Modeling Workshop: Behind the Curtain

I’ve been using modeling instructional methods for the past five years in my physics classes. My first experience was in a one-day teaser workshop, which I followed up with the full first year mechanics workshop. A few years later, I returned for the second year advanced workshop which focuses on teaching you how to take the modeling framework and use it to develop your own materials. Now, two years after that, I’m back again, only this time, I’m co-leading a mechanics workshop in Columbus, OH.

The idea of introducing a room full of my colleagues to modeling instruction and teaching them how to use it in their classrooms is intimidating and exciting at the same time. Tomorrow is the first day of the workshop and it primarily involves introductions, the distribution of materials and paperwork, but we may have time to start on the ball bounce intro lab. Our plan for the next three weeks looks something like this:

  • Intro Modeling Units (Ball Bounce and Pendulum)
  • Constant Velocity Model (Buggy Investigation and Game of Chicken)
  • Constant Acceleration Model (Cart on Ramp and Police Chase)
  • Balanced Force Model (Hover Disk, Modified Atwood Machine and Force Table)
  • Unbalanced Force Model (Wiggling Force Detector, Modified Atwood Machine and Atwood Machine)
  • Energy Transfer Model (Kelly’s Intro to Energy and Energy Transfer Lab)
  • All pretty standard, but that’s because it’s all great stuff and it works to introduce new folks to how their classrooms will change.

    One of the great things about modeling workshops is the distinction between student mode and teacher mode. For much of their time here, we ask the participants to work in student mode, acting as if they were students in a physics class, making mistakes and asking questions that they think their own kids will in the fall. We, the facilitators, use this to show how to navigate the issues raised by students (including pushback). By going through this themselves, the participants see how to transform their students from passive sponges to active participants in their own learning. We give plenty of time for teacher mode though, in which the participants reflect on the experience and how it will need to be modified for their own classroom setting. The three weeks we spend together here can be intense, but I’m hoping that each of the teachers, who have chosen to give up part of their summer for this experience, finds it rewarding and transformative.


    Screencasting (Proof of Concept)

    Inspired by the awesome ways in which Andy Rundquist has been using screencasts with his students (here, here and here), I decided to try to adopt this technique with my small class of six AP Physics students this year. I’ve always likened grading to a strange form of archeology, one in which the teacher works to unearth understanding from the artifact of student learning that is a written assessment. Too many times, students have come to me with a marked up paper and said “But I really meant….” or I see a final numerical answer that is correct and it is built on incorrect physics concepts. Instead of relying on only the written work, screencasts require the student to present their written work and narrate their solution. You might think of it as an asynchronous oral exam.

    I’d decided to pilot this now as our school is transitioning to a 1-to-1 laptop program. In another two years, all of my students will have this technology available daily and I want to find meaningful ways to utilize it. For the first test run, I assigned a lab problem involving the Flying Pig (available from Science Kit & Boreal Labs).


    In class, I set up the flying pig, timed it as it made 10 revolutions and then put the stopwatch in my pocket. Given a meterstick, the students made measurements of the pig and it’s motion. For their first screencast, the students had to determine what the reading on the stopwatch was. The students signed up for Jing accounts and executed the assignment without any real trouble. They reported that the act of talking to themselves was awkward and that their nervousness caused them to spend time practicing the presentation, so that overall the assignment likely added about 10-15 minutes of extra work.

    We had our second run at these two weeks ago. After introducing the dynamics of simple harmonic motion, I assigned a pretty standard AP problem (Knight, Chapter 14, #49) that involves a box attached to a horizontal spring on a frictionless surface. A second box rests on top and the students need to find the coefficient of static friction between the boxes that is required to keep the top block from slipping off as the system oscillates. This time, I specifically asked the girls to send me only the link to their screencast via email. The results were again great. This time, they were less nervous and had navigated the setup of Jing, so the screencast took less time and the narration sounded more confident. In both cases, I was able to pick up on some misconceptions including ones that might not have come across only in written work.

