You may have noticed it’s been a LONG time since I’ve updated this physics education blog. More likely you haven’t noticed, because it’s been a LONG time since I’ve updated this blog. This hasn’t been due to a lack of topics to write about, but rather, it’s been a conscious choice to plow full steam ahead on a project that began in June of 2013 and that I’m thrilled to announce is now available, The AP Physics C Companion: Mechanics. But first, some background.
Traditional AP Physics C
As a teacher of calculus based physics (AP Physics C – Mechanics and AP Physics C – Electricity and Magnetism), I’m faced with a very unique challenge in those courses. I typically enjoy classes of bright, motivated students who are preparing for careers in engineering, science, medicine, and other technically challenging fields. And I love teaching the content of these courses — the level of technical challenge keeps me motivated, and I love the highly mathematical nature of the course.
In teaching the class, however, what I found is a very aggressive schedule to fit both courses into the school year, and my students are co-enrolled in calculus (which means they typically need to solve calculus problems in physics before they’ve been introduced to the calculus in their mathematics classes). Further, teaching in a traditional style, I found that most topics fit fairly well into our 42-minute periods. Students come in to class, begin with a warm-up question tied to the previous day’s topic, which we spend a few minutes reviewing, then I have time to present a single topic with an example or two each day. If we don’t take any breaks, and throw in a quiz or test every couple weeks, as well as some fairly straightforward lab activities, we JUST barely get through all of our material in time for the May AP exams.
What I especially enjoy about this class and this method of teaching, however, is the face-to-face time with the kids during the daily lessons. Class sizes for AP Physics C is typically small enough that we have a very informal style that is warm and inviting, yet challenging for all. The students enjoy the class, taking notes from their seats each day, and doing book problems and old AP problems for homework in the evenings. And our AP scores each year are solid.
In September of 2011, however, I decided to try something different. I wanted to get away from the teacher-centric model, as I realized that I was the hardest working person in the classroom. This contrasted with the best teaching advice I ever received, when our assistant principal and my mentor explained that I should strive to “Look like the laziest teacher in the building while the students are in the classroom, and the hardest working teacher in the building the moment they leave.” What he meant was students should be doing the work in the classroom, especially as I continuously espoused my belief that physics is something you do, not something you know. Although the students were doing OK in their passive roles as notetakers, this was a credit to the strength of these students, not my teaching.
A New AP Physics C Methodology
Instead, I began to imagine a classroom in which students directed their own learning, building lifelong learning skills that would serve them well outside the narrow discipline of future physics courses. With the blessings of our administration, I undertook a giant experiment in the classroom. We went through the year with the goal of having zero teacher lectures. Instead, I completely “flipped” the classroom. Students were expected to watch video mini-lessons on topics outside of class, as well as read the textbook and take notes, saving classroom time for group discussions and problem solving, hands-on lab activities, and deeper dives into topics of interest.
I ended up going back to traditional lectures on two topics — Gauss’s Law and the Biot-Savart Law, but for the most part the class ran independently. I built up “packets” of assignments, practice problems, labs and activities for each unit, and students worked at their own pace (within reason) through each unit. Unit exams were given when students said they were ready, with multiple re-take opportunities. This evolved into a self-paced course, and at the end of the year, I found AP scores were significantly higher than in past years, which in retrospect shouldn’t have been surprising. Teaching in this more hands-off manner is very uncomfortable, however. I “feel” like I’m doing a great job when I’m working hard, presenting great lectures, and interacting with the students. Stepping back and watching the students work, only getting involved to ask the occasional question or provide some basic clarification and support is extremely challenging. Given the results, though, I tried it again the following year. Same result!
These classes were regularly polled for feedback on the course. General observations were that many students felt more intimidated and lost at the beginning of the course. As well, there were several points throughout the year in which the students felt quite frustrated. Polls at the end of the year, however, indicated students felt very confident in their self-teaching abilities, their ability to work through challenges they initially thought impossible, and their comfort level with their preparation for future studies. The most common opportunity they identified for improvement — learning how to read the textbook.
In an effort to address this, I’ve implemented a variety of changes in my classroom. First off, we take some time at the beginning of the year and again after mid-terms to talk about and practice strategies for reading a technical text. We also take some time to talk about how to actively use the video lessons and example problems so that study time is efficient and productive.
The AP Physics C Companion: Mechanics
Finally, I started work on a “companion” text to the AP Physics C curriculum, focused on distilling down the key points from the text and illustrating them with a variety of applications. Not really a review book (though it could be used in that sense), but rather a cleaned-up version of instructor notes for the course that could be applicable to any calculus-based mechanics course. A large focus of the book is trading off technical complexity for illustrated application of concepts, including justifications for problem solving steps in the problems themselves, and well-documented problem solutions.
