Tag Archives: teaching

Video Analysis of a Bouncing Ball


Nothing earth-shattering here. I just wanted to share the activity we worked on today, which was an introduction to quantitative energy conservation by doing a video analysis of a bouncing ball. (Up until now, we were only doing qualitative energy pie charts.) Here are the handouts and the video:

The graphs from the analysis are just beautiful:

HeightTime VelocityTIme EnergyTime

Lots to talk about in those graphs!

Feel free to edit and reuse the handouts as you see fit. They’re not perfect, but I figure it’s better to share them than having them collect dust on my flash drive.

PS: I’ll sheepishly admit that I don’t do the whole suite of paradigm labs in the Modeling unit to mathematically derive the energy equations from experiments. But we do some simple qualitative demos/experiments to discover what variables would be in those energy equations. We start by talking about how the further a rubber band is stretched, the more energy it stores. Then we launch carts into a rubber band “bumper” (i.e., big rubber bands from Staples and two C-clamps) to qualitatively see the energy stored.

In doing so, we see that the cart’s kinetic energy depends on its speed and its mass. (Or is it weight? What would happen if we repeated the experiment on the moon?)

For gravitational energy, we can repeat the experiment, but have carts rolling down an incline. Or use the rubber band to launch the cart up the incline. I’ve also dropped balls into sand and looked at the depth to which they get buried. Either way, we see that gravitational energy depends on height and weight. (Or is it simply mass? What would happen on the moon?)

For elastic energy, we already know it depends on the distance the rubber band is stretched. Then, we can swap out the rubber band in the bumper with a stiffer/looser one to see the effects of the spring constant on energy stored.

Then, after we predict what the energy equations might look like, I just give them the actual energy equations, or have them look them up. (Gasp! See Schwartz’s A Time for Telling, aka Preparation for Future Learning.)

So, modelers, what am I missing by not doing the full-blown energy paradigm labs? How do you introduce the quantitative energy equations?

Going Beyond the Physics Textbook

I have the honor of being invited by Discovery Education to attend their second “Beyond the Textbook” forum to be held this Wednesday and Thursday at their headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. The event is spearheaded by Steve Dembo and, in exchange for travel expenses, he gets to pick my brain about digital textbooks, resources, and curriculum. There will be 18 other outstanding educators as well, including my edu-heroes  Christopher DanielsonMichael DoyleKarl Fisch, and Tom Woodward.

In preparation for the event, I’m updating/remixing an old blog post I wrote called “My Vision for a Physics iBook” ….


I keep thinking about what a physics iBook would look like. Not a book for consumption, as with a traditional text, but rather a book to enable exploration. So what would a student see when they first opened such a book?

It’s blank.

No content. No classical references like Feynman’s Lectures on Physics. No integration with Khan Academy’s video library.  Nothing.


Students should be learning to do science, not simply learning about science. They should be making observations, posing questions, conducting experiments, finding patterns, analyzing data, and sharing their conclusions.

In this sense, the iBook would function more like an electronic lab notebook. As with curricula like Modeling Instruction and ISLE, students would create the physics content from their own investigations and evidence, rather than deferring to authority.

Actually, the iBook wouldn’t be completely blank. While it would initially be empty of content, it would be chock-full of tools to help students collect and analyze experimental data. Software like Tracker for video analysis, VPython and GlowScript for computation and visualization, LoggerPro for graphing and electronic data collection, along with PhET simulations and Direct Measurement Physics Videos for conducting virtual experiments.

In the realm of traditional physics textbooks, only a few make it a priority to incorporate experiments into their storylines. Three that come to mind are:

The Manga Guide to Physics


Understanding Physics

FIGURE P-2  Electronic temperature sensors reveal that if equal amounts of hot and cold water mix the final temperature is the average of the initial temperatures.

and PSSC Physics.

Eugenia Etkina‘s upcoming College Physics text gets a step closer to my iBook vision. The text incorporates her work with video experiments in her ISLE and Physics Union Mathematics curriculula. In the text, there are QR codes which link to videos of the experiments to be analyzed.

For example, here’s a video of a momentum experiment, followed by the corresponding section of the text.


