Separating Wheat from Chaff #lewin #physicsed

Recently I replied to a post on the College Board’s AP Physics Teacher discussion forum, an act that always seems to be a dicey proposition.  A teacher had asked other AP physics teachers for instructional physics video recommendations.  I replied with links to one of my favorite video series, the MIT 8.xx introductory calculus-based physics series put together by Prof. Walter Lewin.

If you are unaware, Prof. Lewin’s lectures have been immensely popular and have been in many ways the “de facto” standard for online physics lectures.  His preparation was well thought out, his content coverage thorough, his demonstrations engaging, and his performances nearly flawless.

Recently, however, Dr. Lewin’s lectures have been pulled from the MIT website due to an investigation in which MIT determined that Lewin “had sexually harassed at least one student online.”  (link here).  You can still find versions on YouTube.

Following my post on the discussion forum, I received several responses from instructors stating that they would not recommend the videos any longer.  I briefly responded that the quality of the videos didn’t change, therefore even though Lewin may have been acting in appropriately personally, the videos were not affected and retain their educational value.

Several responses were quickly received, ranging from recommendations to use alternate videos to a response stating that posting materials associated with Lewin would be morally irresponsible.  Though I do understand the concerns, I think disappointment in the behavior of one of our “physics heroes” is clouding the collective judgment.

If referencing the works of scientists who have had personal ethical or moral failings is the “correct response,” we need to recognize how much great work must be thrown away.  It doesn’t take long to research the personal lives of Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Marie Curie, Edwin Schrodinger, or even Stephen Hawking to find well documented evidence of significant personal life scandals.  Why is it that referencing their works in the classroom isn’t morally irresponsible, but referencing Lewin’s is?

This same issue surfaces again and again outside just the scientific world.  Were Babe Ruth’s accomplishments less amazing (especially in relation to other baseball players of his time) knowing his personal behavior off the field?  Were Pete Rose’s 4,192 hits less valuable to his team because he was later found to have a gambling addiction?  Should the Cosby Show be banned from syndication due to the show’s star alleged indiscretions?  In working toward my teaching certification, my class studied a book by Bill Ayers, whose past actions could easy label him a domestic terrorist.  Despite his past, however, as a class we were able to explore and debate the philosophies he promoted in his book in a productive manner.  We even re-elected a sitting president who lied under oath AND engaged in significant sexual misconduct.

My point isn’t that any of these behaviors are anywhere close to acceptable, nor that we should excuse them.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  My point, however, is that pulling Lewin’s videos punishes the many students who could benefit from them.  Severing ties with the author, closing the associated discussion forums, and similar actions appear reasonable.  Removing the good works done by this individual only makes a bad situation worse.

Finally, to say that using the works of a public figure discredited for personal indiscretions is “morally irresponsible,” when looked at in a wider view, just becomes silly.  How many library books must you pull from the shelves?  How many theories and inventions must be destroyed?  And where do you draw the line on what level of personal indiscretion warrants these actions?  Is it a felony?  A misdemeanor?  Last week I received my first traffic ticket for a broken taillight (which was fixed first thing the next morning) — does that invalidate what small contributions I’ve attempted to make to my field?

Let’s move back to reality.  A beloved and popular teacher allegedly screwed up.  Big time.  We’re disappointed, and we’re hurt.  One of our heroes fell.  I get it, and I’m hurt too.  But his mistakes don’t invalidate his 40+ years of excellent teaching.  Our world is just not that simple.

Time, Einstein, and the Coolest Stuff in the Universe

NewImage

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein changed the way we think about time. Near the end of the twentieth century scientists learned how to cool a gas of atoms to temperatures billions of times lower than anything else in the universe. 

Now, in the 21st century, Einstein’s thinking and ultracold atoms are shaping the development of atomic clocks, the best timekeepers ever made. Such super-accurate clocks are essential to industry, commerce, and science. They are the heart of the Global Positioning System (GPS) that guides cars, airplanes, and hikers to their destinations. 

Today, the best primary atomic clocks use ultracold atoms, achieve accuracies better than a second in 300 million years, and are getting better all the time. Super-cold atoms, with temperatures that can be below a billionth of a degree above absolute zero, allow tests of some of Einstein’s strangest predictions. 
 
