Summer is Over – Projects Done and Undone

Well, it’s back to school tomorrow and, like each summer, I didn’t accomplish nearly as much as I had hoped, but probably accomplished more than I should have expected.

I had a chance to meet and network with a number of physics teachers in the area, making some new friends in the process.  I spent quality time with my daughter, including a trip to Sesame Place outside of Philadelphia, a family reunion at my folks’ riverhouse, and quite a few fun days at the zoo.  I taught a few classes at RIT, worked with Rochester City School District teachers on developing and training in Problem-Based Learning (PBL), and even found a few spare moments to read purely for entertainment!

One of my major goals this summer was to get a good start on the “Honors Physics” book. Last spring when APlusPhysics: Your Guide to Regents Physics Essentials came out, I received lots of great feedback, especially from students, but also heard from a number of physics teachers in other states asking about a version of the text that wasn’t limited to the NY Regents curriculum, but was generalized for a typical Honors Physics class.

Initially I had planned this follow-on book to be a guidebook for the AP-1 program when the AP-B course was split, but after several years of fuzzy timelines and fuzzier details, I decided to start on the physics review book I had initially wanted to write. Taking input from those who were kind enough to give me feedback, as well as targeting the book as a rough attempt at hitting the AP-1 targets with what tentative details I could scrounge from the powers that be, I finished my outline up in the spring.

What I found, however, was that this undertaking was considerably slower than the Regents review book. Why, you might ask? Well, to begin with, the Regents Physics curriculum is a “minimum” aptitude test, in my opinion, which makes it fairly shallow. Further, the test is well established and in the public domain, providing oodles and oodles of questions to pull from, both for tailoring of instruction, as well as for inclusion of examples. Finally, after having taught 10 Regents Physics sections in the past three years, I don’t think it would be a stretch to state that I could recite the curriculum in my sleep.

Migrating to the new book, I have the distinct advantage of starting with the baseline material from Regents Physics Essentials. However, the outline I’ve written significantly expands the scope of the course, with the goal of providing Honors Physics instructors the ability to pick and choose chapters and sections to fit their courses. This has led to many, many hours scouring the Internet for state and district standards both near and far; discussions with physics teachers across the country about what they want from such a book, what they don’t, and some hard decisions about what compromises and cuts have to be made to provide a resource that will be of the greatest value to the greatest number, while maintaining my personal goals for the book as well as keeping the page count in check so as to maintain an acceptable price point. Of course, I’d love to keep everything, but the problem with a 700-page review book is three-fold: first, the cost becomes prohibitive; second, students won’t read it; and third, that’s starting to move into textbook territory, and there are already many terrific physics texts available for this level.

But, I’m proud to state that the first draft of the review book is coming along fine, with more than 200 pages in fairly strong shape.  I’ve been spending a lot of time working on rotational motion, attempting to streamline basic concepts such as rotational kinematics and torque in a way that follows logically and highlights the parallels of translational motion, without getting bogged down in confusing terminology and unnecessary depth.  This should nearly complete the mechanics section of the text.

I’ve also done initial work on some of the additional chapters, such as fluid mechanics, thermal physics, semiconductors, and cosmology.  Besides initial outlines and some basic illustrations, I’ve been especially focused on the semiconductor chapter… not many introductory courses go into semiconductors, and I’m thrilled at the opportunity and challenge of providing basic semiconductor physics review at this level, consistent with the work I was involved in a few years ago developing the Semiconductor Technology Enrichment Program (STEP) with Rochester Institute of Technology’s Microelectronic Engineering Department.

So, as school starts up again, progress in the writing department will, of necessity, slow down.  I’m excited to meet this year’s class of students, jump into Skills-Based Grading (SBG) for the first time, utilize a number of short videos for concept review, increase the amount of inquiry in my classroom, reduce the amount of lecture time, learn more about physics modeling, and on and on and on.  But I’m setting aside specific time each morning to keep working on the book project, and I continue to value whatever input and guidance you can provide in this endeavor.  And, of course, the website continues to grow — tutorials, videos, projects, forums, and blogs are all ongoing projects!

Thanks for the continued support, and best wishes to you on an amazing 2011-2012 school year!

Three Wishes for Standardized Exams in 2011

As we begin the new year, I have high hopes for several changes in the administration, timing, and implementation of standardized physics exams from both the College Board and the NY State Board of Regents. Although I believe the likelihood of all of these happening in 2011 is quite slim, I maintain that all three are reasonable and feasible.


#1 Finalize Plans for AP-B Physics

The College Board’s decision to redesign the AP-B course deeply effects course sequencing at Irondequoit High School.  We’ve heard talk of the split for several years now. A seminar describing the changes was presented at last summer’s national AP conference in Washington, D.C., where the presenter and College Board representative stated “it’s a done deal, the only question is timing.”  We were told that the changes would be implemented in the 2011-2012 school year or 2012-2013 school year.  That’s fast!  We were promised more detailed information by last fall.  And we’ve heard nothing beyond a New York Times article which mentions potential changes in the 2014-2015 school year.

The preliminary redesign information presented at the 2010 AP conference indicated the course would be split into AP-1 and AP-2, where AP-1 is designed as a first-year course, and AP-2 is the more detailed, deeper second-year course.  The courses could be taken concurrently, although this was strongly discouraged during the presentation.

Actual implementation will have profound consequences for our district.  First, our school currently offers three levels of physics.  Regents Physics for juniors or seniors (a college-prep course based on NY state standards, equivalent to a typical Honors Physics course); AP-B, which can be taken as a first-year course by advanced students or as a second-year course following Regents Physics; and AP-C Mechanics and E&M, which can be taken by seniors who took AP-B as a first-year course.