But, as you can see, the text does the analysis for the student. In my opinion, this would make a good reference only after the student has completed a similar activity on their own. Fortunately, her text also comes with a workbook that asks students to do this sort of scientific reasoning on their own:


Also taking the “experiments first” approach is Live Photo Physics Interactive Video Vignettes, a collaborative project by well-known physics education researchers Robert Teese, Priscilla Laws, and David Jackson. During a vignette, students are asked to make predictions and do video analysis on-the-fly. Here’s a preview:

Science is never done in isolation, however, so the iBook would come equipped with tools for sharing data, content, photos, videos, and resources among students and between teacher-student.

For me, going beyond the textbook means giving students a toolbox rather than an instruction manual.

What’s your vision for the future of textbooks?

You can follow along with us at the Beyond the Textbook forum this week by searching for the Twitter hashtag #BeyondTextbooks.

Bonus: 5 reasons why iPads won’t replace textbooks in science class.


Experienced Teaching Looks a Lot like Jazz

Recently, Michael Pershan (@mpershan) and I had a great conversation on Twitter about lessons and planning. I’ve copied it below. And if you aren’t already following Michael or reading his blog, you’re missing out.

FN: In the beginning, my planning took a content focus — WHAT do I want students to know. Now my planning is task focused — the HOW.

MP: Interesting. Do you rewrite everything each year? What’s your prep like?

FN: While lessons are similar each year, I don’t think I’ve done the exact same lesson twice. Probably not good for my sanity.

MP: But what keeps you from reusing old tasks? I mean, you do, so what’s the new planning? Selecting from set of tasks for kids?

FN: For example, Hooke’s Law task. Do we: uses scales or probes or hanging weights? Do we use 1, 2, or 3 springs? Do we do multiple measurements per trial? Do I force kids to make stretch the independent variable, or do they choose? Do we graph by hand or on the computer? Do we use LoggerPro or Excel? Do we use ideal springs or ones that have a preload? Does each group use identical springs or does each group get different ones? Students in groups of 2, 3, or 4? Do I give them a worksheet or does it go in their lab notebooks? So many little decisions and permutations. All are important decisions that non-teachers don’t even realize we make.

MP: Are these decisions that, you feel, there’s an optimum solution to, or is it different with each batch of kids?

FN: Kids, time, what I want to emphasize, equipment … Lots of factors.

MP: I really appreciate everything you just tweeted. Thank you.

FN: You’re welcome. Not sure that was much help.

MP: Sorry to pry, just trying to get a look at what experienced teaching looks like.

FN: I’d say experienced teaching looks a lot like jazz.

My TEDxNYED Session: Learning Science by Doing Science

Many thanks to the TEDxNYED 2012 crew, especially True Life Media, Basil Kolani, Karen Blumberg, and Matthew Moran for an awesome event. Be sure to check out the rest of the TEDxNYED 2012 talks.

Learn more about Modeling Instruction in Science.

Disrupt This: My Challenge to Silicon Valley

Over the past few months, Audrey WattersDan Meyer, and Keith Devlin have been critical of Silicon Valley, edtech startups, and iPad textbooks which hope to “disrupt” education. In my opinion, the real stumbling block to meaningful change is students’ formal reasoning skills — analytical thinking that cannot be cultivated by pausing and rewinding video or playing Math Blasters.

Here are my 5 points:

  1. Many of our students are transitioning from concrete to formal reasoning.
  2. A significant barrier to learning for understanding is students’ own formal reasoning skills.
  3. Formal reasoning skills (and thus learning for understanding) can be developing when instruction is structured around the Learning Cycle.
  4. Silicon Valley and edtech startups have been focusing on (often inappropriately) just a small fraction of the learning cycle.
  5. My Challenge to Silicon Valley: Help students learn for understanding by innovating around the rest of the learning cycle.

1. Many of our students are transitioning from concrete to formal reasoning.

Below are 3 reasoning puzzles, each followed by a video of college students attempting to solve the puzzle while explaining and discussing their logic. It’s a highly illuminating look at students’ reasoning processes.

I. The Algae Puzzle (Combinatorial Reasoning)

II. The Frog Puzzle (Proportional Reasoning)

III. The Mealworm Puzzle (Scientific Reasoning)

2. A significant barrier to learning for understanding is students’ own formal reasoning skills.

You’re probably thinking, “So, what? Just because Johnny can’t figure out all the possible combinations of algae doesn’t mean he can’t learn physics.” But the research strongly suggests that it does, even in interactive engagement classes.