Join Dr. Phillips for be a lively, multimedia presentation—including experimental demonstrations and down-to-earth explanations about some of today’s most exciting science.


Dr. William D. Phillips is the leader of the Laser Cooling and Trapping Group of the National Institute for Standards and Technology’s Physical Measurement Laboratory—and also a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland. Dr. Phillips’s research group studies the physics of ultracold atomic gases. In 1997, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics “for development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light.”


March 5 at 7 pm at the Student Alumni Union, Ingle Auditorium, Rochester Institute of Technology

Just a Little AP-1 Essentials Venting

Still having folks attempting to use the AP Physics 1 Essentials book as a primary text instead of the “read this at home as an intro so you’re prepared to go deeper in class” tool it was intended as. I wish I could put a disclaimer on the Amazon.com “Buy” button so folks would read the description before purchasing.

I hate seeing disappointed readers and reading negative reviews, especially when I realize that these are students and teachers counting on support in their studies. And of course I realize you can’t please everyone. But I also don’t want to create the “standard”-type review book.

These are the books I’d want to use (and do use) with my students, where the book is designed to provide the “essential” background knowledge so that students can walk into class having read and understood enough to begin exploring the concepts in a much deeper fashion through activities, discourse, debate, and deeper thinking questions. AP Physics 1 Essentials is supposed to be the “flipped classroom” version of a review book, and in the same style as the flipped class videos available on the APlusPhysics site. It’s not supposed to compete with Greg Jacobs’ amazing work with his 5 Steps to a 5 series (which I HIGHLY recommend), where he does a great job with a book that is part “here’s what you need to know” and part “here’s how to ace the test.” And it’s certainly not designed to take on the Barron’s Review Series. They already do a great job with a deep overview of the entire course — it would be ludicrous to try to outdo such excellent work.

Instead, AP Physics 1 Essentials is supposed to be an alternate path, a different kind of resource. The kind of book you give a student who is struggling to help them ferret out the simple basic relationships, and begin to take them further. But it’s not meant to be used in isolation, and it certainly isn’t meant to be a “do it yourself at home” guide to the entire AP Physics 1 exam.

As the AP-2 book nears completion, I’m worried I’ve taken some of the negative reviews to heart and made portions of it too complex. I need to keep in mind what this book is designed for, and what it isn’t. It isn’t meant to be all things to all people, and despite the occasional negative review, I think it’s important to stay true to its aim. I want it to cover the essential concepts of the course in as straightforward a manner as I can manage, keep it light and fun, and provide some very basic sample problems (with solutions RIGHT THERE in the text) so students can test their understanding as they go. The goal again is to provide a resource that will allow the instructor more in-class time to develop the deeper understanding and problem solving skills necessary for success in AP-2, NOT try to accomplish this all in a little review book. I’ll again look into including an appendix of more AP-2 style problems, but I don’t want that to become the focus (one of the reasons why all the appendix problems are placed in the public domain and freely available outside the context of the book).

I guess I just needed to vent a little in a friendly place and give myself some “writing” therapy. I can’t say enough about the tremendous support I receive from so much of the physics teaching community, and I need to continue to focus on the positives. It was students who got me started on flipping the classroom and creating the videos, teachers in the community who convinced me to put it together into a book, and the great feedback and requests from teachers and students alike that keep me plugging away on these projects such as the AP-2 book (and then a long list of video lessons to get back to).

The bottom line is I switched careers and became a teacher because I enjoyed it, it was fun. I started work on the videos, books, and website because it helped students, and I enjoyed it. I’ve continued working on these resources due to the amazing feedback and support, and because it’s fun. Now I need to kick myself in the rear end and remind myself that there’s not a thing I can do about the folks who are expecting the book to be something it’s not. These books and videos aren’t going to make themselves, and it’s supposed to be fun, so it’s time for me to quit whining and get back to work.

Make it a great day!

Skills Based Grading Seminar

On Tuesday evening I had the opportunity to attend a professional development seminar on Skills Based Grading at SUNY Geneseo as part of the NYS Master Teacher Program.  Below are some of my musings / quick notes as I participated in the seminar.  I very much enjoyed hearing about how others have utilized SBG and comparing to my program.

