Category Archives: Modeling Stories

Meet a Modeler: Colleen Megowan-Romanowicz

Today’s guest post is from Colleen Megowan-Romanowicz, the Executive Officer of the American Modeling Teachers’ Association. It is the fifth post in a series which shares the stories of teachers using Modeling Instruction.

Colleen writes:

I am a physics teacher. I have been teaching for 25 years, and I have taught many other subjects, but my identity as a physics teacher is as firmly grounded in the texture of my being as my identity as mother, “leftie”, and redhead.

I entered teaching through “the back door”, when my first choice career, medicine, was no longer an option. In elementary school, I wanted to be president of the United States, in high school I was hooked on marine biology, but when I entered college in 1969, I was committed to pre-medicine. Four years later, in classic overachiever fashion, I not only had a bachelor’s degree, but a husband and two children as well. By age 23, I had given birth to my third child and come to the realization that medical school was out of the question. I considered nursing, but thought it likely that I would harbor secret resentment toward the doctors with whom I worked. Teaching seemed the only other practical alternative for someone with a biology major and chemistry minor, so back to school I went. A year later, when I completed student teaching I knew I had, quite by accident, found my calling.

Twenty two years ago I began teaching physics—not a trivial task for someone who had completed college physics 18 years earlier. But how hard could it be, to stay ahead of 12 seventeen year old girls in one section of high school physics? (I taught at a girls’ Catholic high school in Sacramento) I unearthed my old physics books, bought some new ones, and discovered what I had missed completely the first time around. Physics is the foundation. It is why chemistry and biology exist. It is both a context and a rationale for mathematics.

It was a life changing realization—my kids joked that it was like God’s voice from the burning bush. From then on, I wanted to become the best physics teacher I could be. I took classes and workshops. I gave classes and workshops. I discovered that to be a good physics teacher I needed to be a good mathematics teacher, a good cognitive scientist, a good linguist and discourse analyst, even a good philosopher. And by all accounts I was good. I had plaques and certificates to prove it. I grew the physics program at my high school and converted it to physics-first. We went from 12 students to over 170 (in a school with just under 500 students—all girls). But I knew deep down I wasn’t really that good. My students learned to solve tricky physics problems and they could get into good colleges, but they never did that well on the FCI.

In 1998 I discovered Modeling Instruction…another life changing experience. After my first Modeling Workshop at UC Davis (led by Don Yost and Wayne Finkbeiner…Mark Schober, our current AMTA president, and I were classmates in that workshop) I went back into my classroom thinking I finally had the key to really helping my students learn physics. Unfortunately things didn’t unfold quite as I had imagined. I was not brilliant. I struggled and so did my students, but even inexpertly implemented, I could see how much better modeling was at revealing what my students were thinking. The following summer I went back to Davis for my second Modeling Workshop and the next school year I did better (and so did my students). By year 3, I finally felt like I knew what I was doing. I became intensely curious about how and why modeling worked for my students. I read whatever I could get my hands on, but finally decided that if I was going to figure modeling out, I’d have to be systematic about studying it. I needed someone to guide my studies, and since I had met David Hestenes while I was at UC Davis and he encouraged me to look into a program in physics education research, I contacted him and asked if I could be his graduate student. He agreed.

Although I loved teaching at Loretto High School for Girls in Sacramento, ten years ago I moved to Phoenix, took the job of designing the mathematics and science program for the new Jewish high school (a physics first integrated science and mathematics curriculum), and began my graduate studies at ASU. My research interest was in the integration of physics and mathematics, the physics first sequence of instruction, and the ways in which student discourse shapes thinking and reasoning in physics. I completed the Physics Department’s Master of Natural Science (MNS) degree program in 2004, along the way engaging in the first of many classroom research projects in collaboration with three other teachers. We designed and tested a modeling instruction unit in special relativity. During this period I also began teaching the Leadership Workshop course and coordinating the action research component of the MNS program. Over the years I have mentored over 40 teacher action researchers through their required MNS research experience. In fact it was during a Leadership Workshop meeting one day I heard that a handful of teachers in the Advanced Modeling course who were concerned about the future of modeling instruction, had invented AMTA the night before over a pitcher of beer (or 2). I immediately took out my checkbook and wrote Patrick Daisley (another UC Davis modeling classmate, who still serves AMTA as treasurer) a check for $25 to become one of the charter members of the organization.