I’ve been using the notes and draft chapters of this book for several years in my classes, which has allowed me a “test run” of various sections and the opportunity to see what works with students, and what needs further revision. The final result, I’m excited to say, is now available as “The AP Physics C Companion: Mechanics.” It will first be available in black and white print editions from APlusPhysics.com and Amazon, as well as a full-color PDF edition on APlusPhysics.com. Shortly thereafter, print editions (both color and black and white) will be available from any retailer, including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Finally, bulk purchases will be available directly from firstname.lastname@example.org (Silly Beagle Productions) at substantial discounts.
Where’s the E&M Book?
I’ve already been asked repeatedly if there’s an E&M version planned. The answer is rather convoluted, however. The E&M version is half done — the draft is complete as part of my class work and has been for more than a year. I haven’t typeset it yet, however (probably a 6-12 month project), or worked on the graphics for a few reasons. First, it is a huge investment of time to do so, which puts other projects on the back burner. Second, the market for such a book could be pretty small. As only 27,000 students took the AP Physics C: E&M exam last year, that’s a very limited market to cater to. Though the book would be appropriate for an introductory calculus-based E&M course, a very significant portion of students taking the E&M exam would have to purchase and use the book in order to recuperate the costs involved in putting out the book (which are substantial). As most any science author will tell you, there’s not much profit to be made in writing these types of books, and margins are mighty slim. It’s a labor of love because you want to help students (yours and others). I’m already pushing the limits of ‘wise decisions’ in marketing a book to the AP-C Mechanics market (53K test takers last year), and hoping it at least breaks even.
Before making any commitments to an E&M version, I want to obtain feedback from the mechanics version — are students and instructors finding it helpful, what is a reasonable percentage of the market to anticipate, would it at least break even, and how is the new format received (fewer pages, larger format and type, color vs. B&W, etc.) Given all that, I imagine it’s probably likely at some point I’ll get to work on it (after every book I tend to think I’m done, then eventually change my mind and start on another one). However, it feels good to “fool myself” for awhile and pretend I’m done while I work on updating the APlusPhysics site, continue work on instructional videos, and perhaps get to bed a little earlier in the evenings.
For now, however, I’m excited to announce the release of The AP Physics C Companion: Mechanics. Hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed putting it together!
*AP and Advanced Placement Program are registered trademarks of the College Board, which does not sponsor or endorse this product.
A few years ago I put together a review/guide book for the AP Physics 1 course the College Board recently released. The project was started around 2009, but took several years to complete as the scope and direction of the College Board’s AP Physics 1 course continued to evolve, as more and more information about the course was released, modified, re-released, etc. It has done fairly well, and after the release of the first exam, a second edition was released, which included minor edits, modifications, and rephrasings in the main text, but also incorporated a significant number of more challenging questions in the appendix, though many of them remain numerically focused.
The goal of this book was never to be a “sole source to success in AP Physics 1.” The AP Physics 1 course is a VERY challenging introductory physics course, which requires a strong foundation in fundamental physics principles, logical problem solving, and transfer of basic concepts to new and unique situations. In my humble opinion, building skills of this sort requires more than a review book. It requires more than videos. It requires extensive hands-on work with applications utilizing the concepts, individual and group problem solving, debate, discussion, and research. It’s a very high level of expectation for what has been largely touted as an introductory physics course. For many, AP Physics 1 will be the only physics course they take. I am concerned that the course offers only a subset of what I would like to see in a general survey course of physics. Though it covers basic circuits, it is light on electrostatics. Though it covers mechanical waves, it doesn’t touch electromagnetic waves, optics, or modern physics. If these were the only topics my students were introduced to in their only physics course, I feel I would be doing them a disservice, and not providing them an opportunity to see more of the breadth and beauty of the field I so love and enjoy.
The AP1 Essentials book, as written, was designed as the book I’d want to use with my students. The book which I’d ask them to read outside of class (coupled with video mini-lessons) so that when they arrived in class, they’d have some level of exposure to the basic material allowing us to use our class time more efficiently for those deeper explorations into the topics under study.
Public response to the book has been strongly bimodal. Overall reviews are very positive (4.5/5 stars on Amazon.com), with the primary criticisms and 1-star reviews focusing on the book utilizing too much numerical problem solving, and focusing on basic problems that are “too easy” compared to the actual AP 1 test questions. These are VERY valid criticisms, and I agree with them. However, in the context in which the book is intended to be used, these criticisms are inconsistent with the book’s purpose.
AP Physics 1 Concerns
A grader of this year’s AP Physics 1 exam recently stated that he was surprised to learn that “not including the date, birth date and school code, a student could have made a perfect score on the whole exam without writing down a single number.” I find this extremely troubling. I am in favor of questions that test understanding, but I also believe that many physics students who go on to successful careers in STEM fields learn by first mastering the calculations, mathematics, and numeracy of problems, and over time build deeper conceptual understandings as they recognize patterns in their answers. There is a place for these conceptual and symbolic problem solving exercises in AP Physics 1 and on the AP Physics 1 exam, but there is also a significant place for what I’ll call physics numeracy for lack of a better term — traditional problem solving that involves recognizing appropriate relationships, manipulation equations, finding a numerical answer, and verifying that numerical answer makes some sort of physical sense.