    For the second run, I also made screencasts providing feedback for the work they did on their screencasts. As I listened to the student’s narration, I scribbled down notes, sometimes including timestamps, and then simply checked these off as I recorded feedback. The process of “grading” these screencasts was quick and easy, but I ran into some snags with the workflow involved in sharing the feedback-casts with the students. As it stands now, my workflow looks like this:

    • Receive link to screencast from student by email.
    • Watch their screencast, making notes as I listen.
    • Open Jing, record feedback with their original screencast open in the background.
    • Upload the feedback-cast to my account.
    • Get the link for that cast.
    • Reply to the original email with the link to feedback.

    The process felt cumbersome as I worked through the class, so I’m looking for ways to make it more efficient. The shuffling of emails back and forth will have to go, as that is not scalable if I want to expand this next year to include more of my classes. Downloading the .swf files to my computer only to upload them to a Dropbox or Haiku (our LMS) leads to folders of files that I’d like to avoid. However, I may decide on a folder for each student that is on a shared drive or available via Google Drive. As the year progresses, the student and I could build a “set” of screencasts for each assignment – her original and my feedback which she could refer to throughout the year or even use in a digital portfolio.

    The other thing I’m trying to figure out is how to implement these in class. Right now, I’m thinking about a screencast per week involving a challenging homework problem, perhaps randomly selected from that week’s homework. The problem would correspond to a learning objective and be scored. Of course, this starts to bring up the possibility of students working together outside of class, so I still need to sort that out. I’ll see if I can post an example of student work and my feedback soon.

    Guest Post: Student Research Journal

    I want to give this space over to a student of mine for a guest post about the amazing work she has done. Anamika, a junior in my honors physics class, is the founder and editor-in-chief of a student-led, peer reviewed research journal and website. The work she has done is amazing and I’m proud of her not only for following her passion for science, but finding a way to help other kids follow theirs too. I’ll turn the rest of this over to her. Please take the time to visit her site, look around and share this with your students and colleagues.

    I am Anamika Veeramani and I am the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of En Kephalos Science Journal for high school students. En Kephalos Science Journal (ekteenscience.com) is a start-up science journal in which high school students are given the opportunity to publish – and publicize – their work in and knowledge of scientific research. Because virtually no other journal like this exists for this audience, our publication is set to be unique and will take the level of research exposure beyond science fairs and into a broader scientific community. Please refer to our website for examples of published articles and feel free to contact me at anamika@ekteenscience.com for more information.

     If you know of students who would be interested in having their research writings considered for publication, please encourage them to send any of the four types (listed below) to submit@ekteenscience.com for publication consideration; if you think that they would be more interested in filling a position on our editorial board, please have them send an email to apply@ekteenscience.com for an application.  Submissions should be the original work of the author and should not have been previously published elsewhere or be under consideration for publication elsewhere. Please remember that all of the submission types except for articles do not have to be on the original research work of the author; only the writing is required to be original.

     Submission Types Accepted

    • Letters (not to be confused with letters to the editor) are original short descriptions of important current research findings that are usually fast-tracked for immediate publication because they are considered urgent.
    • Research notes are original short descriptions of current research findings that are considered “less urgent” than Letters.
    • Articles are usually between five and twenty pages and are complete descriptions of current original research findings. The research conducted has to be the original work of the author.
    • Review articles do not cover original research but accumulate the results of many different articles on a particular topic into a cohesive narrative about the new research in that field. Review articles provide information about the topic and also provide journal references to the original research. They may be entirely narrative, or may provide quantitative summary estimates resulting from the application of meta-analytical methods. 

    Website: http://ekteenscience.com/

    Standards Based Grading Presentation

    This year marks the third year of standards based grading (SBG) in the physics classes at my school. Each year, my colleague and I have modified and refined the particulars of our implementation of SBG and I’m optimistic about how the students will receive it this year. The introduction to SBG, that moment when you have to sell the class on this “different” way of doing things is always tough. I spent a good nine months reading, researching and preparing before jumping in, so I’m not surprised that it take students some time to warm up to the idea.

    To help with the initial communication of what grades look like in our classes, we’ve moved from a lengthy two page document to a Prezi that guides students (or parents that want to watch it) through three central questions:

    1. What does a grade mean?
    2. How do you calculate grades?
    3. How do I improve my grade?

    What’s in a Grade? (Sorry, WordPress won’t let me easily embed a Prezi. Click through and you can watch it.)