In 2007, under the guidance of David Hestenes, I earned my PhD in Physics Education Research from ASU. My research was a study of whiteboard mediated cognition in four different modeling classrooms. After doing a year of postdoctoral research on embodied cognition in science education for ASU’s Arts, Media and Engineering program I took a faculty position in one of ASU’s colleges of education (we had 3 of them at the time) teaching elementary science methods. I secured funding for the Modeling Institute—a middle school STEM Modeling MNS degree program. Last summer I gave an invited talk and a demonstration of modeling instruction in Beijing. (They loved it. Chinese teachers want to learn modeling instruction.) In the fall I started writing grants in earnest to obtain funds to help scale AMTA up. To date I have written four grants. None have been awarded yet—I think perhaps the NSF reviewers are having a hard time wrapping their brains around a grassroots organization of this type. This spring I offered my services to the AMTA executive board as executive officer. When they took me up on it, I resigned my faculty position at ASU and accepted a part-time research position so that I could devote as much time as possible to helping AMTA “go big”. (I am fortunate to have the support of a loving husband who tells me I should do what makes me happy.) My AMTA position will not be salaried until I can land us some external funding.

Pedagogically, I approach teaching via modeling theory, and cognitively I am particularly interested in the phenomenon of distributed cognition and how a situated group learning experience ultimately distills into individual student understanding. I am also convinced that mathematics and science instruction can and should be integrated. I undertook this with good results for three years at the Jewish high school, and I built this curriculum design into the NSF-funded master’s degree program for middle school teachers. I hope that my work will enable modeling instruction to become self-sustaining and I would like contribute to large-scale curriculum integration in mathematics and science. At the very least, I hope that by having a foot in both the mathematics education and physics education camps, I can foster a dialogue and an ongoing relationship between the two communities that ultimately enriches both.


Meet a Modeler: Fran Poodry

Today’s guest post is from Fran Poodry, the president-elect of the American Modeling Teachers’ Association. Fran teaches high school physics in Pennsylvania. It is the fourth post in a series which shares the stories of teachers using Modeling Instruction. Fran writes:

I was a physics major in college and I knew all along that I wanted to become a teacher.  I took all my undergraduate education courses at a small private liberal-arts college, where I learned many things that are now called “21st century education” which I find humorous. Since I planned to teach, a professor I knew (but not at my school) suggested I join the physics teaching mailing list, PHYS-L, and from there I learned about Physics Education Research.  I also got to know (virtually) Joe Redish, Dewey Dykstra, Priscilla Laws, and others.  I wound up working for Priscilla Laws for two summers, learning about Workshop Physics, Vernier probes and interfaces (remember the ULI?) and analyzing data from student surveys pre- and post-instruction.

I graduated with a BA in Physics and a Pennsylvania teaching certificate in 1992, and I have been teaching physics since January, 1993.  I taught for five and a half years in Philadelphia public schools. Jane Jackson recruited me for a modeling workshop when I attended a summer AAPT meeting at University of Maryland (having known me from my online presence), and  I took modeling workshops in 1997 and 1998. These workshops were at University of Wisconsin-River Falls and were led by Rex Rice and Dave Braunschweig. I still make Rex’s guacamole recipe—yum!

As with many, my life was changed by Modeling Instruction.  I felt like I had discovered the way I wanted to teach, I just hadn’t figured it out before.  Also, I was amazed by how much physics I learned at the workshops! Though I loved using Modeling Instruction, the situation in my school was taking its toll.  The large class sizes, under-prepared students, tragic events, and the bars on the windows were all hard to deal with.  I decided I had to leave Philadelphia or leave teaching.  I left the School District of Philadelphia in 1998.

