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.

Theory v. Experiment

Ah, it’s an age old debate in physics departments – theory or experiment? When I was in college, it became clear to me that you needed to stake your claim as either a theorist or an experimental physicist. While both camps utilize tools of the other, they clearly each have preferred means of investigating and learning about the world. Usually, we ask our students to engage in both activities equally. First, they write up the background in their lab report, then perform some experiment, and then draw conclusions. This week, I decided to purposefully split the class into these two camps, each utilizing only half of the tools they typically have at their disposal.

The problem at hand was a classic conservation of energy problem involving a pendulum released from a height equal to its length. The pendulum swings down, encounters a peg directly beneath its support point, and then swings in a smaller arc around this peg. There’s a nice visual here. The AP Physics Lab Guide calls this the Turning Point lab and asks how high the peg can be placed so that the rope remains taut as the object swings up and over the peg. My students had this as a homework problem, so they’d had a chance to familiarize themselves with it prior to class.

I started class by explaining the theory/experiment divide amongst physicists and then splitting them along those lines. The theory group was essentially limited by not being able to make measurements. Whiteboards, diagrams, and equations were their tools. They split into smaller work groups, each trying a different approach. As they became stuck, they consulted with one another and ultimately wound up working together on a large whiteboard at one end of the room, ending up with the following results:

The experimentalists were forced to rely only on measurements. Searching the room, they found materials to build a pendulum which they began to modify. First, they overcame the trouble with the pendulum running into the string by releasing it off center. They then requested my phone so that they could level all of the components. Each time I thought they were going to get caught by some bit of uncertainty, they found a way to minimize it. Their procedure amounted to finding a lower bound where the string was definitely taut and an upper bound where it wasn’t, and then narrowing that range with multiple measurements. They used the camera on my phone to record the swings so that they could review them. Here is the apparatus that they devised:

After each group had worked through their individual methods, I had them choose a spokesperson who then presented the group’s results to the class. I gave them instructions that if asked questions, they could (and should) share the load of answering them with their group members. I found that I was able to ask some pointed questions of the group that was listening as a means to keep them engaged and responsible for understanding the work of their classmates. At the end of it, the experimentalists determined that the location of the peg was 28.5 ± 0.5 cm as measured from the support pole while the theorists found that it should be placed at 3/5L, with L being the length of the pendulum. For this particular setup, that gave a result of 27.9 cm. Success!

Some thoughts on this activity

Pros

    It’s fun and a different way to approach a lab. Rather than reading through a bunch of identical lab reports myself, the class was able to quickly (2 periods for the entire process) develop an understanding of how to solve the problem in two different ways.
    I like that it put some focus back on good lab technique. This is an AP physics class and the folks that write the AP test have made a recent push to ask questions about experimental design. In the report out, students were able to probe sources of uncertainty in the experimental design and hear about different sources of uncertainty that they may not have considered if they had written their own report.
    The more I try pulling problems off of the page, the more I like doing it. If I can keep these to two periods, they would make a great way to really investigate some of the classic physics examples that we see in texts. These can become quick lab practicums and be graded or just done for the joy of learning. (I didn’t grade this.)
    The collaboration was great even with girls being pushed outside of their comfort zone. Given the choice, many of my girls would self select into the theory group, but this forced some of them to think about ideas and work on skills they might ignore if given the choice.

Cons

    Group size. I have my biggest class of AP physics ever this year at 13. With one student absent, I had two groups of six. And while everyone was engaged, I would want to shrink the groups to perhaps four. I’m not sure how well this would scale to a larger class of say 25 or 30. I think decreasing group size would also lead to more voices. In this instance, half the class already agreed with one another when it came time to present, so it was really only two voices that we needed to hear from.
    I’m a bit worried that not every problem will have the right blend of theory and experiment. This one seemed to work well as both groups were finishing around the same time. I’m not sure how many problems will strike that balance as well as this one seemed to. What do you do with half the class if they are done in 15 minutes?

I’m looking forward to giving this a try again when I find the right problem to investigate.

Physics + Comics = Feynman

I haven’t been posting for a while, in part because I’ve been really busy with work, but also because I’ve found myself frustrated a lot this year. This blog was never meant to be a place for me to vent, so I’ve avoided it while trying to work on my courses. I’ve missed it though. Writing here last summer was enjoyable and I want to do it again, so I’m easing back into blogging the way you ease into a hot bath – slowly but with a feeling of great pleasure.

Physics is one of my great loves, but nearly equal to it is my love of comics. Reading and collecting comics has been a lifelong hobby of mine and my current collection has grown to embarrassing proportions. Like many folks, my first exposure to the artform was the super-hero genre, and while it still remains a favorite, I quickly found that comics can tell amazing stories involving mystery, fantasy, history, horror or even work as non-fictional pieces. If you want to learn more about what comics can do, I recommend Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

So why am I writing about comics on a physics and teaching blog? Recently, I finished reading a biographical work – Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick and published through First Second Books.

If you’re familiar with Richard Feynman through his famous lectures or the many popular books written by him or about him, I recommend you pick up this graphic novel. Jim Ottaviani does his research well. He includes classic Feynman moments such as Feynman cracking safes at Los Alamos, the phone call he received from the Nobel committee and his testimony to Congress regarding the Challenger disaster. But the creators also include information straight from Caltech’s archives, such as a commencement address at Caltech and the QED lectures. A speech given at Far Rockaway High School, unknown to me prior to reading this, is a personal favorite. We also sit along side Feynman as he tells stories to his children and we’re at the bedside of his first wife Arline with him as she dies. Leland Myrick’s art work makes this such a heart breaking moment that we must bear witness to it, much as Feynman himself did. So many personal and public moments of this man’s life are crafted and presented with the utmost respect and admiration by the creators that you’ll feel like you were along for many of them.