    Take a look at it and if you have any feedback on the structure or flow of information I’d love to hear it. I’ve made it public, so you can copy and modify it as you wish. I should probably add attributions for the pics, but it’s late.

    A New Year

    I almost titled this post A New Hope as that’s how I feel after the first week of classes – hopeful. Then I thought that nerdy joke wasn’t really that funny, but now I’ve told you anyways, so it definitely wasn’t funny…ah, forget it.

    Today marks my first week back – both to the classroom and to blogging. Last year was really tough. It was full of rocky classroom dynamics, the loss of a student and an unwanted shift in my job responsibilities. I stayed away from more long form writing as I didn’t want this to turn into a blog full of frustrations and complaints. The point of blogging is to be reflective though, so I need to write about what went well and what didn’t last year. I’ll get to that eventually, but for now, I’m looking to reflect about this first week back and why I’m hopeful.

    One of the things that has me most excited is the new class I’m teaching – astronomy! I’ve patiently waited for five years to teach this class as it “belonged” to another colleague who really did a great job with it. With his retirement, my time in the batter’s box has come to an end. This being my first time planning the course, I had a million ideas about what I wanted to do in the single semester allotted to me. Astronomy has been a passion of mine since I was a kid and I wanted to convey that sense of awe and wonder that comes with understanding the universe around us. The course is an elective though, so a portion of the students take the class just to fill a science elective. I knew that I had to hit them early and with something they weren’t expecting, so I decided to lead with the Space episode of Radiolab.

    It was a hit. Ann Druyan talking about falling in love with Carl Sagan during the Voyager project, Neil deGrasse Tyson pointing out that we are “a speck on a speck on a speck” and feeling connected to the universe because of that, the story of an elementary classroom’s seeds and how they were touched by not one, but two, shuttle disasters – these are the stories of people who seek to understand the universe and their stories touched and inspired a number of my students. Many of them reflected on this during our discussion and I think, I hope, they are starting to see astronomy (and all of science) as just one more human endeavor that they can take part in.

    This year has also brought some changes to my implementation of standards based grading (SBG, SBAR, LOBAR, just pick your favorite acronym). I’ve been at it for two years now and have learned a lot. First, it’s challenging to shift the focus of students away from grades and on to learning. It’s especially difficult to do it with juniors and seniors for whom grades are one of many keys that will unlock the door to their hopes, dreams and first-choice college. Secondly, I think I did a crappy job of implementing SBG during the first two years. My version was plagued by too much subjectivity, too much back pedaling and not managing the student-initiated assessment procedure well enough. So, two years are behind me, but I’m feeling good about this year. Up until this point, it’s only been myself and @mjbrogers riding the SBG train in our physics classes. However, in these past two weeks, I’ve had the chance to speak with four other teachers about how they might use SBG in their classrooms. Each is at a different stage and wants to try different things, but the possibility is there. It gives me hope that others not only see similar deficiencies in traditional grading, but that they are willing to act to change things. That hope makes my first steps into my third year of SBG a bit lighter and a bit easier to take.

    There is a ton more I want to write about – the second year of physics teacher camp, my move to being department co-chair, the view of STEM in all-girls schools, piloting screencasts of homework in AP (Superfly style) and more. I’m pacing myself though. This post was a warmup and it felt good to write again. I’m promising myself that I’ll be back here once a week. Think of it as a #36blog, as I can’t seem to manage a #180blog. I think it’s going to be a great 36 weeks.

    Some quick thoughts

    I haven’t put a big post together in a bit and I really need to get to that. I have a growing list of ideas that includes: three other posts about teaching girls, using modeling in history, modeling instruction in middle school (may be a guest post), and I still haven’t said a word about SBG. Too many thoughts…too little time.

    Until I write something more substantial, I have the following kernels of ideas that I haven’t really developed further, so I’m letting them loose in the wilds of the internet to see if they survive. I need to record them before I forget them (again!), so here they are.