After leaving Philadelphia schools, I have been teaching in various suburban districts in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  I love my current school (where I am starting my 10th year), and I have great colleagues, but only one of my colleagues is also a Modeler (though we have four full-time physics teachers in my building).  I have used Modeling Instruction with kids in conceptual classes, honors classes, and in-between, and from a variety of socio-economic levels.  I have struggled to use Modeling with my AP students, since they have already (mostly) had a year of Modeling Instruction in their first-year physics class with my colleague. While I have enjoyed teaching mostly conceptual-level classes and AP classes for the past 8 years, I am looking forward to teaching honors-level and AP classes this school year, and trying out Standards-Based Grading.

I joined the AMTA board last year as Vice President, so am currently the President-Elect and I will be President next year.  I feel very strongly that the work of AMTA is vital for keeping Modeling Instruction alive and growing and funded, unlike previous worthy programs that were not self-sustaining (IPS, PSSC, Project Physics, etc). One way that to help this happen is through greater publicity.  Most science teachers in my district have no idea what Modeling is, and when offered a 2-hour introduction on an inservice day, only two teachers (out of over 40 high school science teachers) came to the session – the rest chose other sessions.  Not only teachers need to know about Modeling Instruction, the word also needs to get out to the politicians, the parents, and the voting public.

You can follow Fran Poodry on Twitter: @MsPoodry.

Modeling Stories: Mark Schober

Today’s guest post is from Mark Schober, the new the president of the American Modeling Teachers’ Association. It is the third post in a series which shares the stories of teachers using Modeling Instruction.

From a childhood interest in dinosaurs and trains, my palentological affinity morphed into an interest in science and later into physics teaching — my fascination with trains has never wavered. I majored in mathematics, physics, and theater arts and then earned masters degrees in physics and in secondary education. Along the way, my undergraduate roommate (also a physics teacher) had ties to AAPT through his physics-teaching father, introducing me to the power of professional development communities, physics education research, and the breadth of innovations in physics instruction. In grad school, my advisor was testing early drafts of the University of Washington‘s Physics by Inquiry and Tutorials in Introductory Physics. In weekly meetings we would discuss the structure of the socratic questions and the conceptions the materials were designed to address, giving me a great insight into research-informed curricula that I implemented as his TA. However, when I began teaching high school physics in St. Louis, I quickly found that the University of Washington materials were so highly tailored to particular audiences (pre-service elementary education majors and first-year physics majors’ recitation sessions) that they were unusable in high school.

After my second year of physics teaching, I was encouraged to participate in a Modeling Workshop at UC Davis in 1998, led by Don Yost and Wayne Finkbeiner. Modeling established a pedagogical framework that transcended any particular set of curriculum materials, allowing me to use my prior skills and background in much more productively. In the followup workshop in 1999, I worked with other participants to develop modeling materials for teaching light. In 2000 and 2001,  Don Yost, Larry Dukerich, and I consolidated the light curriculum materials produced by all the workshops into the “standard” version. During this time, I also created an extensive website of the Modeling materials, though which I’ve met lots of other Modelers who have found it to be a useful resource. (

I apprenticed with Rex and Debbie Rice in a modeling mechanics workshop in St. Louis in 2000, and in 2003 I co-led a St. Louis mechanics workshop with John Koski. In the summers from 2004-2007 I led workshops in light and E&M for Laird Kramer at Florida International University with co-leaders Matt Watson, David Kirkpatrick, and Russ Harcha. I’ve led a number of half-day workshops in conjunction with the St. Louis Area Physics Teachers and I worked closely with Rex Rice and Bill Brinkhorst to develop the amusement park physics curriculum for Six Flags St. Louis. In 2010 I led a mechanics workshop at the University of New Mexico for Jeff Saul and a Models of Light workshop at ASU.

