The Five Most Helpful Things to Remember From HS Physics

BY SPECIAL GUEST WRITER: Brendan Hanson

My name is Brendan Hanson. I took Mr. Fullerton’s AP-B Physics course as a junior at Irondequoit High School. Now, I am a first year student at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). I am studying mechanical engineering and loving it. But I have had a lot of help from my previous physics class with Mr. Fullerton. I am here to share with you the five most important things I have walked away from his class with (thus far, they may change as I take more and more physics classes in college).

1. Newton’s Laws.  These basic fundamentals of physics are extremely important to know.  They are useful in that they help to make sure you are doing the problem correctly.  If you use the wrong law, you will become attached to an inclined plane that is wrapped helically around an axis (in other words: screwed).
2. Kinematics Equations for Projectiles.  When studying physics in college, you usually start out with basic kinematics.  This includes projectiles and circular motion and kinetic energy versus potential energy.  Having learned a lot of kinematics in high school physics, the problems that I work on in college have been much easier for me than my friends who have little or no experience with physics.  So remember your kinematics equations; they are some of the most useful equations you will learn.
3. Free Body Diagrams.  Learning how to draw free body diagrams (FBDs) is essential to success in physics.  Draw your FBDs correctly, your answer will probably be correct.  But if you mess up the drawing, there is no chance for a correct answer when dealing with forces on an object.  Learning how to draw these early on in high school is a big help for when you have to do it in college.  So pay attention when it comes to Free Body Diagrams.
4. Significant Figures. I hate to tell you this, but significant figures are important.  I disagree with them and I am sure you do as well, but trust me, college professors use them to no end and have no trouble taking points off when you neglect to use them on homework or tests.  So just keep them in mind and use them every once in a while.
5. Basic Trigonometry.  Trigonometry is probably the most useful math I have learned.  It just keeps showing up in every math-based class I have taken.  Therefore, it is imperative that you learn the basic functions that are used in trig.  It just makes things so much easier if you don’t have re-learn it in college.  Trig comes in handy when dealing with projectiles, forces and work in your physics classes.

Coming out of physics in high school knowing those things has made my college physics class so much easier.  So if you wish to take physics in college, or have to take it, then you should definitely keep these five things in mind as you take this class in high school.

Building a Web Community

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My goal with APlusPhysics is to create a friendly, coherent and dynamic online resource with a consistent theme; an integrated toolset which can be easily customized to meet the needs of a diverse student and educator constituency while incorporating best known practices in physics education research. The site is designed for easy integration with physics modeling strategies, standards based grading (SBG), mastery learning, and “alternate pathway” programs which support students who, for various reasons, aren’t able to fit into the standard classroom educational model.

It’s a work in progress. I’m learning as I go, refining, expanding, deleting and rebuilding. And then doing it all over again. I’m thankful for the support of the physics community as they provide feedback, ideas, opportunities, and constructive criticism that allow for continual refinement and growth from a variety of perspectives, and whose thoughts and ideas are the foundation of this online conglomeration. I hope you find APlusPhysics a useful web resource, and this blog an insightful journal of a developing teacher’s successes, failures, challenges, struggles, and achievements.

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Welcome one and all!

Dan Fullerton

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WHO AM I?

I’m a high school physics teacher learning something new every day. I was an engineer in industry for more than 10 years, and an adjunct college professor for eight, yet after three years teaching standard introductory (Regents) as well as AP-B and AP-C physics classes, it is obvious to me that student learning styles are changing rapidly… the standard “by-the-book” pedagogy is no longer the optimal method for teaching all students. I need to find a way to differentiate across a wide range of abilities, interests, backgrounds and habits if I want to help each of my students grow to their maximum potential in the brief time I have with them.

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I don’t have all (or many of) the answers — I don’t even have all the questions! What I do have is the energy and ability to learn, make changes, take risks, succeed, fail, and ultimately, grow. This blog details my journey.

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WHY GO TO THE TROUBLE?

Writing is thinking. Writing forces you to organize your thoughts, to make mental connections — analyzing what’s worked, and what hasn’t. It forces you to think through your next steps, to reflect on why your experiments succeed and fail. It helps to recognize what you do and don’t know, providing a well-lighted path toward “filling in the gaps.”

No single text or resource completely matches the way you teach. Our class text is a wonderful resource for our students, and I was even lucky enough to serve on the committee which selected the book during my second year in the classroom. It’s accurate and thorough. It aligns nicely to our district outcomes and state standards. But it’s not designed specifically to the course I teach and the method in which I teach it.

Further, students are reluctant to learn and read independently from our text. This is troubling. The most important skill I can teach my students before they leave my classroom and go on to bigger and better things is the ability to teach themselves. Empowering them as learners requires technical reading, critical thinking, and discipline. I struggle with this throughout the entire year, and each year set a goal to extend my students’ independent learning skills through guided inquiry, discovery, and practice. Still, though, in many cases, even with our text, there are gaps.

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BRIDGING THE GAPS

I have embarked on a project to create my own online physics resource, tailored specifically to course objectives, with as little extraneous information as possible, and consistent with the methods and organization I use in my classroom. I’m learning and changing every day, so this resource has to be dynamic. Problem solving practice with immediate and constructive feedback should be integrated into every unit. Most importantly, students should learn at their own pace. With a tremendous span of abilities, backgrounds, and learning styles, it’s obvious that one size and speed doesn’t fit all.

Key aspects of this resource, APlusPhysics, include online discussion forums promoting discourse about concepts, applications, and new developments in science; online homework help where students can assist each other (the best way to learn is to teach!); student and educator blogs for learning logs and self reflection; course content distilled down to the “need-to-know” facts with a variety of sample problems, designed specifically to meet course objectives; built-in quizzes to allow students to test their understanding; and resources for physics instructors focusing on student-centered active learning activities.

Many of these resources can be found, in whole or in part, elsewhere on the web. The Physics Classroom is a terrific online resource covering a wide variety of topics in physics; Cramster is a terrific resource for homework help and problem solving; Physics Forums is a terrific bulletin board system discussing physics developments and problems; Castle Learning offers students a tremendous repository for problem solving practice; and of course there are many others.

I’m not trying to rebuild or re-create any of these terrific resources… they all have tremendous potential for the students who take the time to learn and use them productively. However, the learning curve for this expanse of resources can seem insurmountable to the new physics student already exhibiting the classic “deer-in-headlights” shock I’m sure all physics teachers are familiar with. This project is an ongoing method of delivering, refining, and reflecting upon high school physics education.