Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.


Inquiry Stylee: The Grand Narrative

I’m bored with myself.

I see the same issues creep up each time I teach physics. I’m not really complaining though, just trying to get better.

The kids enjoy the inquiry system. The kids get the SBG system (after a few weeks, anyway). The kids hopefully get that I care about learning, only learning, and nothing by the learning.

However, the generation of open inquiry ideas is often challenging. Some students just sit and stare at blank pages trying to think of something fun or interesting to do. This is the frustrating part.

The State of the Stylee:

I introduce a guided investigation, this is often something intentionally simple and lame. The kids then poke holes in my trite little activity and move on to create more interesting experiments. This lasts about a week.

We then spend the subsequent week pulling all the ideas together with modeling, direct instruction, demos, simulations, practice problems, or what have you.

Rinse and repeat. (I shaved my head recently, but I somehow can’t stop using shampoo. Weird, huh?)

It works, but I want better than “it works.”

I want a better narrative. I want some that goes emeffing POW at the end. I want something that makes it about story arc instead of: “Ok, well you guys did a great job investigating torque, let’s do momentum now.”

They acquiesce easily, but is that what I want?

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey

What better place to get a quality story arc from than, well, a story. My first thought is to build the class around the Clarke’s book, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Clarke spends a predominant amount of the book describing with fantastical prose the processes of celestial mechanics along with many basic physical principles.

He begins with proto-human man-apes. They discover some simple machines by clubbing each other with bones. There are other beautiful passages that describe the acceleration of man trying to live in a space station. He even spends time explaining how artificial gravity works, and it all is from an experiential persepective set within the narrative.

Why would we care to listen to Clarke’s diatribe on acceleration? Because he uses a comical scene akin to someone earning their sea legs.

There are objections though. 2001 has a wildly fictional evolutionary tint to it. This is asking for at least some raised eyebrows.

2. Piloting My Automobile:

I recently posted a thoroughly mediocre WCYDWT about my Honda Pilot’s gas tank. There’s just something about cars. Most people interact with one on a daily basis, but few rarely question how the hundreds of thousands of interlocking parts really work.

The engineering masterpiece that is the modern car is a veritable cornucopia-treasure-trove-mother-lode of physics context:

How does an engine work?

How does the timing belt tensioner work?

How does the radio work?

What makes for a comfortable seat?

Are SUV’s safer in the winter?

Are red cars really faster?

The list goes on forever. For-Eh-Vur. These are all student-generated questions, and I think you can see how differentiation is natural when using this kind of rich instigator. The tensioner question is obviously from a student who knows about cars. The seat question, while not as technical, requires a separate but awesome set of understandings to answer. The color question, well, I’m glad they’re in school.

I’ve been thinking about running my entire course based around cars. I’ve been talking to junkyards to see if they’ll donate us something barely working to have as a “lab.” Does anyone have any ideas about getting this kind of resource?

This idea also sprouted from some research done recently at the University of Iowa College of Education. A dissertation was just published that followed the winners of the Intel Scholarship for budding scientists. The findings of the research indicated that each winner had, at some point, spent a serious amount of time ripping things apart and trying to make them better/fix them. On it.

I’m Late to the VParty: VPython

No matter what, I plan to implement a much healthier dose of VPython into my next physics iteration. This was championed to me by the ineffable Frank Noschese (pronounced Nose-Cheese, not really).

Red Ball = perfect collision

Blue Ball = 10% loss of Kinetic Energy on each collision.

This video is of a program that took me five minutes to write. Well, it should have taken me five minutes to write considering I stole most of the code from an example, but it took me all morning, because on lines 6 and 9 I didn’t realize that I should have made the y-velocity a floating point number instead of an integer. #rookiemistake

from visual import *

floor = box(length=4, height=0.5, width=4,

ball = sphere(pos=(1,4,0),
ball.velocity = vector(0,-1.0,0)

ball2 = sphere(pos=(-1,4,0),
ball2.velocity = vector(0,-1.0,0)

dt = 0.01
while True:
    ball.pos = ball.pos + ball.velocity*dt
    ball2.pos = ball2.pos + ball2.velocity*dt
    if ball.y < 1:
        ball.velocity.y = -ball.velocity.y
        ball.velocity.y = ball.velocity.y - 9.8*dt

    if ball2.y < 1:
        ball2.velocity.y = -0.9*ball2.velocity.y 
        ball2.velocity.y = ball2.velocity.y - 9.8*dt

Anyhoo, if you know anything about programming, you know that making something animate in 3D can take piles of work. With VPython the library of 3D objects and their methods are given to you. I don’t know who wrote the library, but I am indebted to them.

Here’s the link, if you want to start playing with VPython. (Click on your appropriate OS, then download Python and install it, then download VPython and install it. Finally, open up VIDLE, which should have installed with VPython and get going with one of the pre-loaded examples.)

My goal with VPython is to make the equations of physics more accessible. The inquiry we do teaches largely laboratory skills, and it also teaches the kind of thought necessary to have an idea and turn it into a real breathing experiment.

However, many times, the more fundamental physics can be obscured by the noisiness of the real world.

So, my job is two-fold: get the students to respect the organic noisiness of nature (via inquiry), and get them to understand how simple algebra, like F=ma, can describe almost everything (via VPython).

What’s It All Mean, Basil?

I’m not really sure what to do with the book idea. Read the whole thing? Have students pull investigation ideas from story time with Mr. Cornally? Get a whole class set?

I’m also not so sure where to get a car. I kind of feel like I’d need a few, because some investigations may preclude other investigations from running simultaneously. Hmm. I don’t want students using their own cars, obviously.

Where will I put several nearly derelict vehicles?

Let me know what you think. No swearing, please.

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Shawn Cornally • February 26, 2011

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