Newsletter #44     Physics Education

There is no way that reading this can give you half the information or a quarter the fun that being in the Math Lounge last Thursday would have, but I'll have a shot at conveying it anyway. Underlying information: we have on our campus what is generally acknowledged to be the best Physics education program in the nation. It operates on about a zillion levels--every time you think you have it all sorted out there comes a "and then that connects with our..." But the centerpiece, or at least to the outsider's eye view the most visible piece, is their series of inquiry-based tutorials (which could also be called workshops), designed (and I use that word very seriously) to be part of the basic, entry-level calculus-based physics course. Each has been written, tried out, honed down, experimented with, re-honed,...into a small work of art--though I doubt if any is ever immune to further change. Thursday's--the centerpiece of the Brown Bag--was, I think, typical in structure. First we had a pre-test, on which we each individually predicted what the result would be of shining some light or pattern of lights through a triangular hole and onto a screen. Then we got to work together (much more fun!) in groups of three or four, working our way through an iterated sequence: read a question about what happens when you shine a light though a triangular hole (two lights? a moving light? a long thin light?...), discuss our predictions, complete with sketches and written reasons, until the whole team agrees, carry out the experiment in question to check on the prediction, celebrate or figure out what went wrong, then move on to read the next question. Three members of the Physics group moved among us, encouraging us or puncturing our smugness with a well-zinged question, depending on the need. The difficulty, of course, was stopping us at the end (I still want to do the bit with the red and green lights!), but there was a lot more to learn, so stop we did. We then learned, for one thing, some of the statistics from upwards of a thousand times of giving the pre-test (ours will now be added in.) EVERYBODY knows that light travels in a straight line, and the question that asked only for that trips up only a tiny percentage. But the minute the going gets trickier, rates crash. Even graduate students don't fare too well, and as for faculty--well, never mind. But the key point is that the pre-test is given each time the tutorial is used. It gives the students a sense of direction for the day as well (one suspects) as a proper humility about it. The material is pre- in the sense of not having been in a tutorial before. It has always already been covered in lecture. It also, along with the structure of the lesson itself, forces the students to commit themselves to an opinion, which is an absolutely necessary step on the route to arriving at a solid and correct set of understandings.

And how do these tutorials fit into the larger structure of things? For a start, they are an integral part of the course. Students attend three lectures, one lab and one tutorial per week, and any thought that this is a nice little help session if you like that sort of thing is shot down by the most effective ammunition in the academic artillery: every test has a question eminating directly from a tutorial. That's motivation.

Next question: for a course that is required for many majors, and hence runs to upwards of a thousand students per year, who runs the tutorials? Lots of people, including faculty, post-docs, graduate students and I seem to recall some other categories. And they don't run it by glancing though the notes five minutes before class--they have a weekly mandatory preparation seminar at which they all work their way through the tutorial of the week (pre-test and all!) and discuss in detail what aspects are likely to prove troublesome to the students and what might be helpful in a given situation. To those seminars we have an open invitation. They are Monday afternoons and I would be delighted to come up with further information for anyone else who, like me, would like to take them up on that invitation.

Of all the rest of the information (and there was lots more) only one tidbit managed to affix itself to my brain: the doctoral degree offered by the Physics Education Group differs from the physics research degree exclusively in the nature of the dissertation itself. All prelims and other graduate requirements are identical. The research, however, is a really deep study on how some concept or group of concepts can be taught and learned rather than, let's not pretend my physics vocabulary is up to spinning a modern thesis topic title!

And now, to finish, a reminder--or rather, a REMINDER:

On May 18-20 we will have Gail Burrill as our guest. Gail has just finished her term as president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and has a lot to tell us about the goals and current state of the reform efforts in K-12 mathematics teaching. You are invited to hear her

If you look at the length of that list and consider the length to which I at least try to restrict these newsletters, you will know that if you possibly can you need to be here. And I hope you will be!

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