Goal for the session is for the presenters, George Reuter and Amy to provide a snippet of what Standards Based Grading is and how it can be implemented, coupled with a work session in which a structure is implemented with a SBG philosophy.

Use SBG as a communication tool — highlight strengths as well as opportunities for improvement.

SBG as a process.  Learn a new skill, practice that skill, test that skill, receive feedback, practice needed skills, etc.

Analogy — just like runners have multiple opportunities to practice and show their skill, so will students have multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning.

Work on progressions toward mastery — set up rubric to support your end-goal.

Ways of determining scores — average all scores, decaying average, most recent, other?  (I keep the two most recent).

Presenter spends hours and hours grading assessments — I mentioned Remark OMR and opportunities to automate that work, specifically how I’ve significantly reduced my workload using SBG.  Presenter also spent many hours in parent presentations about the grading system.  I side-stepped that by creating a flipped classroom video explaining my grading system.

After a bit more discussion, we split into various groups to talk about various ramifications, issues, concerns, and successes using SBG.  Overall, a valuable evening!

Differences Between AP Physics B and AP Physics 1 & 2

Beginning this year, the College Board will be replacing their AP Physics B algebra-based physics course with two separate algebra-based physics courses, titled AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2. The two calculus-based courses, AP Physics C: Mechanics and AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, will remain the same.

Why the Change?

So Professor of physics hg clrwhat does this change entail, and why has this change been undertaken? A study by the National Research Council concluded that the AP Physics B course “encourages cursory treatment of very important topics in physics rather than a deeper understanding,” according to the College Board’s FAQ, and that students’ study of mechanics should include rotational dynamics and angular momentum, which are not part of the AP Physics B curriculum. The NRC recommended teaching the course over two years to emphasize inquiry-based instruction and deeper understandings. The College Board agreed.

What’s Involved?

The new AP Physics 1 course is targeted as equivalent to a one-semester college course in algebra-based physics, though the selection of topics for the course includes some irregularities compared to a standard introductory college physics course. Topics included in AP Physics 1 include kinematics; dynamics; momentum; work, energy, and power; rotation; oscillations; gravity; mechanical waves; and basic electric circuits. Most of these are topics that were previously on the AP-B exam, though the inclusion of rotation and angular momentum are new topics. Further, the emphasis on mechanics in an introductory college course is standard, but the inclusion of electric circuits is rather irregular. According to a committee member involved in the redesign of the course, the inclusion of circuits was forced into the new course to meet the needs of end-of-year state assessments for several large states, and was not originally part of the redesign plans.

The new AP Physics 2 course is intended as an equivalent to a second-semester college course, covering fluid mechanics, thermal physics, electricity and magnetism, optics, and atomic / modern physics. Most of these topics were included in the previous AP-B course, though the modern physics portion of the course includes several new sub-topics.

A New Paradigm

Considerably more dramatic than just shifts in content, however, is the overall organization of the course. The new AP–1 and AP–2 courses are organized around seven “big ideas” in physics, coupled with an extensive list of essential knowledge (EK) and learning objectives (LOs) details what students should know and be able to do. Although these EKs and LOs are numerous, they are also quite vague in terms of how “deeply” students are expected to know a topic. As an example, several learning objectives discuss an understanding of springs in various contexts, but whether that also includes combinations of springs is left significantly vague. In the thermal physics arena, heat engines are not specifically covered, but students are expected to understand energy transfer in thermodynamic systems (which could be tested in the context of a heat engine). If it sounds a bit vague, I can’t disagree. Teachers across the country are also struggling to interpret the documentation about the new exams.

Tourist map confusion hg clr

Also of interest is the focus on science practices. In addition to the 7 big ideas, the College Board has also identified 7 science practices that are essential for success. These practices are broken down in detail, with course activities designed to verify students can “use mathematics appropriately” and “plan and implement data collection strategies in relation to a particular scientific question,” for example. My detailed breakdown of the course curriculum frameworks can be found on the AP1 Roadmap and AP2 Roadmap documents.

Ultimately, the goal of these changes is to provide an opportunity for students to develop a deeper understanding of the underlying foundational concepts in physics as well as the skills and practices necessary to treat physics as a science activity instead of a body of knowledge, better preparing students for success in further coursework as well as careers in science and engineering.

