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Explorations in Physics:
An Activity-Based Curriculum for Non-Science Students

David P. Jackson

Explorations in Physics (EiP) is a set of curricular materials developed by David P. Jackson, Priscilla Laws (developer of Workshop Physics) and Scott Franklin at Dickinson College. These materials have been created to increase the effectiveness of science education for non-science majors. By integrating guided-inquiry materials with student-directed projects, students are in a position to acquire a thorough understanding of what practicing scientists actually do. In addition, the use of computer-based data acquisition tools enables students to explore a wide range of physical phenomena.

The Explorations in Physics project began in 1994 with funding from the Charles A. Dana Foundation. Since then, we have received funding from the Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). This has resulted in the completion of eight curricular units covering a wide range of topics including motion, pressure, buoyancy, light, heat, sound, magnets and charge. To enhance the flexibility of the curriculum, the units were designed so they can be taught in any order. This allows instructors to choose among the various units to customize a course to fit student needs and interests.

Since the beginning of this project, we have focused on treating the students as apprentice researchers. While this approach entails a reduction in content coverage, the resulting benefits are enormous. In addition to acquiring a deeper understanding of the concepts that are introduced, students gain hands-on experience with hypothesis formulation, mathematical model building, experimental design and the use of scientific measurement equipment. The course is taught using a "workshop" approach with no formal lectures and all work done in a laboratory setting. Active participation on the part of the students both in small groups and on their own permits ample opportunity for cooperative learning as well as independent accomplishments.

Some of the most important goals of Explorations in Physics are to:

  • Enable students to master a diverse subset of important scientific concepts

  • Enhance the ability and confidence of students to conduct basic scientific investigations and communicate their findings to others

  • Allow students an opportunity to cope with ambiguity as it arises in science

  • Help students develop a positive attitude toward science

To help accomplish these goals, the course is designed so that the entire class works through a unit of "core material" on a particular topic area. The core material for each unit consists of a student activity guide that is approximately 75 pages in length. The written activity guide for each unit contains explanatory material, student predictions and observations, experimental activities, problems, student reflections, and topics for class discussions. Each unit follows a "storyline" that culminates in a thorough understanding of a relatively common phenomenon, such as airplane flight or cloud formation. In addition, because there is no absolute set of topics that must be covered, any concept that is not essential to the storyline of a unit is eliminated. This helps students maintain a certain focus because superfluous concepts that might otherwise be distracting are absent.

Upon completion of the core material, students spend an equal amount of time working in small groups on a project of their own design. This involves writing a proposal, designing and carrying out experiments, taking and analyzing data, and presenting their results to the class. The emphasis on projects is a unique aspect of Explorations in Physics. When students pursue a topic of their own choosing, they become self motivated. Furthermore, because students are required to make a formal presentation of the project, they are placed in the role of an instructor. We are all familiar with how much better we understand a subject after having taught it, and the formal presentations contribute to student mastery of project topics. The projects give many students confidence that they really can do science. We feel this confidence is of tremendous value for this population.

Another unique aspect of Explorations in Physics is that many of the topics covered are not traditionally introduced in courses designed for non science students. In particular, many of the culminating activities in each unit are chosen because they are common real-world occurrences. In most cases, students learn these topics by completing a series of hands-on experiments in which they come face to face with the phenomenon under study. To give some examples, in one unit students measure the percentage of colored light that is transmitted through a simulated atmosphere (water with a little powdered cream). Their results allow them to understand why the sky is blue and why sunsets are orange. In another unit, students measure the temperature of wet and dry thermometers and then use these results to explain why people sweat and what it means for the weather to be "muggy".

Below is a very brief sampling of the topics in each of the units. The first four unit are available commercially and the others are available from our website. To access these materials or to obtain more information about the Explorations in Physics curriculum please visit the EiP website at http://physics.dickinson.edu/EiP.

Motion, Forces, and Scientific Theories - The most traditional of all the units, this unit begins with the vague question "how can we measure the motion of an object?" From there, position, velocity, and acceleration graphs are explored and the concept of force is introduced independent of any motion. Finally, the question of how a force will affect the motion of an object is explored and Newton's second law is "discovered". The unit ends by exploring the forces of gravity and friction.

Light, Sight, and Rainbows - This unit begins by exploring what it means to "see" an object. Students determine the necessity of light and then explore various aspects of light such as how it travels and how it interacts with objects. A model eye is constructed and refraction is explored to understand the role of the lens. Colored light and colored objects are explored using hand-held spectrometers and filters. The unit ends by exploring rainbows, sunsets and the blue sky.

Heat, Temperature, and Cloud Formation - This unit begins by mixing different amounts of water of different temperatures and trying to determine what the temperature of the final mixture will be. Students construct a thermometer and increase the temperature of water without "heating it up" thereby making a connection between "heat" and energy. Boiling, evaporation, condensation and humidity are then explored and the unit ends with students constructing their very own cloud in a bottle.

Buoyancy, Pressure, and Flight - This unit begins by exploring floating, sinking, and forces. Students weigh objects in air and in water and conclude that the effect of the water on the object is an upward "buoyant" force. The concept of pressure is then introduced using a hydraulic lift made of glass syringes (Pascal's principle). Hydrostatic pressure and the pressure of moving air are then explored and the unit ends by examining how barometers work and how airplanes fly.

Sound, Vibrations, and Musical Tones - This unit begins with students trying to classify various sounds. The generation, transmission, and detection of sound are all explored using a speaker and function generator. The relation between frequency and pitch is explored and the "frequency" graph using an FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) is introduced. Musical scales are introduced by determining which frequencies sound "nice" when played together. The unit ends by examining complex tones and musical instruments.

Magnets, Charge, and Electric Motors - This unit begins by playing with magnets and seeing how they interact with different materials. The ability to magnetize paperclips is explored and the relation to compasses is determined. The concept of charge is introduced with sticky-tape experiments. The students then construct a "lightning machine" which leads into how a current-carrying wire can affect a magnet. The unit ends with the students constructing a small working motor.

Population, Climate, and Mathematical Modeling - This unit begins by considering the factors that affect population growth. A population growth game is introduced with dice and beans and then a spreadsheet is introduced as a more sophisticated tool to model population dynamics. A connection is made between population dynamics and energy balance in a thermodynamic system and the unit ends by considering the temperature of the Earth in a global warming scenario.

Atoms, Crystals, and Snowflakes - This unit is under current developed and will explore the atomic nature of matter and culminate with students making their very own snowflakes.