Tuesday, January 31, 2012

State science standards graded

The Fordham Institute has released The State of State Science Standards 2012. Here are a few highlights from the report:

California's science standards were given an A, as were those in the District of Columbia. Massachusetts, Virginia, South Carolina, and Indiana came up with A–'s.

Ten states' science standards were given an F. (AK, ID, MT, NE, ND, OK, OR, SD, WI, WY)

Seventy-five percent of states' science standards were given a grade of C or lower.

The quick listing of state grades is in Appendix B, but each state's science standards are given a detailed review in the full report. State report links can be accessed individually from the report's web page.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

What time should high school start?

When I came to Rio Americano High School in 1986, school started at 8:10am. That's when "2nd period" started. First period was for a few early-risers and bus-riders. At some point, 1st period became zero period so that first period was when the day began for most of the school.

Transportation (bussing) then required that we move the start time to 8:00am. State/district requirements for teaching minutes then moved the start of the school day to 7:50am. Recently, the district essentially ended its transportation services. We still start school at 7:50am. But now it's out of inertial tradition rather than transportation necessity.

A group of concerned parents tried to lobby the school district to move the start of school to a later time. The district waved them off, telling them to focus their attention on our school as a pilot project, and then take it from there.

The parents gathered the current research on the topic and presented it to parents, administrators, and faculty. The research was compelling. There were positive outcomes wherever schools moved the start of school to a later time. None of the schools that delayed start times ever went back to earlier start times.

But moving the school start time required approval of the faculty per their bargaining agreement with the district.

Concerns were raised about potential impact on athletics. Concerns were raised about personal scheduling inconveniences. Many simply didn't believe the body of research. Nobody could find research that showed negative consequences to delaying the start of school. All of the concerns that were raised had been dealt with at other schools when they delayed their start times.

I compiled a resource page of pros, cons, and rebuttals.

I found the arguments in favor compelling in terms of student gains. I found the arguments against to be unrelated to student achievement. To me it was a matter of moving school to where the students were.

The proposal was to try a modified schedule for two years. The modification was to move the school schedule by 30 minutes (the minimum change recommended by the research).

The faculty rejected the proposal; a minority of 43% voted in favor of the proposal.

In informal polls, students, staff, and parents rejected the proposal by varying margins. The status quo is a powerful thing. Much more powerful than academic and medical research.

Interestingly, high-performing Gunn High School in Palo Alto recently changed their schedule to delay the start of school. It appears this was a district initiative rather than a faculty-spproved measure. The Gunn approach might be the only way to overcome school schedule inertia.

EDITED TO ADD: Right on the Left Coast is a blog authored by a conservative math teacher at my school. You can read his account, "The Furor Over Start Time."

Though not mentioned in the original post, he did admit how he voted and why in the comments: "I voted against this proposal ... because it screwed things up with my son and me. You see, he goes to a different high school, which would still be on the current schedule, and on days when I pick him up to come to our house, he already waits at least a half-hour for me at school. This new schedule would have him wait an hour."

There you have it. A few years of logistical inconvenience for one outweighs the documented health benefits of the entire student body. Amazing.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sunday, January 22, 2012

PTSOS2: Don't miss the heat wave this Saturday

It's not too late to join the PTSOS party in Sacramento this Saturday, 1/28/12. The forecast calls for a heat wave. A physical heat wave.

We'll start with coffee donuts, etc., as we do. Then it's off to heat and thermodynamics. Kinetic Theory will be demonstrated with baby food jars.

The ball and ring will be fully exploited and extended to what we call "Leidenball."

The improperly-named "radiometer" will be leveraged (and its more correct name revealed). What good is a bimetallic strip? Ove-gloves? Food coloring? Is a Miracle Thaw really miraculous? We'll see!

All this and more before we even get to lunch. We'll literally fire up Steve's Ruben's Tube to connect morning and afternoon topics.

After lunch, we'll delve into the wonderful world of waves: mechanical waves and sound, specifically. We'll slow a tuning fork to a crawl (if not a stop), make a plastic tape talk, whirl a singing pipe (and ponder the meaning of its song), and fact-check the tagline from Alien.We'll use high-tech to "see" sound and low-tech to measure its speed.

It's a day of demos and labs and presos. And goodie bags, oh my!

To get in on this extravaganza, send an email to PTSOS Outreach Coordinator, Stephanie Finander, at sfinander@sbcglobal.net. She'll send you the details. One important detail is that PTSOS workshops are free of charge (even the next one, where we discuss electrostatics). Lunch is sponsored by CENCO/Sargent-Welch and other food and "goodies" are provided by the Karl Brown Memorial Scholarship Fund.

