Bouncy Ball Lab

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:








Differences Between AP Physics B and AP Physics 1 & 2

Beginning this year, the College Board will be replacing their AP Physics B algebra-based physics course with two separate algebra-based physics courses, titled AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2. The two calculus-based courses, AP Physics C: Mechanics and AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, will remain the same.

Why the Change?

So Professor of physics hg clrwhat does this change entail, and why has this change been undertaken? A study by the National Research Council concluded that the AP Physics B course “encourages cursory treatment of very important topics in physics rather than a deeper understanding,” according to the College Board’s FAQ, and that students’ study of mechanics should include rotational dynamics and angular momentum, which are not part of the AP Physics B curriculum. The NRC recommended teaching the course over two years to emphasize inquiry-based instruction and deeper understandings. The College Board agreed.

What’s Involved?

The new AP Physics 1 course is targeted as equivalent to a one-semester college course in algebra-based physics, though the selection of topics for the course includes some irregularities compared to a standard introductory college physics course. Topics included in AP Physics 1 include kinematics; dynamics; momentum; work, energy, and power; rotation; oscillations; gravity; mechanical waves; and basic electric circuits. Most of these are topics that were previously on the AP-B exam, though the inclusion of rotation and angular momentum are new topics. Further, the emphasis on mechanics in an introductory college course is standard, but the inclusion of electric circuits is rather irregular. According to a committee member involved in the redesign of the course, the inclusion of circuits was forced into the new course to meet the needs of end-of-year state assessments for several large states, and was not originally part of the redesign plans.

The new AP Physics 2 course is intended as an equivalent to a second-semester college course, covering fluid mechanics, thermal physics, electricity and magnetism, optics, and atomic / modern physics. Most of these topics were included in the previous AP-B course, though the modern physics portion of the course includes several new sub-topics.

A New Paradigm

Considerably more dramatic than just shifts in content, however, is the overall organization of the course. The new AP–1 and AP–2 courses are organized around seven “big ideas” in physics, coupled with an extensive list of essential knowledge (EK) and learning objectives (LOs) details what students should know and be able to do. Although these EKs and LOs are numerous, they are also quite vague in terms of how “deeply” students are expected to know a topic. As an example, several learning objectives discuss an understanding of springs in various contexts, but whether that also includes combinations of springs is left significantly vague. In the thermal physics arena, heat engines are not specifically covered, but students are expected to understand energy transfer in thermodynamic systems (which could be tested in the context of a heat engine). If it sounds a bit vague, I can’t disagree. Teachers across the country are also struggling to interpret the documentation about the new exams.

Tourist map confusion hg clr

Also of interest is the focus on science practices. In addition to the 7 big ideas, the College Board has also identified 7 science practices that are essential for success. These practices are broken down in detail, with course activities designed to verify students can “use mathematics appropriately” and “plan and implement data collection strategies in relation to a particular scientific question,” for example. My detailed breakdown of the course curriculum frameworks can be found on the AP1 Roadmap and AP2 Roadmap documents.

Ultimately, the goal of these changes is to provide an opportunity for students to develop a deeper understanding of the underlying foundational concepts in physics as well as the skills and practices necessary to treat physics as a science activity instead of a body of knowledge, better preparing students for success in further coursework as well as careers in science and engineering.

A New Exam

In late spring / early summer, the College Board released a secured practice exam to certified AP Physics teachers to better prepare for the new AP–1 and AP–2 exams. The change in style of the exam is quite significant. Questions place a strong emphasis on relational and conceptual problem solving, as well as application of the science practices, coupled with a significant decrease in “math-only” quantitative solutions. The new exam also emphasizes symbolic manipulation, analyzing situations from multiple perspectives, designing experiments, justification of answers, and scientific argumentation.

Many of these changes are directly in line with the Modeling Physics method of instruction, which emphasizes ongoing guided inquiry while maintaining consistency in approach and building upon previously-developed models throughout the course, a method strongly recommended by current Physics Education Research.

