Month: July 2011

Teaching Girls: RoleModels/Mentors

All of my posts so far have been about teaching physics. It’s time I wrote a bit about the other tagline for this blog and something equally important to me – teaching girls. That’s what I do. I teach at an independent day school for girls. And in the time I have been here, I’ve learned a bit about best practices when teaching young women, particularly as it applies to the sciences. I was skeptical at first, but the research around single-sex education and the benefits it provides girls is pretty convincing. I started with Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. The work they did at Carnegie Mellon is impressive and I recommend checking this out if you teach any STEM field, but particularly if you teach computer science. Additionally, the Tech-Savvy report put out by the American Association of University Women is another great starting place. I’m far from an expert, but there are a few things that I think I understand pretty well by now.

According to the research, the success of girls and women in science (along with math, technology and engineering) is improved when the following four components are part of their education: mentors/role models, tinkering, collaboration, and purposeful work. While these things can have a positive influence on both male and female students, they have been shown to be especially effective with young women. The inclusion of these components leads more young women to enroll in, succeed at and remain in scientific fields. Today I want to write about the importance of mentors/role models and provide a bit of anecdotal evidence about their effectiveness.

Role Models

One of the things that makes it easier for us to succeed at a difficult task is if the path has been blazed by others before us. These people show us that difficult tasks can be done and that people like us can do them. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson explains this far better than I ever could. (Skip to around 29:30 for an amazing story.)

And of course, if that doesn’t move you, take the words of zombie Marie Curie (via xkcd).  Seriously, those words in her last post are powerful words for a young woman to hear from someone. “Remember that if you want to do this stuff, you’re not alone.” Very often, they are alone. Either as the lone girl in an advanced physics class or the only female student showing up for robotics club, these young women with interests in topics already on the fringe of their peer group can feel alienated by those very interests since their gender singles them out from everyone else in the room. As all of us nerds know, being the only one like you can be tough to handle, especially as a teenager. It makes us question the values of our interests and of our abilities. Those questions and doubts can drive young women away from pursuing interests in science both in high school and beyond.

An easy way to combat this is to give girls role models. Show them women like themselves, that have achieved success in scientific fields. You can talk about Lise Meitner or Emily Noether as xkcd suggests, but what about Admiral Grace HopperVera Rubin, Mae Jemison, or Zaha Hadid? Let the stories you share run the gamut of accomplishments. Don’t only talk about the superstars. Share stories of former students, alums of your school or the college you attended, or even the teachers in your building. Give the young women in your care a view of science that includes people like them and they will be more likely to see themselves as capable of succeeding in science.


Another effective means of engaging girls is to put them in touch with mentors who can guide them and share those personal triumphs and challenges with them. By having someone who will engage them within their own area of interest, it lends value to what they are doing. While this can be students or professors from a local university, folks at an amateur astronomy club, or a hackerspace in your city, it can also be you. I’m assuming you got into teaching science because of a personal interest in it. If you’ve moved away from that over the years due to being a full-time teacher, rekindle that passion and spend time learning with your students beyond the confines of a textbook or classroom. That might sound crazy in our current culture that doesn’t seem to trust teachers a lot, but let me share a personal story that might hopefully convince you of the effects of a strong mentoring relationship.

Two years ago, nRT was a student in my honors physics class. I’m pretty sure she signed up for it because everyone told her it would look good on her college transcript and she had take honors chemistry the year before. She was a great student and really took to the modeling instruction that I used in class. Late in the year, after our class finished up circuits, nRT came to my office after class and said “Hey, I want to learn about integrated circuits? Will you teach me?” Now, April is not exactly a relaxing time of year. Seniors grades were coming due, APs were around the corner and I was trying to get a podcasting project worked out for my remaining juniors. It would have been so easy to just push some resources at her, tell her to read them and then move on to more pressing matters. But I didn’t. Instead, I said “Well, I need to rework some of the material for my engineering technology class for next year, but I’ll be doing that work over the summer. If you’re interested, we can do some work throughout the summer months.”

And to my surprise, she went for it. The next three months involved us meeting about once a week at the school to discuss experiments from Make:Electronics. When vacations intervened, we kept in touch through email and Google Docs. nRT spent her own money on equipment and supplies and as we learned together, it quickly became apparent that she would master the content of my engineering class before the start of school. So, I raised the stakes and asked her to be a teaching assistant for the class. She was enthusiastic and excited and as the class launched the following spring, she quickly became my wingman helping me to manage questions, providing wisdom to the students new to the material and helping them to troubleshoot their own work. And then she surpassed me.

