New AP Physics C Mechanics Book Release

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

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 and Amazon, as well as a full-color PDF edition on  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 (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.

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?