Although the changes to the courses are numerous, the general message to teachers and students is consistently clear: physics is something you do, not something you know. Success in the new AP–1 and AP–2 courses requires a multi-faceted approach to learning which includes hands-on inquiry and exploration activities, mastery of content and problem-solving principles, and the ability to reason, argue, and justify scientifically.

How To Succeed

So then how do students succeed in this brave new world? I would humbly recommend a learning plan which includes an ongoing cycle of exploration, refinement, and application. As students work through each unit/topic/model, begin with an opportunity to active explore the model, determine what is known, what is unknown, and what misconceptions might exist. Follow that up with activities that allow students to refine their knowledge through the collection and analysis of data, drawing their own conclusions to discuss and debate. Finally, these conclusions and skills need to be transferred and applied to new and unique situations, allowing students to determine where these models work, and where they fall short (setting the stage for development of the next model!)

Supplemental Resources

It sounds daunting, but there are tons of great resources available to help students succeed in these endeavors. Besides reading the textbook, a skill which is difficult to master yet extremely valuable, a review of the key material distilled down into a clean easy-to-understand format can be invaluable. I have been teaching online courses with the use of video since 2003, so please let me be clear, I absolutely do not believe in passive instruction by video. A little bit of me dies inside everytime I read about classes in which students are placed in front of a computer as the sole means of instruction. Besides being ineffective, how boring! Physics is supposed to be fun, and I have trouble imagining how students can make it through such lonely, soulless courses.


I do, however, believe that supplemental on-demand video lessons taught by strong instructors such as those at and my AP Physics Series at can do wonders for cementing the foundational concepts and demonstrating application of these foundational concepts to problem solving, especially in the refinement and application stages of instruction. Undertaking learning through inquiry and modeling can be messy and confusing. Having an online instructor there to assist in cleaning things up or explaining things in a different manner or from an alternate perspective can make a world of difference.

Further, review books such as AP Physics 1 Essentials are designed to assist in these stages of learning, not as a replacement for the oh-so-valuable active learning experiences, but rather as an easily accessible means of solidifying the basic relationships and concepts. I wrote AP1 Essentials to help students understand essential physical relationships in a manner that is straightforward and easy-to-read, leaving development of in-depth problem solving and lab work for the classroom, where they are most effective. A review book can’t help a student if it’s so complex the student won’t read it. Instead, the goal for this book was to create a resource that students would actually read and enjoy, and help them along their path to a deeper conceptual understanding.

Putting It All Together

There is no “one-stop shopping” or easy path to success in AP Physics 1 or AP Physics 2, and strategies that may have worked for the previous AP Physics B course may no longer be successful. Instead, these new courses are comprehensive learning experiences combining exploration, experimentation, application, and communication skills. Only by putting in the effort and struggling through the frustrations will students find their way to mastery of the course. But they don’t have to go it alone – these courses are designed around collaboration and teamwork, and there are great supplemental resources to help out as well.

APlusPhysics Logo HDefAbout the Author – Dan Fullerton is a physics instructor at Irondequoit High School in Rochester, NY, and an adjunct professor of microelectronic engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology. He was named a NY State Master Physics Teacher in 2014. Fullerton is featured in the AP Physics C and AP Physics 1 & 2 video courses on He is the author of AP Physics 1 Essentials and creator of the website. Fullerton lives in Webster, NY, with his beautiful wife, two indefatigable daughters, and sleepy dog.

Videos, Khan, and the Flipped Classroom #physicsed #edtech

The past couple years have brought about a flurry of excitement, energy, drama and debate in the world of physics education, and in K-12 education in general.  A lot of great information has been shared, and a lot of misinformation has also been distributed.  As a teacher learning my way in this dynamically charged environment, I think it’s worthwhile to try and distill down some of the hotly-contested topics into what they mean for my classroom.


Let’s begin by taking a look at what is being said about some of these topics.  First, the Khan Academy has been receiving substantial notoriety as of late, largely fueled by Bill Gates’ sponsorship.  The Khan Academy began as a project by Sal Khan to create videos to assist his niece in her classes.  In and of themselves, the physics videos can be a helpful review… if you look closely, you can, of course, find a number of opportunities for improvement as well as statements that may lead to misunderstandings, but there is definitely value here when used appropriately.