After sharing this video of an LED cube with her, she decided that she wanted to build her own. So she did. As part of her senior project, she and another student worked as interns at a local engineering firm where they designed and built LIGHT (Luminous Ingenuity Generation Human Tracker), a 6-foot LED board that tracked human movement. By the end of their time there, nRT and her friend had been offered summer jobs. And along the way, she applied to and was accepted at MIT to study engineering. All this from a young woman, who in her own words, “was not much into science – it all seemed sort of lackluster and boring”. Those words came from a personal thank you she wrote at the end of the year. I won’t share it all with you, but in it, she makes clear the effect the mentoring relationship had on her.

The mentor relationship is one that takes time. There’s no way around that. And I can’t tell you how to find the time for this type of relationship in your already busy day, filled with classes, grading, coaching, meetings and your own family. All I can do is try to convince you of how important it is and how it can change the life of the young women in your classes.


I Love Lab Practicums and So Should You

I love lab practicums. If you don’t use modeling instruction, the name may have a different meaning for you. In modeling, a lab practicum is a deployment activity in which students are asked to use the model they have developed to accomplish a specific task. Ideally, the arbiter of success in the task is Mother Nature. They might be graded, might not be, but they always provide students feedback on their understanding of the model being studied.

The classic example in modeling is the constant velocity buggy crash (aka the two-train problem) Having already determined the velocity of their own buggy while developing the constant velocity model, each group is paired with a second. They are challenged to use the constant velocity model to determine where the two buggies will collide if they are started at opposite ends of a horizontal ramp. They cannot run both carts together until they have made their prediction and are ready to test it. The excitement and enthusiasm students show for these activities is infectious and the assessment of their knowledge is raw and honest. They can’t hide from it. Either the cars collide where they predicted or they don’t.

As part of the #physicsmtg that I took part in, we brainstormed and shared alternate practicums that we could use for many of the modeling units. Here is a list of some of the ideas tossed around: Lab Practicum Ideas. This is only a quick list and some of the names may seem strange. If you’re curious about any of them that I don’t cover below, just leave a comment. We also looked at Practicums for Physics Teachers by Henry Ryan and John E. Barber.

Friday afternoon, we decided to setup and test two different practicums and a demo that many of us hadn’t seen. Here are some quick descriptions that should allow you to utilize these in your own classroom.

1. Two Ramp Race (for Constant Force Model)

Kelly O’Shea shared a practicum with us that she had originally learned about from Matt Greenwolfe.

Start with one ramp already set up at a 10° angle and the other at 5º. Tell the students that you will start the cart on the 10º ramp one meter from the bottom. They have to determine where to start the cart on the 5º ramp, so that the two cars reach the bottom at the same time. You might let them run each cart separately or require them to just use their models to make predictions, but the test of their knowledge comes at the moment they place both carts on the ramps and let them go.

I like this one for two reasons. First, it’s a natural continuation from the constant velocity (crashing buggies) and the constant acceleration (race down the ramp) practicums. Second, it’s clear cut and requires students to demonstrate understanding of the core principles of the constant force and constant acceleration models.

2. Simultaneous Collision (for Conservation of Momentum Model)

Mark Hammond set this one up, but I neglected to snap pics. In this practicum, two low-friction plunger carts are placed on a dynamics track centered between two bumpers. To minimize the mathematical difficulty and emphasize the physics concepts, choose a total distance between bumpers such that the total distance covered by the carts is a round number (e.g. 50 cm). That is the total distance between bumpers would be 50 cm plus the total length of both carts end to end. Deploy the plungers and the carts will strike the bumpers at the same time creating clearly audible simultaneous sounds.

At this point, provide masses that are equal to the mass of the cart, so that the students can double, triple, etc. the mass of either cart. Give them time to experiment with the setup and discover the pattern rather than directing this part of the process. Once they feel that they have determined a predictive pattern, test them one final time by making one of the carts have a mass of 1.5m. If they can’t accomplish this, send them back to the drawing board rather than moving them on to the final stage.

The challenge arises when you next provide the students with a rock and ask them to use the setup to determine its mass. They may use a balance to measure the mass of the carts, but not the mass of the rock. By drawing on the predictive model they have built, along with their knowledge of conservation of momentum, they should be able to determine the unknown mass.