After 14 years of teaching in St. Louis, my wife and I moved to New York City last summer. I got the chance to try 9th grade Modeling physics for the Regents in Harlem — a fantastic and humbling experience at the same time. However, the NYC DOE’s threatened layoffs of new hires sent me looking elsewhere, and this year I will be teaching chemistry and physics as well as taking on department head duties at Trinity School in Manhattan. To prepare for teaching chemistry, I took the Chemistry Modeling workshop this summer under the stellar leadership of Tammy Gwara. The coherence and development of the chemistry storyline has me very excited to teach it. Also, working with Fernand Brunschwig, Seth Guiñals-Kupperman, Nate Finney, and Andrew Stillman, we formed the Physics Teachers of New York City and have a full slate of monthly workshops for the upcoming school year.

Mark was recently interviewed for NSTA’s Lab Out Loud podcast. Listen to it here: Episode 68: Modeling Instruction in the Science Classroom.

Why I’m a Modeler: Nick Cabot

Today’s guest post is from Nick Cabot. It is the second post in a series which shares the stories of teachers using Modeling Instruction.

My journey as a Modeler began 2 years after I completed my master’s in physics which was also how long I’d been teaching physics at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle.  I attended the first series of Modeling Leadership Workshops way back in 1995 through 1997 (yes, three summers), which were held at ASU and UI Chicago – I think I saw an ad for the Workshops in The Physics Teacher.  I was at the Chicago workshops, which were led by Gregg Swackhamer – a wonderful teacher – and it wasn’t five minutes into the first day when, like so many other teachers, I thought to myself, “Why hadn’t I been taught this way!?”  Despite my recent master’s degree, the Workshop really was the first time I’d seen Newtonian mechanics presented as a coherent whole, rather than as a series of, relatively speaking, disjointed formulas and problems.  I suppose the conceptual framework was always there, but it seemed to me that, not unlike mathematics instruction, we just turned the page and moved on.  As Larry Dukerich, another wonderful teacher and Workshop leader, is so fond of saying (and me of quoting him), “Textbooks maybe logical, but they are not psycho-logical,” by which he means that textbook authors and most teachers never consider for whom the textbooks or instruction are for.  Anyway, my whole conception of physics and physics teaching were completely overturned in favor of the Modeling paradigm.  On the strength of NSF support for the Workshop, I called in a political favor and got the school board to outfit my classroom with computers, ULIs, and probeware – and I was off and running.

Well, to make a long story somewhat shorter, based, in part, on my modest successes as Modeler, in 2001 I was awarded an Einstein Fellowship to the NSF where I had the opportunity to work in the Division of Undergraduate Education with the folks who manage their science teacher preparation portfolio.  I very much enjoyed the perspective afforded me by seeing the initiatives and proposals universities all over the country were submitting to reform undergraduate education and teacher preparation so as to take into account the years of research in science teaching and learning – finally!  Building off that experience I decided to get a Ph.D. and in 2008 (I continued to teach full time except for one year), I successfully defended my dissertation on the impact of Modeling Instruction on physics teachers.  Since then I’ve been at UNC Chapel Hill as a clinical assistant professor mostly teaching math and science methods and math content classes to pre-service, graduate, and post-baccalaureate elementary and secondary teachers.  And by virtue of being clinical faculty (as opposed to tenure-track, trapped in the publish-or-perish grind), I’ve also been able to work with math and science teachers and teacher educators in Thailand, China, and the Galapagos Islands.  I attribute it all to the broadening of my horizons that occurred because I showed up at a Modeling Workshop in Chicago one hot day in June, 1995.

So, why did I join the AMTA?  Mostly because I want to do whatever I can to help keep the dream alive and growing.  Modeling is a better science pedagogy because, more than any other with which I’m familiar (and I’m familiar with most of them), it brings sharp instructional focus to the two most important aspects of teaching science: models and classroom discourse.  Humans are natural modelers – it’s how we explain phenomena to ourselves.  Even though many of our models of the physical world are non-Newtonian (mostly because we can’t see frictional forces), they work pretty well (else we’d be dead!).  And because they are, in fact, generally “adequate,” trying to teach over the top of them is like speaking a foreign language – just so much gibberish that doesn’t jibe with everyday experience.  Modeling acknowledges students’ prior experience and provides opportunities for them to confront and challenge their everyday models.  Classroom discourse is a vital part of this experience because it gives students real-time feedback.  We’re expecting our students to undergo conceptual change from their everyday models to more scientifically aligned models – well, this takes mental energy (our brains are “lazy”) and guidance.  For the vast majority of students, the necessary prodding and guidance is available only in a classroom setting with a teacher who recognizes these incontrovertible facts about learning, that is, a Modeling teacher.  Modeling is our best chance to tap the reservoir of initiative and creativity in our students that historically has been ignored by those science teachers who couldn’t understand why their students didn’t understand.  How could I not help?

Nick Cabot is on the board of the American Modeling Teachers’ Association.

Why I’m a Modeler

This is the first in a series of posts sharing the stories of teachers using Modeling Instruction.

My name is Frank Noschese and I’m on the American Modeling Teachers’ Association Board of Directors as Member-at-Large. Here’s my modeling story:

I had heard about modeling instruction on various physics teaching email lists when I began teaching in 1998. “Awesome,” “life-changing,” and “the best professional development I ever had” were phases my virtual colleagues frequently used when describing modeling and the intensive summer workshops.

After my first few years of teaching, when I was finally able to keep my head above water, I investigated the Modeling Instruction program and poked around the ASU modeling website. I found the mechanics worksheets. I had struck gold! I was excited to transform my classroom into the hands-on, minds-on, discussion-based physics course I had been longing to teach. I opened up the first document file like it was my 6th birthday all over again.

I’ll be honest: At first glance, I was not impressed. The worksheets seemed very pedestrian and had problems just like any other textbook. Additional representations like motion maps and energy pie graphs seemed juvenile.

But the praise kept pouring in on the email lists. And there was this nagging voice that wouldn’t go away. It kept saying, “Maybe there is more to this modeling thing.” So I enrolled in a 2.5 week workshop called “PHY 620: Powerful Ideas And Quantitative Modeling: Mechanics” run by Buffalo State College’s Physics Education Department. The workshop leaders were Dewayne Beery, Dan MacIsaac, Marie Plumb, Chris Filkins, Joe Zawicki, and Kathleen Falconer.

In the workshop, the power of modeling became clear. It wasn’t about the worksheets. It wasn’t about the labs. It was about the discussion and discourse and the questioning and the arguing and the failing and the guiding and the succeeding that happened as we worked through the material. The multiple representations aspect was exceptionally helpful and powerful, not juvenile. I was hooked. I returned to school in September feeling more excited (and nervous) than before.

That first year went really well, I thought. As did successive years. Though I feel my discussion/questioning skills have been getting a little rusty and I’m longing to take a second workshop in E&M or Waves.

The Modeling Listserv has always been an invaluable resources for sharing ideas and asking questions. As have other email lists. But I slowly started noticing other teachers (particularly younger teachers and math teachers) reaching out for help and offering advice by blogging and tweeting. They weren’t connected to the email lists and weren’t going to hear about Modeling Instruction the same way I had. Upon first hearing the word “modeling,” they might incorrectly think it means “I do, We do, You do”-type teaching. I wanted to reach out to these other teachers and showcase modeling and other physics education related pedagogies. So in the summer of 2010, I joined Twitter and started this blog. The word is getting out, even if it means shouting over the voices of less effective pedagogies which have been getting the lion’s share of the money and media attention.

I became an AMTA member because I want Modeling to continue and thrive. And I wanted to be on the Board to help bring AMTA and Modeling into the view of educators beyond physics and show the world what effective science instruction looks like.

I hope you’ll join me.