Second, the “Flipped Classroom” movement has been gaining notoriety of late, even though the concept has been in practice in many classrooms for many, many years.  In its current implementation, the popularized version of the flipped classroom infers teachers creating video lectures for students to watch as their homework assignments outside of class, leaving more valuable in-class time for hands-on activities, active engagement, problem solving and practice where the teacher is available to coach and guide, etc.  This, of course, has been a standard practice in literature classes for many, many years (read the book at home, discuss in class), but the implementation version with teacher-created videos is becoming more and more popular as the technology to create and share videos becomes more accessible.  Further, the independence with which students can access differing information on their own timeline opens up further options for Mastery Learning, which can move the classroom toward an environment where students learn at their own pace.

Search the Internet and it doesn’t take long to find a wide variety of stances on these resources and how they are used.  Taken to the extreme or over-popularized by the media, the true intent of these resources can quickly become distorted.  As an example, some are calling for the use of video lectures to take the place of trained teachers in classrooms, “streamlining” education for all.  This is a dangerous path to take, particularly in the realm of science, as “teaching is really about creating experiences that allow students to construct meaning,” according to Frank Noschese in his Action-Reaction blog, and backed up by volumes of physics education research (PER).

This does not mean, however, that the videos don’t have value.  They can be a resource, a tool, to be used in conjunction with a number of other tools, methods, and strategies to optimize education for each and every student.  Do video lectures by themselves build true understanding?  Of course not!  I think it’s obvious to anyone who has worked in education that building meaningful understandings and connections isn’t facilitated by a passive observation of a lecture, whether delivered through video or in person.  However, using a short video to highlight key “take-away” concepts, reinforce basic applications, facts, formulas, and vocabulary, demonstrate problem-solving methodologies, or to provide a review or synopsis for those who need a refresher or missed a class or two can be a very effective way to individualize instruction to a student’s needs.

Three years ago I began creating videos for my Regents Physics classes, having completed a set of 80+ videos this year covering the entire Regents Physics curriculum (  My goal wasn’t to replace my classroom instruction or activities, but rather to provide another tool to help students be successful.  These videos allow students who miss classes for various reasons to come back to class with a head start on their catch-up work.  They also allow me to divert some of the less-effective (but occasionally necessary) direct instruction to “at-home” time, providing more in-class time for activities which build deeper understandings, such as our catapult projects, building of iPod speakers, and water bottle rockets, all which allow students to make connections across concepts and subjects, explore and analyze data to come to their own conclusions, and perhaps most importantly, foster confidence in independent learning.  Finally, students have fed back that these videos can be a great refresher as material gets stale, or at times provides a different look at a given subject, helping solidify areas of confusion.

Last night, for example, I was floored to receive a letter in the mail from a student I’ve never met.  In the letter, the student stated:

“Your videos helped me understand the questions we went over in class. I used your site to study for my midterm… and [now] more fully understand the topics.”

These videos, and others like them, are certainly not “the answer.”  But receiving this unsolicited letter from a student in a district I’ve never visited affirmed for me that they can be a valuable resource, and even if it’s only helping out the occasional student, isn’t that really what our jobs are about — finding a way to reach as many students as possible?

There is no magic bullet in education.  Effective instruction is a constant struggle to best meet the needs of ever-changing individual learners in a constantly changing society.  Strategies that are effective one year may not be effective next year.  Or methods that reach one student may not work for another student.  It is our challenge to try and meet the needs of as many of our students as we can on a day-by-day basis, working to help all of our students reach their potential and succeed.  Research has shown repeatedly that active learning and meaning-making provides deeper, longer-lasting understanding.  History and experience have also taught us that there is a time and place for direct instruction, though few would argue it is a but a small component of a highly effective classroom.

Videos can be used effectively to help meet these needs in different ways for different students, and are in and of themselves neither completely good nor completely evil.  Instead, they are yet another resource in a teacher’s arsenal.  Given the tremendous variety of students and challenges we face every day as educators, I want access to each and every resource I can get my hands on.