PTSOS is sponsored by the Northern California and Nevada section of the American Association of Physics Teachers and made possible by a grant from the Karl Brown Memorial Scholarship Fund.

Textbooks have a future—paper, not so much

The day the iPad was announced in 2010, I printed out Apple's product description and brought it to a school administrator with the comment, "We should start thinking about repurposing the textbook storage room." That particular VP was more pragmatist than visionary and was completely immune to Steve Jobs' Reality Distortion Field. So be it.

I waited for the third iteration of the iPhone (3GS) before jumping into that pool. My 2005 candybar Nokia was all the cell phone I needed until 2009. I planned on waiting for the iPad 2 until I discovered some utility for the iPad during the summer of 2010.

When my principal found out I had one, he expressed an interest in piloting classroom use. Suddenly I was the pragmatist. "Not yet," I replied, "let's let others work out the bugs and wait for the app market to expand."

With Apple's recent announcement of iBooks textbooks for iPad and iBooks Author, many of the classroom-use bugs seem to be getting worked out. The big publishing houses seem to be on board with post-paper textbooks. I'll nourish a hope that the good people at PhET engineer a way to migrate from the dead-end of Flash toward modern, iPad-friendly software.

Frank Noschese over at Action-Reaction has a nicely robust vision of what an iBook textbook for physics might include. Frank's vision looks good to me, but I don't expect it to come in one tidy package. More likely teachers will need to cobble together apps and weblinks on their own and get them configured on student tablets.

The promise of iPad textbooks is great. There are obstacles to overcome, but when has it not been thus. I will not miss paper textbooks (I say that because I know some who will). And I have no idea what will become of our voluminous textbook storage room, but I do look forward to its repurposing.

Edited to Add: Some people think iPads in education are a flash-in-the-pan, flavor-of-the-month, pie-in-the-sky (etc.) boondoggle dreamt up by educrats and salespeople. "Is there any evidence that these things actually help kids learn?" That question is often rhetorical, because any evidence offered will be rejected in favor of a negative personal opinion (see the post below for more on that).

Knowing that iPads have not yet existed for two academic years, the question-as-criticism is easy to level. Even if iPads do help, there hasn't likely been enough time to develop the software or test its efficacy among real students in real schools.

Until last week, that is. That's when the findings of a pilot program in Amelia Earhart Middle School in California's Riverside Unified School District were announced.

Some students underwent traditional instruction using the best practices known to the school's veteran teachers. Other students used iPads with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's Fuse: Algebra 1 in conjunction with their instruction.

Fifty-nine percent of students in the traditional group earned scores of Advanced or Proficient on the California Standards Test in Algebra 1. But 78% of students using the iPads with the HMH app scored Advanced or Proficient on the same test. The difference is significant.

Hat tip: AppleInsider.

Introducing NCSE Climate Science

The good people at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) have been promoting and defending the teaching of evolution in science classes for years. Despite a river of court rulings that favor the unfettered instruction of evolution in science classes, the practice remains under attack (usually by misguided boards of education), so NCSE is always busy.

As climate change debate has grown during recent years, the people at NCSE noticed parallels between evolution denialism (a.k.a. "creationism" or "intelligent design") and climate change denialism. Deniers reject mainstream scientific community consensus is favor of strongly-held personal opinions, and they actively seek to impose their positions on public school science instruction, among other things. Deniers demand that science curricula teach "both sides" of the issue at hand. They want the fact-based, scientific lessons to be balanced with fringe group, political/religious doctrine.

Science teachers generally prefer to stick to science. But in doing so, they may find themselves embroiled in controversy. This is where NCSE comes in. They marshall resources in defense on science-based science curriculum, arming teachers are parents everywhere with the latest information on how best to fend off attacks from deniers.

While NCSE has been involved in the creationism debate since its inception, it added climate science to its agenda just last week.

NCSE Executive Director, Dr. Eugenie Scott, is an intelligent, battle-tested expert in the evolution/creationism debate. Mark McCaffrey is NCSE's point man on climate science.

One particularly handy resource that NCSE links to is Skeptical Science. Skeptical Science has a brilliant page (and an iOS/Android app) that refutes popular climate science denial myths.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Why I am not a Modeler, part 2

The page views and thoughtful comments for last week's modeling post were encouraging.

I want to follow up, but I'm going to indulge my blogging privileges to respond in a series of uncoordinated, seemingly scattered thoughts. If I wait to coalesce them into a unified, well-crafted essay, I fear I'll lose some of them. The essay may be written someday. But not today. Apologies for the lack of polish.