Further, I strongly believe that the College Board’s vision for the AP program should focus on providing opportunities for high school students to earn college credit consistent with the courses offered by most colleges. More simply, the AP courses should strive to mimic what colleges are offering and testing in their corresponding courses. In the case of AP Physics 1, the College Board is attempting to lead the way in physics education reform. Regardless of personal opinions on the direction of the AP Physics 1 curriculum and exam, which may very well be valid, a change of this sort shouldn’t be led by the AP program, but rather mirrored by the AP program as it becomes the norm at colleges and universities.
The Third Edition
Back in December, I started work on a third edition of the AP Physics 1 Essentials book, with the goal of migrating the book closer to style of the AP Physics 1 exam. It’s now late June, and the third edition is well over half done. I have no doubt if I continued on this course, I could have the third edition completed in time for the book to hit the shelves in late August.
The third edition, as currently being drafted, however, won’t see the light of day. Since I started this revision effort, I haven’t felt good about the work I’ve been doing. Though I do believe I am making a book that is more closely aligned to the AP Physics 1 exam, I’m moving further and further away from the book I’d want to use with my AP Physics 1 students. Regardless of what the College Board is asking for on the AP Physics 1 exam, I want my students to be best prepared for their future endeavors, which may include AP Physics 2, AP Physics C, and their ongoing academic courses in the sciences. That will, most assuredly, require strong physics numeracy skills. And it will require students to learn how to learn independently.
There is a place for physics modeling, for building understanding and for MANY of the ideals inherent in the AP Physics 1 curriculum. But there’s also a place for the traditional course and problem solving skills. This debate doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. There’s definitely room for a happy medium including aspects of both viewpoints. Personally, however, I can’t continue work on a third edition of the AP Physics 1 book when in my heart I strongly feel I’m doing my students a disservice in their overall physics education and creating a lower-quality product, even if it means more one-star reviews and critiques that the book doesn’t match the AP 1 exam. Maybe someday I’ll change my mind, but Friday afternoon I took all the changes to the third edition, zipped them up, copied them somewhere safe, and removed them from my computer.
I strongly believe there will be a 3rd edition of the AP Physics 1 book. I see TONS of opportunities for improvement. But the work I’ve been doing for the past six months to make the book more consistent with the AP 1 exam isn’t really an improvement, it’s an attempt to improve student scores on a test I believe has significant flaws, at the expense of other important skills. If I’m honest with myself and focus on doing what is truly best for my kids, I want to see them continue to use the book as an introduction to the essential concepts of AP Physics 1, including significant algebraic manipulation and problem solving, and leaving more time in the classroom for application and hands-on activities. I still feel the book is a great tool for students preparing for the AP 1 exam, and I’m going to keep significant numeric problem solving with basic concept application, and leave the deeper-dive and conceptual understanding questions for class time when the instructor is available to direct, guide, and differentiate as needed.
This is not meant as an attack on the AP Physics 1 Curriculum, the design committee, the test writers, or any others. I am honored to work in a profession where so many are so passionate about trying to do what’s best for their students and the field itself. Sometimes we disagree on the path forward, and that’s OK. And I could be wrong. I often am. I admire the effort and the vision so many have put into this work, and the feedback and support I’ve received and continue to receive for this book, both in praise and in criticism.
So taking a page from Lee Trampleasure’s blog “Bouncing Ball Lab Introduces Models and Foreshadows Future Physics Concepts,” I tried a version of the Bouncing Ball Lab with my Regents Physics students on the 3rd day of school. Our goal was to introduce our general physics philosophy, start using the metric system, review graphing procedures, slope, y-intercept, equation of a line, and really get students to begin to understand that graphs have meaning.
After reviewing the metric system briefly, we took about a period and a half (some classes shortened due to fire drills) to determine our procedures and best practices, collect data, graph and analyze data, and finished with a roughly 10-minute debrief. A little more time would have been helpful, but for a first run through early in the school year it worked pretty well. With some coaching through the process, I was quite pleased with the product of many of the groups.
Further, the lab introduces many of the modeling concepts and practices we’ll use throughout the year. Though I haven’t been through a formal on-campus multi-day workshop (yet) on modeling, I have sat in several workshops and appreciate the strategy that allows students to build their own understandings through this process, something we try to emulate quite regularly throughout the year.
My department head is actually sharing some of the whiteboard results with our math department coordinator to demonstrate how some of the math skills the students are being taught in their math-specific classes are utilized in physics. Hopefully it’s the start of some further synergies.
Without further ado, some of their work: