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Thomas D. Rossing

A thoughtful editorial by Paul Hewitt entitled “The three stages of learning” appears in the September issue of Physics World. He reminds us that Robert Karplus found learning effectiveness is maximized by a three-stage cycle consisting of exploratory activity, concept development, and applications. Stage 1 is based on students’ experience (e.g., dunking objects into water before getting into Archimedes’ principle). Explanations and definitions are treated in stage 2, which involves using textbooks and other conventional approaches to physics teaching. Stage 3 includes solving problems and doing lab experiments. Unfortunately, teachers are usually short of time and send students straight to stage 3 and then wonder why they struggle.

Hewitt suggests that more qualitative questions be included in exams. “If we give about 50% of marks to such questions then concept development would naturally become a key part of the courses. Textbooks should provide solutions to qualitative questions as well as to numerical problems. Our obligation as teachers is to help students learn the concepts that underlie the professions they choose. Mathematical skills and problem solving are important but should be secondary for students at an introductory level.

•”Research in problem solving” is the subject of a Resource Letter in the September issue of American Journal of Physics. Many instructors would like their students to learn to use physics principles and concepts to solve problems, but they know this is a difficult task. After even the most lucid lectures, only a fraction of the students are able to solve problems with the desired facility. To help more students become competent problem solvers, it is useful to study how people solve and learn to solve problems.

Since publication of the AAAS report “Science for all Americans” (1989), commissions, panels, and working groups have agreed that reform in science education should be founded on “scientific teaching” in which teaching is approached with the same rigor as science at its best. According to an article on “Scientific Teaching” in the 23 April issue of Science, it is surprising that change has not progressed rapidly nor been driven by research universities. Universities need to provide venues for experienced instructors to share best practices and effective teaching strategies. Tenure, sabbaticals, awards, teaching responsibilities, and administrative support should be used to reinforce those who are teaching with tested and successful methods, learning new methods, or analyzing new assessment tools.

•“Formative assessment” is the subject of an article in the October issue of The Physics Teacher. By formative assessment, the authors mean assessment designed to enhance teaching and learning. Teachers and students seek information about the state of student learning and then use this information to adapt teaching and learning to meet student needs.

The July/August issue of J. College Science Teaching has an article about “Powerful Ideas in Physical Science,” a preservice curriculum for elementary education majors developed by AIP and AAPT with support from NSF. The teaching/learning approach in this curriculum was developed by a collaboration of college faculty members from universities around the United States, and the curriculum is currently available from AAPT. PIPS now consists of six modules: Light and Color, Electricity, Heat, Conservation of Energy and Nature of Matter, Force, and Motion. Each module requires about 20 hours of instruction time, so instructors can choose among the six modules to create a one semester course. PIPS is thought to work best in small-class settings rather than the traditional format of large lecture with smaller laboratory sections.

Many teachers have used compact discs (CDs) as reflection diffraction gratings. A note in the September issue of Physics Education discusses how a CD can be used as a chromatic lens which will bring diffracted light of a given wavelength to several foci located at certain distances that are determined by the allowed orders of diffraction. Transparent CDs can be obtained by removing the coating on CD-ROMs.

An interview with Lindsay Nicholson, editor of Good Housekeeping magazine, who has a degree in physics and astronomy, appears in the September issue of Physics World. Q: Why did you originally choose to study physics? A: It was actually to annoy the nuns at my convent school. The usual pattern was for girls to do English, history, and French A-levels and become teachers. Q: How much did you enjoy the course? A: Well, of course, the joke was on me. I was pretty hopeless at the lab work—possibly because I’d been taught needlework rather than metalwork at school—but I loved cosmology, planetary astonomy and all the theoretical stuff. Q: Does your physics training influence how you work? A: Absolutely! It’s so intellectually rigorous, it’s made me a better writer and a better researcher.

An application of Newton’s second law to a snowboarder dropping off a vertical ledge shows that the average normal force during landing is determined by four factors: flexing of the legs, softness of the snow, the angle of the landing surface, and the forward motion of the snowboarder, according to an article in the July issue of Physics Education. A relatively simple model helps to explain why a snowboarder may jump from rather high ledges and land comfortably.

The vacuum cannon that shoots ping-pong balls at high speeds is a spectacular classroom demonstration of the nature of air pressure. An analysis of the canon is given in a paper in the July issue of American Journal of Physics. The theoretical maximum speed is found to be the speed of sound divided by  which can almost be reached with a cannon 2 meters in length. This is faster than the muzzle velocity of some handguns.

A popular buzzword in U.S. education these days is discovering “what works,” according to a note in the 11 June issue of Science. The Education Department even funds a “What Works Clearinghouse” on programs ranging from teaching math to reducing schoolyard violence. This heightened interest in assessment stems from the massive 2001 education reform bill, known as the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires school districts to offer programs shown to be effective through “scientifically based research.” But, according to the note, there’s a dirty little secret behind that requirement: No program has yet met the rigorous standard, because none has been scientifically evaluated and shown to be effective.

•”Reflections” is a regular column in Syllabus, magazine of technology for higher education. In the June issue, the manager of technology outreach at Princeton University talks about simulations and how they can or cannot serve in place of labs in which students “learn by doing” in a controlled environment. Labs, especially at the undergraduate level, have shortcomings, such as time limits, safety considerations (a student lab is a poor place to study thermonuclear reactions), or physical limitations. Well-designed simulations allow the student to explore dead ends as well as the proven, the true, the false, and the unexpected. As Einstein said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

Education initiatives at the National Academies of science are discussed in an article in the September issue of Journal of College Science Teaching. When government agencies need unbiased, independent analysis and understanding of complex and controversial issues in science and technology, they often turn to the National Academies. Educators who wish to incorporate these issues into their classes can do likewise. More than 150 reports focusing on education have been published by the National Academies during the past 10 years, many of which focus directly or indirectly on undergraduate education.

The September 1 issue of The Achiever carries excerpts from remarks made by Rod Paige, U.S.Secretary of Education, at the 2004 National Urban League Conference in Detroit in July. He reminds us that the NCLB (no child left behind act) requires accountability, testing, and inclusiveness. It empowers parents with more information and more choices. It enables students in need to obtain tutoring and mentors. He cited considerable evidence that the law is working. Mathematics scores for fourth and eighth graders is rising. Students in the largest urban public school systems showed significant improvement in reading and math in the first year under NCLB.

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