0-100 Real Quick

One of the tricks of the trade I’ve stumbled across in making my class relatable for kids in an urban school is simply giving students some connections that are culturally relevant to them. One example of this is *ahem* one of my funniest jokes of the year.

It comes from this graph, an example of what lots of kids are inclined to do (before we’ve used those graphs to identify “initial values” over and over again). Rather than being scaled consistently from zero on both axes, this graph goes from zero to 100, “real quick.”

Admittedly, this isn’t funny unless you know the reference. For the uninitiated, here’s a link to the Drake song that I’m quoting here… clean version for the faint of heart.

What this song means for me as a teacher is I can write “0 to 80, real quick!” , etc on any graph axis that’s scaled incorrectly, and kids know exactly what I’m referring to. Here’s to making our graphs more useful than Drake ever would!


Energy Situations

I’ve been looking for quite some time for a sequence that I’m satisfied with for rolling out bar charts for more complicated situations. In my class, we spend a little time with just gravitational, kinetic, and thermal energy using the PhET Energy Skatepark, then step things up with more complicated situations. (Others may start with these more complicated situations, but I’ve noticed a need to work up to this with my students.)

I’ve finally arrived at an activity that I’m most satisfied with. This is very similar toy the Rex & Debbie Rice “Energy Stations” activity, but it takes place later in the unit, once students already have some practice making bar charts and talking about energy transfer. Think “wind up bunny” worksheet, but the key here is that kids are actually working with the stuff. We don’t take for granted that kids understand the idea behind a wind up toy, we use this as one example of many, and give them a chance to see first hand the connection between, say, a rubber band and a pull-back car.

The activity consists of three stations, with three pages of a worksheet. Students works through these three stations on one day, then whiteboard their work (with mistakes!) on the following day. Below shows the equipment I’m using (more on the iPhones in a later post).

At this point, students have some experience with energy discussions, and we’ve just looked at the PhET “Energy Forms and Changes” (http://phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/energy-forms-and-changes) simulation with the girl riding a bike to power a lightbulb or heater to get an example of chemical energy. Since they have some facility with the energy transfer model already, they can actually discuss what’s going on in some detail.

The stations can be done in any order, and they all consist of a bar chart (with a system containing all objects defined in the dotted circle) AND a “description of energy transfer” with words. One of them features giant rubber bands that get shot against the ceiling. The second half of the worksheet shows “Moments A & B”, where the rubber band gets pulled backward.

Station 2 features a pull back car, very similar to the rubber bands, but horizontal. Moment B in the bar chart below becomes the first moment in a sequence where the car speeds up, then reaches a complete stop.

Station 3 features the classic “wind up bunny” question, updated to be a robot because these are the windup toys I found (http://www.amazon.com/Fun-Express-Wind-Up-Robots-Dozen/dp/B005NHT092). The second half of this station features the battery operated buggy – same idea but transferring chemical instead of stored elastic.

Here’s a Dropbox link to the actual worksheet I used, starting on page 6: https://www.dropbox.com/s/0ukll1ny9e8tv14/u2etm_packet2pdf.pdf?dl=0

##etm ##paradigmlab


Foam Roller Coasters

I’ve been a little delinquent on my 180 posts this year, which is kind of a shame because things have been a huge improvement from last year. I figured I’d catch up on some important successes (and setbacks) to have them on the blog, in case their of some use to anyone else.

I was lucky to get a suggestion from a Chem teacher about these foam roller coasters for a marble… I hadn’t seen them before, but they’re unbelievably easy, cheap, and awesome. It’s super easy to make a roller coaster that works and is impressive, and everybody wants to get involved. We used the coasters as a bridge from “Skatepark Bar Charts” to actual situations involving real stuff. In a more advanced class, I could see asking students to use slow motion video to calculate the speed and kinetic energy of the marble at versions points.

I cut a bunch of foam pipe insulation in half, then taped four together length-wise. Since we didn’t have room in the room to make anything permanent-ish, students had to hold pieces of their coaster in place, which got even more hands involved. I taped one end to the end of a meter stick, and the only main rule was that the coaster had to start exactly 1m above its ending point. I gave points for loops, large hills, and for “landing in a cup”, and the winning group got some fun size candy bars. But mostly everyone loved just playing with the coaster.

Here’s a slow-mo video of a particularly amazing coaster, than gave us a chance to talk about where the energy was going: http://youtu.be/N5o2izY-y-w



Marble Roll Duel

On the first day back from winter break, I wanted to do at least one thing to get kids up and out of their chairs. Last year I tried this pvc marble roll game and it bombed in a few classes – a few students just stood on the sidelines and kinda seemed to relish the opportunity to sabotage the activity. 😦

All people in the team have to have one hand on at least one tube, and the marble needs to roll through all tubes. This is easy, but takes some communication and spatial awareness because the tubes are so long. This year, I made it a competition between two teams, and this worked nicely. Interestingly, in this class one of the students in the front of the room defected to the back when he thought his team was losing! But the competition was healthy, and lots of people had fun.

##motivation ##etm


Setbacks as Learning Opportunities

I can’t say enough how profound the “learning from setbacks” paradigm has been during my time teaching in Harlem so far… But I’ll try to describe it with a brief snapshot of the last two days of school.

