WNY Physics Teachers Alliance

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to attend the Western New York State Physics Teachers’ Alliance (WNYPTA) meeting at Buffalo State College from 8:30 am to noon.  The meeting started with coffee, danishes, and some time to meet new colleagues, followed by a number of announcements such as the upcoming Physics Olympics and availability of whiteboarding crayons.  Dr. Dan MacIsaac gave a brief presentation on whiteboarding the Edgar Rice Burroughs problem of gravity in the hole through the center of the Earth, and a discussion on cleaning and refurbishing whiteboards ensued.

hiller The main portion of the meeting consisted of a presentation on physics labs in physics instructor Larry Hiller’s classroom.  In Hiller’s classroom, students take on the role of research team surrounding one of 12 different types of labs on any given unit.  Lab types include:

  • Cooperative (lots of data to take, split up and each takes some data, pools it, see what they learn together).
  • Gedanken (thought experiment) – a bit more theoretical, simulation, or make a simulation (program in Excel?)
  • Project Proposals — suppose you want to study this big thing with this budget, put together a proposal, budget, staffing, timelines, etc.
  • Discovery — subject matter is tangent to class material, their goal is to teach themselves something related
  • Confirmation — Students prove to themselves something that has been discussed in class.  (i.e. CERN sees something, Fermilab confirms).
  • Competitive — Both partners have same object, but work separately trying to obtain a better answer.
  • Technology — Fairly simple physics problem, but half of lab is learning how to use a tool.  Write-up includes how to use the tool, how else it could be used, etc.
  • Observation — Black Box-type things (figure out how this works)
  • Procedure — Labs with slightly more detailed procedure (3-4 lines of objectives instead of 1 or 2), based on labs where students sometimes struggle.
  • Challenge — Harder, meticulous, higher level thinking may be required. 
  • Research — Students must look up initial information, or look up some stuff to compare, at some point in the process they need information from another source.

For each lab, only a bare minimum of equipment and instruction is provided, with students building their own experimental procedure in order to solve the problem.  A “measuring tools” cabinet is available in the classroom, where students can gather specific equipment they need to complete their labs.  In some cases, they even build their own measuring equipment.

Labs typically last a week, with students spending the first day exploring the issue, then several days building their experiment, collecting and analyzing data, and writing up their findings in a formal lab notebook and sharing with the group in a whiteboarding session.

For each topic, roughly 20 different labs are available, providing students a wide variety of opportunities to differentiate with respect to lab type, interest, and current level of achievement.  Throughout the year, students are required to perform at least one lab of each type.

science_girl_waving_hg_clr_st Hiller went over his lab report format and grading rubric, both of which appear straightforward, complete, concise, and simple to implement.  Expectations for students are clear and consistent for the year, allowing students an opportunity to build their technical writing skills without getting lost in the minutia of word-processor formatting (although this could easily be adapted with a number of required “formal” lab reports in a high school classroom).  The last page of each lab report has to be an essay, guided by which bin (category) the lab falls into.

Given proper preparation, this appears to be a terrific way to run a lab course, focusing on student inquiry and exploration.  The time commitment, at first glance, appears extensive, though I believe something similar to this could be implemented in a Regents Physics classroom with labs limited to 12 per year, and each lab running approximately 4 or 5 working periods of 42 minutes spread across 3 days.

Though I’m not in a position to change my lab strategy to this format during this school year, this presentation presented tons of good “food for thought” that will likely end up being integrated in my classroom over the next several years.  Immediately, I see this as a great strategy for building up my arsenal of shoebox labs for students who aren’t able to sit in regular classes for a variety of reasons, and am especially excited about the possibility of moving toward a research team approach across all lab experiences in physics.

2 Replies to “WNY Physics Teachers Alliance”

  1. Dan,
    This sounds awesome. We have a metro atlanta chapter, but we’re much less organized and are lucky to get 10 faculty together for a meeting on a weeknight. Can you explain a bit about how your group is organized? The website and listserv are impressive. Who maintains all this? How do you recruit members?

  2. It is an amazing resource, and it’s the first time I’ve actually made a meeting (though they’ve been going strong for years). In truth, I’m doubly blessed –> two hours east of me in Syracuse they have a strong Central New York Physics Teachers Alliance meeting one Saturday morning a month, and two hours west in Buffalo they have another one, all with great teachers, excellent programs, and a track record for excellence many years running.

    Dan MacIsaac and David Henry run the Buffalo State program, you can find details on their program at http://physicsed.buffalostate.edu/WNYPTA/. MacIsaac heads up their strong physics modeling program, where they introduce physics teachers to modeling instruction (I’m hoping to get in to one of their sessions this summer if all works out).

    In Syracuse, Dr. Allen Miller, a retired professor of physics from Syracuse University, keeps things running smoothly with the support of a number of great contributors (see previous blog post).

    I’m almost embarrassed to say that this month has been the first time I’ve attended either group’s meeting, but am quite certain it won’t be the last. There’s so much to learn and so many things I want to do, unfortunately the limiting factor just seems to be time!

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