Create a service based physics
course. Since learning outside the classroom is so important and
seeing the role of physics in our lives, I would like to develop a service
learning physics course. Courses in chemistry, geology, and, of course,
the social sciences exist where a major component of the course is a service
Assessment of problem solving
skills. There are many skills students gain from a physics course,
but perhaps the one that is unique to our discipline is problem solving.
My concern is whether or not we know how to determine if a student has
developed these skills.
Philosophy (PDF version)
As I told my introductory physics students as the beginning of this year, the
best compliment I think anybody can pay a student is to call them a scholar.
Students should get more out of college than simply a certificate and a
loan to repay; they should gain the problem solving skills of a researcher,
improve their writing and communication skills that will be used throughout
life, and, perhaps most importantly, recapture the curiosity of their youth.
There is no doubt about it, I believe that high expectations bring high
achievement. It is not always easy for students to grow into scholars,
but through the selection of material, techniques used in the classroom,
and the general classroom atmosphere, I hope to make their journey a fulfilling
One of the most important skills that we practice in physics courses is
problem solving, which I define as more than just the ability to work out
traditional end-of-chapter exercises. Problem solving includes
asking the right questions, reducing complicated situations to simpler
ones and researching any necessary information. For example, in honor
of the annual Little 5 bike race held at DePauw, introductory physics students
designed their own experiments to investigate the physics of a bicycle.
They had to think of a question to investigate as well as design experiments
that they could perform. The end result is that the students learned
how to ask and answer questions and became better scholars. Too often
problem solving is seen as only being relevant to physicists when, in fact,
it is a skill all of us need throughout our lives.
The first step in having students learn about science and the process of
science is encouraging them to enroll in the course. One of the questions
I have been asking myself lately is- Is it possible to offer a lower level
course that requires no prerequisites and would appeal to students in other
majors? The idea is to keep the focus narrower than a typical survey
course, tapping into the students' existing curiosity and eliminating material
that isn't of interest. After all, not all students want to understand
Kepler's laws. For example, an art major might enjoy learning about
the physics of light, a computer science major could study the physics
of semiconductors & circuits, and a music major may want to learn more
about how instruments produce sound and enroll in a physics of music course.
All of these themes would still allow students plenty of exposure to key
concepts in physics. In addition to covering particular material,
these courses would differ from others in their assignments and projects.
For example, in my recent freshmen seminar we wrioe essays, constructed
visual art projects, and participated in debates, all techniques borrowed
from other disciplines. In this way, students are able to become
well-rounded scholars acquiring numerous skills, in addition to problem
A similar philosophy of having interesting and relevant content can be
applied to the introductory course. One goal I have for the course
is to eliminate all problems that talk about "an object". Last spring
I saw just how much of a difference having a story could make. Instead
of talking about the motion of "an object", we talked about an electron
in a TV. Students were truly excited by the problem, I had several
talking to me after class about how a TV functions. The goal here
isn't simply to make a "fun" course for the sake of keeping students happy,
rather by having a fun and interesting class, students are more likely
to learn. Students who are motivated are much more likely to learn
how to solve problems and understand concepts as well as allow their curiosity
Students need more than just the right course content for an enjoyable
and educational experience. What we do in the classroom is also important.
I have always tried to demonstrate my enthusiasm for physics with a smile,
excited voice and appropriate gestures, but lately I have tried to go beyond
this. Granted I am no actor, but it only takes a few small changes
to relax the students and begin to develop a relationship with them.
After the first time I met my "Science of Art" students, several exclaimed
"you're not what we expected from a physics professor!" I hadn't
done much beyond wearing a colorful shirt and making a few (almost funny)
jokes, but I had managed to make them smile. Asking a student to
become a scholar is no simple task, and I know it takes hard work on the
part of the student as well as me. Without some fun (my colorful
shirts, or studying color mixing with finger-paints), students can get
very frustrated, making the journey to becoming a scholar a more difficult
Before I am accused of playing a "sage on a stage", I should describe a
little more of what often happens in our classroom. Students are
asked to share in the responsibilities- they do everything from provide
explanations to facilitate discussions. In my seminar class, the
students even helped to design the course syllabus. We spent the
first day of class, not going over a syllabus imposed upon the students,
but rather the students selected the topics and many of the assignments
for the semester. This and other such activities have helped to provide
the students with a sense of ownership about the course. I am happy
to turn over control of a class to the students, and we become a team working
through the course together. By having good relationships with the
students, I feel we can be more open with each other, providing each other
with feedback. I continually ask students to tell me how a course
can be improved. This dialogue not only helps to improve the course,
it also serves a model for the students as they learn to become more reflective.
We often use Peer Instruction-like and Workshop Physics-like
techniques, allowing students to learn from each other. Typically,
classes resemble conversations, not lectures, where students and I engage
in a back and forth exchange. They provide both the questions and
answers and I help to fill any gaps left by the students, but I do my best
to back away from being labeled the sole expert in the class, all of the
students have information and questions worth sharing. In addition
to improving the studentsí dispositions, the other great benefit of active
learning is that students typically learn the material and techniques much
better. The more that students are able to do in class (solve problems,
ask questions, perform experiments), the better. In our class, students
have even role-played photons in time dilation experiments. Within
such a cooperative environment, students are able to also work on their
interpersonal and communication skills.
Through what my students and I do in the classroom I hope that students
will learn many skills, ones that may have a lasting impact on them.
Not only will they learn about the wonders of the universe, but they will
also learn how to think, communicate, and ask questions. This multilayered
learning is definitely one that is best achieved in a relaxed environment.
While the topic of study may be physics, the students are learning more
about themselves, refining their critical thinking skills, and practicing
their communication skills- in short they're becoming scholars.