Science for 21st-Century Students

Today, I read the following article in our school newspaper about a new English course for juniors, which left me asking: How can we do this with science classes?

(c) The John Jay Focus

PDF version: 21-11 Course

In a recent post about the wall of physics, John Burk shares his thoughts about a physics class taught by Richard Muller at Berkeley:

[The Physics for Future Presidents] lectures are amazing, a must listen for every physics teacher or just people who would like to know some really interesting things about the role physics cool questions like, why can’t you build a spy satellite capable of reading a newspaper.

This has me thinking about the need to reform at the intro physics course we teach, and possibly even the honors course. Why do we need to make kids run the math gauntlet to get to tackle really big questions…

Student in Muller’s physics class aren’t solving “block on an incline” problems.  They are learning about the science behind global warming, alternative energies, terrorism, and cosmology. Physics for Future Presidents addresses the important physics needed to be an informed citizen of the 21st century.

However, my big fear in a course like this (at least the way Muller conducts the class at Berkeley) is that students are simply learning only about the products of science and not experiencing the process of science for themselves. How can we successfully incorporate the immediate relevance of Muller’s 21st-century science with inquiry and scientific experimentation?

In addition, I wonder how much of the underlying physics involved is taught with hand-waving explanations and plug-and-chug calculations. How can we successfully engage students in Muller’s 21st-century science while building conceptual models for how nature works?

I am anxiously awaiting my copy of Muller’s text Physics and Technology for Future Presidents. In the meantime, how do you, dear readers, incorporate 21st-century science into your classes?

9 responses to “Science for 21st-Century Students

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  3. My first thought is that we should get some of your newspaper writers to talk to my newspaper writers (they could learn a thing or two).

    My second thought is that it might be possible to select a very limited number of chapters from Muller’s Physics for Future Presidents, and basically put together the experiments and scaffolding that would be needed to understand the ideas he’s talking about. I’m thinking the simple M&M thing to start to understand half life, followed by a lab using the geiger counter around the school to locate radiation sources, or the CO2 in a soda bottle lab to verify the greenhouse effect; yes these ideas are lame here, but I do think there is room to work.

    Also, I just watched this great short segment about the makers of Radiolab talking about how they put together their show to give listeners “the experience of us fumbling around, [modeling a a willingness] to ask dumb questions.” Couldn’t this be the basis of a class focused on understanding 21st century physics? You’re going to read about ideas so far over your head, and you’re going to use all the resources available to try to bring it down to a more comprehensible level.

    Lastly, I think Physics for the 21st Century might be an awesome way to bring in some modern physics into the classroom. They’ve already done a ton of work to develop labs and teacher resources. Their intro lab on modeling atom with the nucleus as a tennis ball is a very nice update on a classic. I’m having my first get together with 3 kids to watch this during a free period tomorrow, so I’ll let you know how it goes.

    • You second thought about the experiments is a good one. I’m sure there are ways to do simple experiments to get at complex ideas. (That’s one of the reasons I like the Matter and Interactions curriculum.)

      As far as Physics for the 21st Century, I just had a brief look at the website. It seems like a lot of the stuff can be interwoven in with what we already do. For instance, we just did the mass/weight lab (I told you I was behind) and now taking a detour into Newton’s Gravitation (how does this gravity thing work). I can see extending this to space-time warping and black holes. We we do circular motion, I can see revisiting black holes, space travel, etc. When we do waves, we can touch upon the interferometer and the search for gravity waves. We can do it, if only in a piecemeal way.

  4. Hi Frank,

    Before I went to modeling in my 2nd year, I gave Muller’s approach a try as a first year physics teacher. I didn’t have any assistance in coming up with a curriculum at my school, so I tried it out with my copy of his book in hand.

    It was entertaining for the students. We got to talk about all sorts of interesting topics and the math wasn’t difficult (if even present). However, it consisted of me lecturing and putting together great visuals into a powerpoint. I hated it after awhile. Part of it was that I was just awful as a teacher, but I didn’t like the fact that the students just sat there and observed most of the time. As you say, there is not a real big element of science in this approach. It’s kind of like a social studies class.

    So now, it’s totally opposite in my room. I’m using Matt Greenwolfe’s practicing-the-model approach where students are doing much of the legwork on their own. We go slow. Only Math and Graphing Tools, CVPM, CAPM, BFPM and UBFPM so far. I do miss being able to dive right into advanced (and interesting) topics like Muller does. Maybe there’s a way to blend the two together, but I can’t see it happening in a semester long course.

    Curious to hear what others think.


    • Chad,

      Thanks for sharing your experience with using Muller in your classroom. I, too, would like to blend the topics together. I don’t see that happening to much in mechanics, but perhaps a bit more with energy, E&M, and waves?

      It would be awesome of we Modelers could collaborate to develop modeling-friendly materials to go along with Muller and with the Physics for the 21st Century modules mentioned above.

  5. Hi Frank,
    I’m a new physics teacher, so I’m just learning this craft. (Prior career as an engineer.) I agree that it’s important to connect teaching to 21st century physics even while teaching a classical Regents Physics course. I’ve attended a lecture by Muller and agree they are fascinating an pertinent. I also have the same concerns re whether his lectures would be building the critical thinking and problem solving skills we want to see in our students. I even asked him about this, and he acknowledged that his aims were different.
    To answer your question, I have his book in my classroom and provide it to students to skim when they finish tests or quizzes early. I also link his site to my website and encourage students to check it out. In class presentations I refer to material from that book, and other ventures into modern physics. (e.g. added a 10 – 15 minute discussion of fundamental forces, and search for a unified theory, in today’s presentation of Newton’s Laws.) On Tuesday’s I usually spend about 3 minutes with the NYTimes Science Times in class, then leave the section, physics articles highlighted, on a display table with other readings and curiosities. Students have access to explore these materials before class, between periods, and after assessments. Not everyone is interested, but students do check it out.
    Interested in other responses!
    — Alan Zollner

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  7. I love your “sharing table.” I could even see leaving little toys and demos for students to play with as well.

    Muller’s goal seems to be to have students exposed (have knowledge of) the conclusions of science as little “factoids.” While having that knowledge might allow a student to sound intelligent at the dinner table, without a firm foundation or conceptual model, the student will be unable to reason about new situations — which is more important in these changing times.

    Thanks for sharing, Alan!

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