What truly struck me about this work is its ability to embrace the philosophy of Richard Feynman in conveying his ideas and life. Feynman is known for approaching many ideas from a visual/pictorial point of view. He preferred to be able to visualize what he was learning and put off calculations until the thing was understood. Myrick uses this idea as shapes and symbols float through a panel in which Feynman is working out Platonic solids in school or as he develops his famous diagrams for QED. And at times, full panels are given over to diagrammatic analogies as the “voice” of Feynman narrates his thoughts. In this excerpt from the publisher, he explains nuclear fission to a room full of people as he seemingly manipulates the atomic particles. Of special note, nearly all of the Alix Mautner lectures he gave on QED are told this way with panels being filled with rotating arrows, path integrals and squiggly lines – just as Feynman himself understood these ideas. The importance of this type of understanding is stated so clearly by Feynman himself in an exchange with Freeman Dyson. As the two men relax in a rundown motel during their cross-country drive, Feynman, while talking about professional journals being filled with his “squiggles” says,

“Because you know, I dislike talk that says there’s no picture possible … that all we need to know is how to calculate something. The power of mathematics is terrifying … and too many physicists give up trying to understand their equations. Well, I want to understand them.”

This is something I struggle with teaching my students everyday, topic after topic, but I feel they are seduced by the apparent sophistication and surety of mathematics. I need to find a way to make that doodle or squiggle on the board carry just as much weight as the equation written next to it.

This graphic novel is a fantastic work and I’ll be sure to check out the other science related work by Ottaviani and Myrick.  If you’re interested in knowing Richard Feynman better or just meeting him for the first time, you should make time to read this comic.

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.

A Work in Progress – My Teaching Philosophy

I’m mentoring a new teacher to our school this year and he recently asked me about my teaching philosophy. Our school’s website has these snazzy little bios about each of us that include a picture, contact info, a snippet from our teaching philosophy and a fun fact about ourselves. (Looking at mine, I really need to find something fun to do in my life.) In order to prep his, the teacher I’m mentoring hoped to read over mine to get an idea of what one should look like. And I’m afraid I may have failed him. My teaching philosophy is small and still a work in progress, so I’m not sure how helpful it was.

See, when I started teaching many moons ago, I didn’t know squat about instructional methods, pedagogy or assessment. So when writing my first teaching philosophy, I filled it with edujargon and things that I thought teachers were supposed to say. Looking back at it, I cringe and wonder why my current school ever decided to hire me. I’ll spare you from reading my thoughts on Socratic dialogue and “knowing your audience” (I can’t believe I wrote that). Hidden under all of that jargon though lurked a single thought about teaching that drove me. I think I was too embarrassed at first by its simplicity to share it, and once I ultimately chose to share it, I would downplay it by joking about it. Here was the sum total of my thoughts on teaching physics circa 2002-2007:

I love physics. I will do anything in my power to get more people to learn physics so that I have more people to talk to about physics.

That was it. I’m not sure how I used this to inform my classroom structure or grading scheme, but it was something I honestly felt. Looking at it now, the statement is incredibly self-centered which was probably reflective of the approach I took to teaching my classes at the time – me at the front of the room putting on a show. Thankfully, for my students, I’ve learned some since then.

A year ago, our head challenged us all to articulate our philosophy surrounding our practice and to reflect on it during some summer professional development work. Having taught using modeling instruction for two years and spent my first few months online reading teacher’s blogs, I took a stab at revising mine. It’s not much longer, but here, in unedited form, is what I came up with:

  • Science is something that must be done by students. Reading about it will not suffice. Science is an activity, not a topic. (Ex. Modeling Instruction)
  • Everybody can learn physics. Physics is often seen as the first gate class which admits smart kids but keeps dumb ones out. This is a damaging view to the students and the subject.
  • Students should always know exactly where they stand at all times. This requires timely, descriptive feedback that is not obfuscated by points. Additionally, they should know exactly what you want them to learn. (Ex. SBG grading)
  • It is my job to make my students realize that they don’t need me. They are capable of learning about the world around them and how it works on their own. (Ex. being less helpful, confidence)
  • Let students push beyond the bounds of your set goals and when they do, reward them.
  • Technology must be an appropriate part of the classroom, as it is a part of the students’ lives. (Ex. electronic book, LabPro and many more)

Obviously, it still needs some work. I’ve started to include examples of how I incorporate these ideas and you can clearly see the influence of some of the superheroes of the edublogoverse. I’m not entirely happy with the technology one, especially the examples, but I felt it was important to address it. Tech is not the answer to all of educations problems but it can be a powerful tool for learning at appropriate times. Additionally, I now note that there isn’t anything addressing gender or specifically teaching girls. I need to think about why I didn’t address that. Ultimately, each of the above ideas needs some expansion and discussion, but I wanted to get at the core thoughts I’d developed in recent years.

I shared the above with my mentee and I’m waiting to hear back from him. I’m eager to see what he comes up with as a new teacher more firmly entrenched in this new century and the current educational climate in the country. Until then, I’d love to see what others have written, so if you care to share yours, be sure to leave a link here.