A New Exam

In late spring / early summer, the College Board released a secured practice exam to certified AP Physics teachers to better prepare for the new AP–1 and AP–2 exams. The change in style of the exam is quite significant. Questions place a strong emphasis on relational and conceptual problem solving, as well as application of the science practices, coupled with a significant decrease in “math-only” quantitative solutions. The new exam also emphasizes symbolic manipulation, analyzing situations from multiple perspectives, designing experiments, justification of answers, and scientific argumentation.

Many of these changes are directly in line with the Modeling Physics method of instruction, which emphasizes ongoing guided inquiry while maintaining consistency in approach and building upon previously-developed models throughout the course, a method strongly recommended by current Physics Education Research.

Although the changes to the courses are numerous, the general message to teachers and students is consistently clear: physics is something you do, not something you know. Success in the new AP–1 and AP–2 courses requires a multi-faceted approach to learning which includes hands-on inquiry and exploration activities, mastery of content and problem-solving principles, and the ability to reason, argue, and justify scientifically.

How To Succeed

So then how do students succeed in this brave new world? I would humbly recommend a learning plan which includes an ongoing cycle of exploration, refinement, and application. As students work through each unit/topic/model, begin with an opportunity to active explore the model, determine what is known, what is unknown, and what misconceptions might exist. Follow that up with activities that allow students to refine their knowledge through the collection and analysis of data, drawing their own conclusions to discuss and debate. Finally, these conclusions and skills need to be transferred and applied to new and unique situations, allowing students to determine where these models work, and where they fall short (setting the stage for development of the next model!)

Supplemental Resources

It sounds daunting, but there are tons of great resources available to help students succeed in these endeavors. Besides reading the textbook, a skill which is difficult to master yet extremely valuable, a review of the key material distilled down into a clean easy-to-understand format can be invaluable. I have been teaching online courses with the use of video since 2003, so please let me be clear, I absolutely do not believe in passive instruction by video. A little bit of me dies inside everytime I read about classes in which students are placed in front of a computer as the sole means of instruction. Besides being ineffective, how boring! Physics is supposed to be fun, and I have trouble imagining how students can make it through such lonely, soulless courses.

Image

I do, however, believe that supplemental on-demand video lessons taught by strong instructors such as those at Educator.com and my AP Physics Series at APlusPhysics.com can do wonders for cementing the foundational concepts and demonstrating application of these foundational concepts to problem solving, especially in the refinement and application stages of instruction. Undertaking learning through inquiry and modeling can be messy and confusing. Having an online instructor there to assist in cleaning things up or explaining things in a different manner or from an alternate perspective can make a world of difference.

Further, review books such as AP Physics 1 Essentials are designed to assist in these stages of learning, not as a replacement for the oh-so-valuable active learning experiences, but rather as an easily accessible means of solidifying the basic relationships and concepts. I wrote AP1 Essentials to help students understand essential physical relationships in a manner that is straightforward and easy-to-read, leaving development of in-depth problem solving and lab work for the classroom, where they are most effective. A review book can’t help a student if it’s so complex the student won’t read it. Instead, the goal for this book was to create a resource that students would actually read and enjoy, and help them along their path to a deeper conceptual understanding.

Putting It All Together

There is no “one-stop shopping” or easy path to success in AP Physics 1 or AP Physics 2, and strategies that may have worked for the previous AP Physics B course may no longer be successful. Instead, these new courses are comprehensive learning experiences combining exploration, experimentation, application, and communication skills. Only by putting in the effort and struggling through the frustrations will students find their way to mastery of the course. But they don’t have to go it alone – these courses are designed around collaboration and teamwork, and there are great supplemental resources to help out as well.

APlusPhysics Logo HDefAbout the Author – Dan Fullerton is a physics instructor at Irondequoit High School in Rochester, NY, and an adjunct professor of microelectronic engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology. He was named a NY State Master Physics Teacher in 2014. Fullerton is featured in the AP Physics C and AP Physics 1 & 2 video courses on Educator.com. He is the author of AP Physics 1 Essentials and creator of the APlusPhysics.com website. Fullerton lives in Webster, NY, with his beautiful wife, two indefatigable daughters, and sleepy dog.

Rethinking High School Physics