In a previous post, I presented this graph from Hake’s famous six thousand student study:

As you can see, interactive engagement course outperformed traditional courses in learning gains as measured by the Force Concept Inventory (FCI). The FCI is the most widely used test of physics understanding. But why is there such a wide range of FCI gains among the IE courses and (not shown) among the individual students within a particular course? A study entitled “Why You Should Measure Your Students’ Reasoning Ability” (Coletta, Phillips, and Steiner) suggests reasoning ability is strongly correlated with physics success.

In the study, several different physics courses administered both the FCI (to measure physics gains) and the Lawson Test of Classroom Reasoning Skills (to measure formal reasoning ability). The Lawson test contains several items very similar the three puzzles above. Here’s what they found:

The data were split into quartiles based on the Lawson scores. The light green bars represent the average Lawson test score for each quartile and the dark green bars represent the average FCI gain for each quartile. There is clear correlation between reasoning ability and learning gains in physics. I’d wager this correlation extends to other subjects as well.

3. Formal reasoning skills (and thus learning for understanding) can be developed when instruction is structured around the Learning Cycle.

According to Piaget, intellectual growth happens through self-regulation — a process in which a person actively searches for relationships and patterns to resolve contradictions and to bring coherence to a new set of experiences.

In order to get students to experience self-regulation and further develop their reasoning skills, classroom experiences should be constructed around the Karplus learning cycle, which contains the the stages of EXPLORATION, INVENTION, and APPLICIATION. From Karplus’s workshop materials on the learning cycle:

EXPLORATION: The students learn through their own actions and reactions in a new situation. In this phase they explore new materials and new ideas with minimal guidance or expectation of specific accomplishments. The new experience should raise questions that they cannot answer with their accustomed patterns of reasoning. Having made an effort that was not completely successful, the students will be ready for self-regulation.

INVENTION: Starts with the invention of a new concept or principle that leads the students to apply new patterns of reasoning to their experiences. The concept can be invented in class discussion, based on the exploration activity and later re-emphasized by the teacher, the textbook, a film, or another medium. This step, which aids in self-regulation, should always follow EXPLORATION and relate to the EXPLORATION activities.  Students should be encouraged to develop as much of a new reasoning pattern as possible before it is explained to the class.

APPLICATION: The students apply the new concept and/or reasoning pattern to additional examples. The APPLICATION phase is necessary to extend the range of applicability of the new concept. APPLICATION provides additional time and experiences for self-regulation and stabilizing the new reasoning patterns. Without a number and variety of APPLICATIONs, the concept’s meaning will remain restricted to the examples used during its definition. Many students may fail to abstract it from its concrete examples or generalize it to other situations. In addition, APPLICATION activities aid students whose conceptual reorganization takes place more slowly than average, or who did not adequately relate the teacher’s original explanation to their experiences. Individual conferences with these students to help identify and resolve their difficulties are especially helpful.

4. Silicon Valley and edtech startups have been focusing on (often inappropriately) just a small fraction of the learning cycle.

Unfortunately, Silicon Valley has been dumping its disruptive dollars almost solely into the INVENTION phase and on the tail-end of the phase at that. It views education purely as a content consumption process and ignores the development of formal thinking and reasoning.

Remember, in the invention phase, “The concept can be invented in class discussion, based on the exploration activity and later re-emphasized by the teacher, the textbook, film, or another medium.” That’s Khan Academy videos, flipclass videos, iBooks, an similar technologies designed to present content via direct instruction. However, “Students should be encouraged to develop as much of a new reasoning pattern as possible before it is explained to the class.” Which means that this type of direct instruction should be as minimal as possible, because it robs kids from reasoning and making meaning. In other words, Silicon Valley is putting its energy into the portion of the invention phase that should be as small as possible!

Now let’s look at the application phase. There has been some development here as well, most notably in apps and exercise software which seek to gamify the classroom. But the application phase isn’t about getting 10 right answers in a row or solving problems to shoot aliens. Remember, Without a number and variety of APPLICATIONs, the concept’s meaning will remain restricted to the examples used during its definition. Real learning with understanding means students can reason about the concepts well enough to use them in new and unique concepts (aka transfer). Applications should require students to examine their own thinking, make comparisons, and raise questions. Great applications examples are open-ended problems, problems which present a paradox, and student reflection on both successful and unsuccessful problem-solving methods. Deep learning does not end when the Application phase begins.

5. My Challenge to Silicon Valley: Help students learn for understanding by innovating around the rest of the learning cycle.