    1. If you spend your first day of class discussing grades, don’t be surprised when that’s what kids focus on. I tweeted this a week or so ago, when it first came to me while discussing with a colleague how our first week went. Traditionally, the first day is spent establishing the expectations of the class which often means going over the syllabus. If you haven’t taken John Burk’s Inspiring Syllabus Challenge, then much of your syllabus is probably about grading. Dumping grading info on kids on day one suggests that you think its a priority, and now they do too. So, I didn’t do that. In fact, this week was the first time one of my classes talked about grading. We’ve spent the last two and a half weeks learning. We’ll see if this changes the dynamic around grades.

    2. If you start a student’s grade at a 100, then their grade is a record of their mistakes. If you start it at a 0, then their grade is a record of their growth. This came up organically in class when a student mentioned starting the class at a 100. Often teachers will claim that a student starts at a 100% at the beginning of a class. The ridiculousness of that idea really hit me this year. If the grade is meant to reflect how much and how well you know the content, then why would a student who has never taken the class and has yet to show you any indication of their knowledge have a 100? There’s only one reason – you gave it to them. It’s no surprise then that they think you gave them that C- on their first quiz or that 89% instead of a 90% on their final. If you can wrap your mind around the idea of a student starting with a 100%, then their grade is really just a tally sheet of each and every mistake they make. However, if their grade starts naturally at a zero, then subsequent scores tell the story of what they’ve learned.

    We’re Too Good At What We Do

    I want to try and lay some of the problems with the current educational model at the feet of an unlikely culprit – efficiency. And strangely enough, I think the cause is that we’re too efficient at the job of educating a massive amount of our population. In our culture, more people are demanding to know more stuff in less time, so that they can go on to college/get a good job. In order to meet this demand, educators, and those that help us manage our institutions, have had to be more efficient. But unfortunately, as the level of efficiency improves, the quality of the product goes down.

    This isn’t far-fetched. Consider the trends of our food production in the United States. The food that is most efficiently produced consistently is of lower quality than food that requires more time and resources. McDonalds feeds 58 million people everyday. That is a staggering accomplishment. I am honestly in awe of an organization that can do this day after day. However, in order to do this, they have to decrease the quality of their ingredients to make it affordable yet profitable, cook in a manner that is fast but unhealthy so that all of those people can eat and deemphasize their concern about the environmental impact of their food producers so that they can meet demand. I’m not casting judgement on these acts, as McDonalds would not be able to feed so many without taking these steps. What I will question is whether or not regular consumption of their product is beneficial.

    How does this manifest in education? In the US, there are currently 65 million people enrolled in public schools and they need to be educated every day. This is an equally impressive task. But how do we meet this demand? First, in order to get the information to the largest number of students in the smallest time, we rely on lecturing. Sit quietly and pay attention so that everyone has a chance to hear. Next, we need to know how all of these students are doing, but grading 65 million assessments takes a long time. So, we develop some efficient ways of quickly assessing them and giving them feedback – multiple choice, true/false, and plug-n-chug problems are much more efficient than narrative reflections, projects or portfolios. With the push to cover more content (after all, you need class X to get into college), we must spend less time on each topic so that students can learn all they need too. Thus classes focus on breadth of exposure over depth of understanding. All these decisions are starting to seem strangely familiar to me, and I have to wonder, is the education we’re providing beneficial to our students? I think the answer is yes and no.

    Does the education they receive provide them with what they need to survive in the world? Yes. Just as a diet of fast food provides enough nutrition to live. Does it provide them with a high quality of life? I’m not so sure.

    Just as with McDonalds though, I’m not casting aspersions at those involved in education. On the contrary, I think we should be applauded for providing a daily education to 65 million students (::pat on the back::). Thinking about these ideas, I realize that those who make these decisions that we as teachers deem damaging to students aren’t doing so maliciously nor are they being obstinate. The people that brought us to this point and those that want to keep us here are just prioritizing a different problem. They are attempting to answer the question of “How do we provide as many people as possible as much knowledge as possible in a reasonable amount of time?”. Any answer to that necessarily drives down the quality when you are dealing with the numbers and scope that we are. As teachers though, we’re trying to answer “How do I give the absolute best education I can to the students in my care?”. Smaller numbers, different scope. We are ready to slow down and spend more time with each student, but we can’t do that and remain efficient in the system outlined above.

    If you’ve read this long and are expecting an answer, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I’m still wrestling with these ideas myself. Looking at this problem through this different lens though may help us see solutions that we hadn’t considered before.