Our concerns center around what the added AP-1 and AP-2 offerings will do to our other programs.  As a NY state school, we are highly encouraged to offer Regents Physics, consistent with state standards and a formal state-administered final exam in June.  Splitting the AP-B course into a two-year sequence could potentially damage our AP-C course, unless we replaced our current AP-B offerings with a combined one-year AP-1 and AP-2 (which is making the problem of the AP-B course having too much information in too little time even worse!). Or, we could combine AP-1 and Regents Physics together although the defined curricula don’t make for a smooth overlap, and offer AP-2 in place of our current AP-B course. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult for our enterprising students to jump right into AP-2 prior to AP-C, which means we would likely need to add yet another physics course, AP-12, as a first-year course for those students who want to take AP-C as a second-year course.  As you can see, this gets complicated in a hurry.

The bottom line — this change is going to take some time and require an overhaul of our entire science program and sequencing.  College Board, we need a timeline, we need details, and we need sample exams.


#2 Eliminate the NY State Regents Physics Exam

As a teacher, I want as much information as I can get about my students.  I use assessment to plan instruction. I use assessment to grade. I use assessment to let me know what I’m doing that’s working and what needs refinement. The current physics Regents exam and curriculum, however, doesn’t meet my needs for a culminating final exam, nor do I feel it adequately assesses my students’ understanding of physics.

The exam is largely a test of how well you can use your formula sheet (known as the reference table). If you can write down "givens," "finds," and pick a formula, you can plug and chug your way to a fairly high score without demonstrating true understanding. Not only that, but typically this is the last exam given after a week of exams, and in some cases it actually falls on a date after our school’s graduation. Most of the students taking the course have already been accepted into college, don’t need to pass the course to graduate, and therefore have no vested interest in doing well on the exam. Yet our department goals focus on students scores on this exam.

Further, topics included in the curriculum are addressed at inconsistent depths. Mechanics coverage is adequate, but electricity and magnetism, the precursors to so many aspects of our daily lives in the 2000s, is quite inconsistent. Students learn basic electrostatics as well as series and parallel circuits, then move into fundamentals of magnetism and basic EM induction. However, past exams indicate VERY few magnetism questions… less than one question every two years! Waves are introduced, leading into optics, but optics is quite incomplete. Lenses are not addressed, but refraction and diffraction are (although only qualitatively).

Most disturbing, however, is the final unit of the course.  Where you would expect to introduce basic atomic / nuclear physics and applications, the curriculum dictates a study of the Standard Model.  Not only is this topic inconsistent with learning "fundamentals" first, but the level at which it can be taught with the students’ background to this point in the course leads to rote memorization of a few facts and learning to copy answers off the formula sheet.  Teaching for Understanding?  Not a chance.

My wish for 2011 would be to see the state eliminate the Regents Physics exam, a consideration that has been rumored in light of state budget issues. There are plenty of standardized exams already available if we see a need for comparing students across classes, districts, and regions.

Instead, allow us more freedom within our districts to differentiate to student needs and interests.  Of course, fundamental concepts need to be covered in an introductory course — mechanics, energy, E&M, waves, atomic physics, and so on — but within these core areas, give me the freedom and time to focus on student needs and interests appropriately. Are the students excited about projectile motion? Let’s take the time to go further, learning how to apply concepts to real-world situations, making predictions, verifying, and including real-world parameters such as wind and drag. Students want to know about relativity and special relativity? Take some time to explore time dilation, length contraction, space-time, and point of view. Students are excited about electronics — expand E&M to include more than just resistive circuits… introduce diodes, transistors, integrated circuits, even design and processing!

There are so many areas students are interested in. Let’s eliminate an unnecessary exam that creates excessive paperwork, wastes money, and provides minimal qualitr5fy information about students while simultaneously providing teachers the opportunity to differentiate while encouraging engagement and enthusiasm.  In addition, eliminating the exam would provide an inviting avenue to replace our school’s current Regents Physics course with AP-1 physics, which is being designed to allow time for deeper exploration of selected topics.


#3 Offer AP-C Mechanics Exam in Winter

Yet another wish for the College Board. I teach AP-C physics (both mechanics and E&M) as a year-long course. Roughly 80% of AP-C students in the country take only AP-C Mechanics. Therefore, they spend the year preparing for their single exam in the spring, which they take as soon as they complete the course while the material is fresh.

The 20 percent of AP-C students taking both mechanics and E&M exams take the exams back-to-back on the same day, with a couple minutes of breather between the tests. They are therefore at a disadvantage because their mechanics course ended several months earlier — the material isn’t as fresh.

I would love to see the College Board offer a winter AP-C Mechanics exam, allowing us to complete this exam while the material is fresh in students’ minds before moving into E&M. Further, this would benefit students who are on waiting lists to the most prestigious colleges… a 5 on the AP-C Mechanics exam could help set them apart from other applicants, and results could be available in time for colleges to use the information in their final decision-making process.

College Board, please consider offering the AP-C Mechanics Exam in the winter.  (Yes, I know this is not likely to happen due to the cost incurred in creating another exam and scoring it, especially given the small number of students who would take it, but I have to think there’s a way this could be offered in a digitized format to protect exam integrity and reduce costs.)


Will It Happen?

There you have it, three wishes for administrative physics exam changes in the year 2011. Are they likely? Some more than others. I believe we will see more information from the College Board about the AP-B redesign, but I’m not holding my breath for any promised dates. I don’t believe the College Board sees any issue in the timing of the AP-C Mechanics Exam, so the first step is to at least communicate this desire. As for elimination of the Regents Exam, If state budget funding does push this to fruition, I believe there’s a strong chance the AP-B course split may push this issue on its own, although, once again, timing is uncertain.

What do you think? What changes are you envisioning in the coming year?