General. The title of the previous modeling post was carefully considered and deliberate: "Why I am not a Modeler." That's the extent of the scope. As stated in the post, it was not an attack on Modeling Instruction. It was not titled, "Why modeling is awful and shouldn't ever be adopted by anyone anywhere." If you like it and it works for you, felicitations! I am glad you have found your path. I'm choosing to walk a different path. I hope we can still be friends.

I rejected "traditional" instruction long ago. We don't have lecture so much as we have guided discussions. We've never done a "Prove that g = 9.8 m/s^2" lab. Otherwise simple demonstrations may keep us occupied for a full period of discussion and debate. We tend to do something different every day of the week. I would hate for anyone to interpret my reservations about modeling as support of "traditional" instruction.

Modeling Instruction is a successful, well-organized program with hard-earned and well-deserved National Science Foundation support. But it's not for everybody. If my reservations resonate with others, these posts may be the only place they've seen doubts about modeling expressed in a public forum.

Mechanics. I am aware that there are some modeling units devoted to "second semester physics." (My attempts to see them have not been successful.) But I take anecdotal references to a teacher here or there who goes significantly beyond mechanics as evidence to support my thesis that modelers by and large stick to mechanics. Exceptions that prove the rule.

Sure, most modeling workshops focus on mechanics for legitimate logistical reasons. But I don't see compelling evidence of practicing modelers "in the wild," actively teaching physics in real, NCLB-era high schools, who get to heat and thermo, electricity and magnetism, sound and light, or blue skies and rainbows. If there are modelers who approach the level of coverage tested by the state of California, I'd like to hear about it.

Modeling instruction has been a going concern since the mid-nineties. Whenever I ask to see the modeling units on electricity and magnetism (especially magnetism), I'm told that such units are still under construction and, unlike the voluminous material in mechanics, aren't ready for distribution yet. So I'll ask: When will they be ready? It's now 2012. If magnetism couldn't be cracked in the first decade, will it be by the end of the second?

I'm repeatedly told that mechanics exceeds the limits of first semester is that modeling instruction is a slower, more deliberate process. Accepted. With that in mind, it seems the thing to do is to eliminate some topics in mechanics from the yearlong curriculum. Students don't need full mastery of algebraic and graphical kinematics to grasp Newton's laws of motion. How about ditching the reflexive (dare I say "traditional"?) impulse to devote a month to six weeks pounding 1-D and 2-D kinematics? Do I now appear to be someone who just grew a second head?

Cultishness. I might have been misunderstood here. And that's at least partially my fault. I would never accuse modelers of reclusiveness or trying to exclude others from the fold. In my experience, modelers are ever eager to encourage "converts." There's nothing wrong with that. But I go to a lot of meetings and conferences where enthusiastic modelers are keen to share the Good News. After the first decade, it takes its toll.

I worry that modelers feel entitled to reject the science standards adopted by their state in favor of what they learned to do in Arizona. The broad coverage required by states is dismissed as being "a mile wide and an inch deep." (Curiously, no one never dismisses a program for being "an inch wide and a mile deep." Though both would constitute the same area, only the "mile wide" is universally understood as derogative.)

In any case, I wonder if modelers feel justified in rejecting state mandates in favor of modeling mechanics because the approach, philosophy, and demonstrated FCI gains of modeling constitute a "Higher Authority" than state standards. (Can modeling physics teachers hope to make this argument while intelligent design biology teachers don't?)

I'm a physics teacher. I get it. Ours is very much a "cowboy culture." No one in statewide educational administrivia knows better than me what I should be teaching. I know what's best for my students, and that's what I'm gonna do—state education bureaucrats be damned. Add to that one's sense that I'm doing what professors would like me to do to prep students for their college course, and there's no looking back.

Except that we don't work for college professors. If you've worked to expand your physics enrollment, most of your students will never take physics at college. Your course is the one and only physics course they will ever take. I generally reject "they'll need it for their college physics course" as sole justification for anything I do in my high school physics course.

There is no consensus on what college physics professors would like high school physics teachers to teach. The answer I here most often is, "Just get them excited about science." Nothing wrong with that per se. But it can come across as, "Don't teach them any actual content; leave that to us." OK, except that content can be all kinds of fun. And...

I do work—in essence—for the state of California. And California has told me what content it expects my physics students to learn. California pays me to provide the instruction and California assesses my students' learning. While California and I don't see eye to eye on all the details, I have an aversion to telling California to stick it because me and my friends know better.

