APRS transmitter on the balloon that sends GPS coordinates over the HAM radio band. This signal is picked up by repeater stations throughout the area as well as by our own rig which we interfaced to a computer to map the location of the balloon. It was quite a different dynamic this year as we knew the location of the balloon every minute. We hung out in a McDonalds and tracked the balloon; the whole group cheered when we passed 100,000 feet. You can export the tracking data from aprs.fi and display it in Google Earth.

Flight path

The balloon reached a maximum altitude of 105,330 feet (~20 miles) and the flight lasted 2 hours and 34 minutes. Here is the video of the flight:

We also created an album that contains videos of the preparation for the launch and the analysis of each school’s experiment after the launch.

This year’s project would not have been possible without the support and efforts of many people. The Naperville Education Foundation, Space for All, Adler Planetarium, and W9BKO. In addition, several science teachers from my school contributed and alumni with much needed expertise assisted. Finally, the classroom teachers who accepted the challenge of this project late in the school year made it an amazing experience for all of us.

If you are interested in launching a near-space balloon and have questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me. My colleague and I have presented our tips for launching your own near-space ballon which you may also find helpful.

SBAR and Mastery Student Survey

I previously wrote about my challenges with my Honors Physics class this year. I received several comments from other teachers which influenced the survey I administered to students this past Friday. While my colleague and I still need to analyze all the data, reflect on the semester, and decide what changes we will make for next year; I thought I’d share some of the more interesting feedback that we received.

Homework

The biggest change that we made this spring semester is that we no longer provided credit for homework. This was motivated by our experience that students weren’t developing good problem solving techniques and that he homework was really just for practice. This change was the most frequently commented on by students. On the survey, only a third of students agreed with the statement that they complete their homework before the unit exam, but 90% said that they would if it directly affected their grade. In addition, half of students agree with the statement that they complete the homework only because it is required before doing 2nd tries (our reassessment opportunity offered before and after school once a week for two weeks following the summative exam). However, 77% of students agree with the statement that they write out the complete solutions as opposed to just answers. So, while students are developing better problem solving techniques, they aren’t doing their homework.

The reasons for this are captured best by the feedback provided by a couple of students:

I liked the way the system worked first semester much better. Even though webassign was normally a stressful night before rush, I always felt significantly moer prepared after completing it and knowing that it was going to influence my grade if I didn’t do it was just enough motivation to complete it each time. This semester, now that there is no required prep before the exam, I find myself preparing less, which I know is ultimately my own responsibility. I know many students are probably in the same situation though, being motivated by hw completion grades. I think requiring prep before first assessments would also help to lower the percent of people who need second tries since they are more prepared for the first try.

I personally think that you should require the graded webassign before the tests, much like first semester. For me, I typically read the book and do a few practice problems before the exam, but I often don’t have enough time to study adequately (my biggest problem this year). I just don’t have enough time to do everything (school work in general) so I prioritize, and graded assignments take priority. Spending time working on assignments is less time for sleeping at night, so very often the most studing I do is a reading of the entire section during lunch. If webassign was graded, I would do it.”

These comments illustrate that students are aware that they need the practice, but feel unable to do so with out the threat of losing points. These comments are indicative of a much broader issue. Is the problem that we don’t motivate students to do homework by awarding credit or that other classes do? If no one awarded points for homework, then students could decide what to do based on what would help them most.

Preparing for Initial Assessment

The results of the survey and the comments shared by students demonstrate that the homework change is one of the factors contributing to the lack of preparation for the initial assessment. In addition, a couple of other questions on the survey reinforced my concern.

Only about half of students expect to master the standards on the unit exam and half feel lucky when they do master a standard. 88% of students, compared to 63% of students, say they prepare sufficiently for the second assessment compared to the original assessment.

Todd Zimmerman and Kelly O’Shea both suggested that additional formative assessments were needed. I added questions to the survey to solicit feedback on this idea. While only 43% of students want more homework before the initial summative assessment, 68% of students want quizzes with feedback before the unit exam. I think the survey results support Josh Gates’ idea of providing initial formative assessments for feedback not grades. While there is little to no difference between these assessments and homework, simply presenting it in a different way results in very different reactions in students. So, Todd, Josh, and Kelly’s ideas definitely resonated with students. The challenge will be for my colleague and I to find time to create, administer, and provide feedback on these formative assessments.

Standards Based Assessment and Reporting and Mastery Learning

My colleague and I started applying SBAR and mastery learning three years ago for a variety of reasons. The primary one was to help students focus on learning rather than grades and, as a result, better retain the concepts and have less stress.

75% of students agreed with the statement that having the standards enumerated help them prepare for the exam and 62% of students agree with the statement that the mastery system helps them focus more on learning and understanding and less on points and grades. That said, 53% of students say they still focus on their grade in honors physics as much as they do in traditional classes. In addition, while 75% of students said they take 2nd tries to improve understanding, 94% of students said they take them to improve their grade. In general, Honors Physics students are extremely grade conscious. However, in terms of stress, 91% of students find exams less stressful knowing 2nd tries are available.

Another concern that I had was that students weren’t doing their best work but, instead, were putting forth the effort to just barely master the standard. Students disagreed with this assertion. 82% of students said they do the best they can when completing an assignment and only 15% say they do the minimum to achieve mastery. Perhaps this concern of mine was due more to end-of-year malaise than reality.

Most students appreciate the benefits of standards-based assessment and reporting and mastery learning. To provide some context, the initial summative assessment usually consists of a multiple choice portion for some standards and a problem-solving portion for others. On the multiple-choice portion, students can usually miss one or two questions and still demonstrate mastery. On the free response portion, students can make non-critical errors and still demonstrate mastery. Here are some of their comments:

I like the Honors Physics standards system, but sometimes the standards do hurt my grade (if I miss two questions out of 7, it is a 0% instead of a 72%). I really appreciate the second tries for standards because of this. I also feel that the standards system forces students to retain what they learn and helps them be more prepared for the final.

The second tries are extremely beneficial to students because it allows students to relearn a target, which I believe reinforces and strengthens the learning from a topic. I remember second try targets much better than other targets.

I feel as if the class is well oriented in that it helps people to focus more on the concepts rather than having to worry about their grade. It really helps a lot more in the long run.

I honestly loved physics both semesters, second especially, and i actually found that i it was required for me to understand the material by doing the work, and i enjoy that. Not all classes need you to understand, a lot just ask for you to memorize stuff. Also, i heard that this is the type of learning you need for college so this will probably help.

I feel like, while the mastery system is sometimes problematic, it really helps to ease the stress that I have while taking each exam. Knowing that by making one silly mistake, I can still get 100% in a category allows me to stop stressing about every single little thing during tests, which also helps me to focus. It is inconvenient when I don’t master a standard, but I feel like the 0% that results from it furthers my determination to clarify that standard and thus improve my grade during the 2nd tries.

I think that however much you put into the class is what you get. Like all other classes, the advantage is in taking the intiative, regardless of the grading system. I feel the standards system is a keeper though, because as you said it eliminates the hesitance for each individual point and allows the student to focus on the big picture. VURY NICE.

With grades being administered on a pretty consistant schedule, I find that I care less about my grade for this class. The use of standards makes me feel accountable for mastering a topic. That is to say, I don’t feel good if I master a target out of luck on an exam. I think other courses’ grading systems could take the honors physics model! Physics was a pleasure!

However, some students definitely do not like the mastery learning system. While they don’t object to the principles of SBAR, the binary nature of the mastery learning system drives them crazy.

The Mastery system is extremely stressful, because it is possible to miss 4 questions across two standards and fail an exam, while it is also possible to miss 4 question across 4 standards and receive a 100%. This system would be great if it was not tied to the letter grade system, but because it is, it’s extremely detrimental to report cards. (Which do matter, regardless of understanding or not.)

I may use this quote in my introduction of mastery learning next year. I don’t expect every student to agree with my philosophy that the grade for the course should reflect true understanding of a concept regardless of the effort exerted to almost understand it. However, I want every student to understand my perspective.

Additional Challenges

Unfortunately, cheating is always a concern of my colleague and I. We asked several questions on the survey about cheating and, unfortunately, I was surprised when 59% of students agreed with the statement that other students cheat on 2nd tries and only half of students disagreed with the statement that they feel pressure from their peers to tell them what is on the exam or 2nd tries.

As in the case with the additional formative assessments, the challenge will be for my colleague and I to find the time to address this issue. However, we have to ask ourselves how to spend our very limited time. Do we spend it to thwart those students who are trying to cheat or do we spent it to help those students who are trying to learn?

What’s Next?

I had discussions with several students who suggested that completing homework should not be graded but should be required before the initial summative assessment in order to earn the opportunity for a second summative assessment. This is the policy of another science class and students like that it motivates them to complete the homework before the initial assessment. Personally, this doesn’t ring true for my philosophy.

My colleague has what may be a great solution. He wants to focus on lab notebooks next year. He is proposing that students are permitted to use their lab notebooks, which may contain observations from lab activities and homework problems, on the initial summative assessment and perhaps not on the secondary summative assessments. This may provide sufficient motivation for students to complete the practice that they need before the initial assessment without requiring all students to complete the same amount of practice or penalizing those who don’t complete the practice.

I hope to meet with my Assistant Principal and hear the motivation behind the policy to not allow reassessments unless a student earns less than an 80% on an exam and to cap that reassessment at 80%. I hope to side step this policy entirely, but I am curious as to the motivation behind it. I also want to share these results and our ideas for next year.

We will have a new LMS next year and perhaps that will provide a mechanism to offer more formative assessments and feedback before the summative assessment.

This summer, my colleague and I will sit on one of our decks and figure out what to change for next year. I’m now more confident that we can continue to pursue our goals without taking steps backward.

Reflection and Refraction Activities

We are currently in the midst of the geometric optics unit in my honors physics class and just finished waves, which includes reflection and refraction, in my regular physics class.

My colleagues and I have developed a series of reflection and refraction activities that provide a shared experience that can be leveraged as we explore reflection and refraction of light. In addition, students find these activities engaging and they generate a lot of great questions.

I hope you find a new activity that you can use in class.

Here are the handouts.

Reflection of Light

Refraction Activities

I don’t have photos of the reflection activities, but I think they are pretty self explanatory. If not, ask, and I’ll clarify.

I do have photos of the refraction activities. I need to give credit for the first activity which is a recreation of an AAPT Photo Content winner from a few years ago.

Colored paper behind glasses

Colored Paper behind Water Glasses

Pencil in air oil water

Pencil in Air, Oil, and Water

Toy car in beaker 1

Toy Car in Round Beaker

Masses Hiding in Fish Tank (Total Internal Reflection)