I find momentum-related practicums to be difficult to make exciting without expensive ballistic pendula or car crashes. This one is easily affordable and challenges students to reverse the application of a model in the same way as the Matching the Beat pendulum practicum does. The scaffolding in it is well done and customizable to the class that you are teaching. If students need the practice, do each of the instances above. If your class is full of super-stars, drop all or nearly all of it. I think that I’d like more practicums that I do to have this scaffolding feature.

3. The Tin Foil Capacitor (for Electrostatics model)

Frank Noschese led us through his awesome tin foil capacitor demo and we discussed how to develop this into a practicum. Check out Frank’s post (linked above) for a video demo of the setup. This is a great demo that can be used to look at the distribution of charges on the surface of a conductor. Electrostatics is very light on practicums and I think that there is one lurking in here somewhere, particularly if you roll it up with an insulator sandwiched between the layers of the roll (thanks for the idea, Frank!). This could get at capacitance and how it depends on area. I need to think on this one more over the summer and try it myself.

When it comes to assessing with practicums, the teachers in the room had a wide variety of practices. For instance, Kelly and Mark use the Two Ramp Race as a test in their class. The setup is in one room and when the students are ready to try, they can enter and test their predictions. On the other side of the fence, I tend not to grade practicums and only provide verbal feedback about their process both during and after the activity. Of course, since adopting standards based grading, I’m thinking that these practicums would make ideal moments to score students on the relevant standards. It would provide one more data point for them to measure their progress.

So, modelers, what are your favorite lab practicums?

Edit: Due to my non-existent Latin skills.

Modeling Workshop Year 2

The second year modeling workshop has been over for three days now. I’m rested, catching up on yard work and getting ready for the next trip. So, did I learn anything useful? Was it worth it? Would I recommend it to others? Yes, yes and absolutely.

Did I learn anything useful? – I learned a lot during this workshop. First, the more focused on your field/passions/interests that your professional development is, the more useful and meaningful it will be to you. While I can appreciate the big, whole-school, day-long workshops, it’s difficult to address the concerns of a primary music teacher, middle school math teacher and upper school Spanish teacher all at the same time. If you can manage it, get your school to devote some of its PD dollars and meeting times to targeting specific groups (e.g. grade level, subject, tech).

More specifically on the modeling front, I learned how to unshackle myself from the Big Red Binder (aka the 1st year modeling curriculum from ASU). The first year sets participants up with a wide array of units of study, including labs, teacher notes and assessments. But after you’ve used modeling for a while, you want to go beyond that initial curriculum. My AP Physics C class hasn’t been where I wanted it to be, and part of the reason is because I didn’t know how to create my own modeling unit for the topics we were studying. The 2nd Year workshop helped me to understand the nature of the modeling cycle and the narrative flow that carries the class from development of the model to deployment in a variety of ways. Constructing our own unit, as well as being students for the five other groups in the workshop, showed me the many forms that modeling can take while still maintaining the same important structure.

Was it worth it? –  Hells yes! Spending three weeks working intensely with colleagues that care enough to give up three weeks of their own summer just to be better at their job is pretty rewarding. When is the last time you participated in a PD opportunity where everyone wanted to be there? And, when you made that nerdy physics pun, everyone got it and laughed? And to see what these people created and to get their feedback on your own work was an opportunity not to be missed. But rather than speak in generalities, let me show you what everyone did:

Rotation (My group)


Forces (for 9th grade physical science)

Measurement (for 8th grade physical science)

Acids & Bases


Or if you want them all, here’s a link to the entire collection.

Feel free to peruse the files, use what you want and modify what you can. Everyone was happy to share their work and some folks even included contact info in case future users had questions. (Update: I forgot to mention that these units have not been tested in a classroom yet, so please consider that when looking over them.)

While everything was great, I should be fair and discuss pitfalls in case someone reading this is thinking of attending the second year. The only bad part about the workshop is being away from home for three weeks. Okay, the unending stream of lunchmeat wasn’t the best either, but at least it was free. Since the workshop was held in central Ohio, it means that I had to stay in Columbus each week. Being away from your family and home that long can take its toll if you aren’t used to it. However, if you’re lucky enough to live close to a workshop then you’re only looking at a small commute. If you’ve done the first year though, you probably already know this.

Would I recommend it to others? – Anyone that has taken the first year workshop should absolutely take the second year. It will strengthen you as a modeler and give you an opportunity to get feedback on your work from other teachers who use modeling instruction. Make the time to attend.

If by chance, you just can’t get enough reading about modeling workshops, check out the running posts over at Salt the Oats from a 1st year participant. The level of detail in his posts is amazing.