Real disruption isn’t going to come from skill and drill apps, self-paced learning, badges, YouTube videos, socially-infused learning management systems, or electronic textbooks. Students must be continuously engaged in the learning cycle. We need to equip our students with the reasoning skills to learn how to learn anything. Focus on experiences in the exploration phase, meaningful sense making in the invention phase, and worthy problems in the application phase.

But, in reality, we only have ourselves to blame. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us when students can’t think — the status-quo in education has been to spend most of our time on content delivery while robbing students of exploring and reasoning opportunities. And current edtech trends aren’t fixing this problem; rather, they are making it easier to make the problem worse.

To be fair, a few “good disrutptions” have occurred in the other phases of the learning cycle. Motion detectors allow students to “walk a graph” so they can easily explore position-time and velocity-time graphs. GeoGebra allows students to explore and play with geometry and functions quickly and easily. PhET simulations allows students to conduct open-ended planetary orbit experiments that would be impossible in real life. And VPython programming gets students to apply what they learned to write their own simulations and visualizations.

So when presented with the next great edtech “disruption,” ask yourself: has this innovation actually changed how student think about math and science concepts? Or has it just allowed students to get a few more questions correct on the state exam?

For further reading:

The next two articles:

  • “Promoting Intellectual Development Through Science Teaching” (Renner and Lawson)
  • “Physics Problems and the Process of Self-Regulation” (Lawson and Wollman)

are found here: Module 11: Suggested Reading (Workshop Materials for Physics Teaching and the Development of Reasoning)

New Prep, New Digs

The chemistry room I'll be sharing with 4(!) other teachers.

A quick update: Starting tomorrow, I’ll be picking up a section of Chemistry 2 (second semester conceptual chemistry). Our school’s conceptual science courses are split into semesters to make student and teacher scheduling easier. I usually have a section of conceptual physics or astronomy, but this year it’s chemistry.

There’s also no mandatory curriculum, so I am free to experiment. My plan is to implement the 3 modules about matter from the Operation Primary Physical Science (OPPS) curriculum. I’m really excited about it, especially since making my shopping list for the first module:

Hopefully no one will think I'm a terrorist.

Other things I like about the OPPS curriculum:

  • Inquiry-based
  • Structured around the learning cycle
  • Emphasis on student-created models and evidence-based reasoning
  • A detailed teacher guide and student workbook. (A must for a time-pressed teacher like me. I can tweak it next year if needed.)

I also plan on using the Thinking Science materials from Shayer and Adey (thanks to John Clement on the PhysLrnr list who is always talking about them). I’m going to do 2 pre/post tests: the Lawson Test of Classroom Reasoning Skills and an attitudinal survey (likely the CLASS, since that is what Carl Wieman has been using). I’m hoping to see some individual growth in these areas.

My chemistry class is also small — just 11 students. I’m aiming to get some real dialogue going in class and to leave detailed feedback in their journals.

The 3 OPPS modules (Nature of Matter, Mixing Matter, and Heating Matter) should keep us busy for most of the 3rd quarter. Not sure yet what we’ll be doing for 4th quarter.

Anyway, wish me luck! I’ll keep you all updated throughout the semester!

My Vision for a Physics iBook

UPDATE 1/22/2012: Now with links and Apple’s iBook video!

Warning: This post is a brain dump of all thoughts and conversations I’ve been having about next generation textbooks since Apple’s iBook textbook announcement. Sorry this isn’t polished.

I keep thinking about what a physics iBook would look like. Not a book for consumption (like a traditional text) but rather a book to enable exploration. More like a text-journal-workbook-lab notebook combo, where students would create content from investigations (also pooling created content/data from classmates, etc) and also have reference text for afterwards in the same vein as the Minds-On-Physics text, the first edition of M&I, and the Physics by Inquiry texts.

Stuck on a problem? An intelligent tutor would be able to re-direct you back to a video or animation or even your own data from an exploration where you initially encountered the concept.

There would be these components:

It’d be like an electronic version of the PSSC/Modeling/ISLE /PUM curricula on steroids. And I see this more as the teacher having these tools to deploy to the students, rather than the students following a linear path through text and activities. The class actually builds the text together, and each year the text is different.

The capabilities and content for this iBook already exist. No one has put them together in one package yet. I think it could even be web/cloud-based and platform independent if done with the proper tools.

What am I missing? What’s your vision?