I’ve tried flipping my classroom this year – to give kids a fair shot at using and discussing the models we’re building I give them some background in the form of notes in our “Consensus Notebook”. (Not so much by consensus anymore, but we’re getting there…) Problem is, many students just weren’t watching the videos, and in their haste to get something done they’d generally just copy the notes from a friend without actually watching the video and making sense of what they’re writing.

So yesterday I tried a new system. Assigned seats for the day would be based on who did their homework – homework earns you the right to start with the rest of the class. If you didn’t do the homework, you’d spend the first 15 minutes of class getting caught up on that work, but inter rest of the class would go on without you. “No homework” students got the sheet on the left below, and others got the sheet in the right.

In general, this led to some very chaotic classrooms. Students who were supposed to watch the videos were loud and distracted, and had to be redirected or asked to leave the room, sometimes multiple times. Many students who had the chance to make real progress had trouble getting more than one stinkin energy bar chart completed. I got a chance to share my super-fun and amazing “kinetic energy ball” (BEST physics toy for studying energy…) and students loved it, but we barely got a chance to discuss two problems in most classes. Worst of all, I got frustrated and in some classes angry, and felt totally miserable by the end of the day.

Magically, today was the reverse. Students who didn’t do their homework were (mostly) silent, and most everyone got the notes done in 15 minutes. On the other side of the room, we whiteboarded 3 or 4 different examples, and checked many by comparing our work to the PhET Energy Skatepark simulation online (http://bit.ly/energyskater). Some classes had the best discussions we’ve had all year long.

Maybe it’s about the routine we established, maybe it’s because we have a test tomorrow, maybe it’s just that I was so determined to stay nice and easy chill no matter what happened. But things just clicked. ##Setbacks as learning opportunities, I guess…



Measuring Force Pairs

We always do an experiment where we smash two carts (one “red” and one “blue”) together and measure the force they exert on each other. We try a few different situations and – lo and behold – FRedOnBlue is always equal and opposite to FBlueOnRed. But this year I wanted to try to expand the situations beyond just those two carts. (This was inspired by an activity in Eugenia’s PUM Dynamics module, btw.)

Here are students trying to simulate a car crashing into a “brick wall”. We’ll make this measurement, and check how FWallOnCar compares to FCarOnWall.

There were three of these in the packet I wrote, the two shown here, and “A truck smashed a bug while driving on the highway.” I wish I could turn students loose to play and test on their own, but it would truly be a madhouse…

##bfm ##physicsfirst ##pum


Killing It…

I’m sitting here on Halloween day grading Thursday’s test, and feeling a need to congratulate a few people. So, congratulations to the students who are KILLING IT on this test, first of all (and there are quite a few). And secondly, congratulations to me…

Anyone who has corresponded with me about last year knows that it was a total mess. I was continually frustrated by students unwillingness to practice and learn the most basic procedures, let alone do real thinking and scientific heavy lifting. This caused me to drastically lower my expectations for the course, making even the students who found the ideas challenging and exciting bored out of their skulls. (Note the Halloween-themed language here!)

This year ain’t a cakewalk, but it IS fundamentally different. Not only are kids practicing the procedures that make up our extensive “balance force model” toolkit, I see them using these procedures in creative analytical ways. On this test, for example, you see a student choosing a different positive direction for two different situations, to make his own analysis more straightforward, and carefully choosing the lengths of his force diagram arrows to match the magnitude of the forces.

This kind of work was unheard of last year… Now I’m seeing it over and over again. Again, not a cakewalk BUT still amazingly satisfying.

Happy Halloween!!

##bfpm ##physicsfirst ##struggle


Being Active and Sum of Forces

I’ve been trying lately to look for any excuse I can find to get students out of their seats, even for a few minutes. Students need practice with the basic skills that show up on assessments, but if we’re just doing that practice all the time things get monotonous and students get restless.

Today I wanted to practice using a “sum of forces equation” to solve for an unknown force with an example about struggling to lift a file cabinet. To get into this, we spent 15 minutes reviewing sum of forces with the PhET Forces Basic simulation (http://bit.ly/phetforce), then I asked student to stand up. One student in each pair sat on a table, and the other student tried to lift the table. Not easy to do!!

Then we turned back to the example at hand (our silent “Check-In” to start the class), shown below.

For whatever reason students have a hard time figuring out that the person is pulling up on the cabinet even when the cabinet doesn’t budge. Many leave the force exerted by the person off the force diagram completely, because they don’t see the “lifting” actually happen.

Then we put a real filing cabinet on a force plate, and try to lift it. This student pulled up a bit, said “This is mad heavy!!” And gave up a bit, then took another shot and lifted it up all the way off the scale. This graph couldn’t be a more beautiful illustration of this!!

##physicsfirst ##bfpm



Things have been going far, far better than last year, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t go better still… We’re trying to move kids from a mindset where the teacher is the only person in charge of keeping order in the class (including giving “demerits” for unwanted behavior) to a system where kids feel accountable to each other, and ultimately to their own future.

These forms are one step toward this, I hope. We used them for the first time today. I showed students the form and asked for volunteers who would simply watch what was going on. No judgements, just honest feedback.

I haven’t totally thought through what to do with these. I just posted them one by one at the end of class, in silence, and asked students to reflect. I’ll keep them every day, and look for patterns after we’ve collected data for a while.

I would LOVE to hear others’ thoughts on next steps, or how to revise the project!