One sentiment often comes up when I express my reservations about modeling. "Keep an open mind." As a non-theist who grew up among theists, and as a skeptic who lives among the credulous, I have found that you will never be asked to keep an open mind by someone who actually has one. And the sentiment is directed only to outsiders. Upon arrival at the "right" conclusion, one is free to close one's mind. (Don't get me wrong: I treasure my close friendships with those who do not share in my beliefs/lack of belief. No one who knows me would characterize me as a bitter, curmudgeonly recluse!)

I would like to think my mind is very open, but that I reserve the right to question and probe, to evaluate and critique, and to accept or reject. I don't regard myself as a cynic, but I do confess some admiration for Diogenes.

As mentioned previously, I don't presume to have worked out the singular set of best practices that ensures mastery of physics by every student who enrolls in my class. I struggle each year to improve. Some part of my aversion to modeling is that enthusiasts appear (to me) to be saying that they have solved a puzzle that I'm not sure has a simple solution.

Exclusion. I'm a big fan of PhET simulations. I use them as much as I can. PhET publishes "best practices" guidelines for how their sims should be used. I don't always follow their guidelines. But they let me use their sims, anyway. They even let me publish my PhET activities to their site, whether or not they follow PhET's carefully delineated prescription.

A visit to the Modeling Curriculum page reveals that there is some content available to all who seek, but some content is available only to those who know the secret handshake have been through the workshop training. This is not a matter of keeping answer keys from students (as is the practice at Pretty Good Physics).

I hope someone with access will explain why those of us without access are undeserving. While I try to presume a reasonable answer exists, I have misgivings. Can we (the non-workshopped) not be trusted with this curriculum? Will we misuse it and bring shame to the practice of modeling? The good people at PhET love their babies (sims) but allow unfettered access to everyone. I'm hard-pressed to imagine curriculum material that's so dangerous it must be password-protected from physics teachers.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

You heard it here first: The drought will soon be over

The snow pack in Northern California is low to non-existent this year. Some sites where snow core samples are usually taken remain free of any snow, whatsoever. Tioga Pass Road from Yosemite to Lee Vining, usually closed from November through May, is open to traffic. If you had ever hoped to ice-skate on Yosemite's Tenaya Lake, now is the time!

But do it soon. Tioga Pass will soon be closed. Snow will accumulate in the mountains and rain will fall in the valleys.

This week, we begin our unit on electricity. I have found that there is no better way to bring the rain and humidity to otherwise dry Sacramento than to enter into our study of electrostatics.

In reality, we still get results adequate to see the effects we hope to see. And in most parts of the US, there is no better time than late January to study electrostatics. We're only immersed in triboelectricity for a few days before moving onto current electricity. And you don't need dry air for lemon batteries!

So ready your umbrellas and raincoats, Northern Californians. There will be rain aplenty by the end of the week.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Why I am not a Modeler

Modeling Instruction is a big deal in high school physics. If there is a bigger movement afoot in high school physics pedagogy, I am unaware of it.

There is no shortage of praise for Modeling Instruction. It seems every article, post, or comment I see about Modeling promotes its virtues.

And don't get me wrong: I think there are important virtues to Modeling. I reserve the right to become a Modeler, myself, at some point in the future.

But I'm not there yet. And I'll tell you why.

1. Modeling Physics is really Modeling Mechanics. Whenever I see the yearlong breakdown of what Modelers do with their 180 days of instruction, it's nearly all about mechanics. I do not doubt that students of Modelers come away with a deep understanding of mechanics. But is their grasp of electricity, magnetism, heat, waves, and optics anywhere as firm? Modelers often dismiss the omission of these topics. I cannot. To me those topics are legitimate high school physics topics not to be marginalized. While physics learners may well harbor many misconceptions regarding mechanics, they tend to harbor no conceptions regarding electricity and magnetism.

If you visit the Modeling Instruction Summer 2011 Workshops page, you'll find as many mentions of "kinematics" as there are of "electricity" and "magnetism" combined. (And kinematics isn't even physics!) "Electricity" comes up three times, "magnetism" twice. "Mechanics" appears 28 times. The term, "light," comes up once and "waves" three times. Mechanics: 28.

I wonder if the performance gains claimed by Modelers are apples-to-apples comparisons in terms of instructional time. Modelers freely admit their methods are time-consuming. But the content-based performance gains are impressive. Are they comparing outcomes of one semester of traditional instruction to the two semesters of Modeling Instruction required to teach the equivalent amount of content? I ask because I do not know. I'll nourish the hope that someone will educate me via the comments.

2. The FCI is not the beacon from which all Truth radiates. The Force Concept Inventory (FCI) is ingenious. I love it! It shines light on the myriad flaws of "traditional" instruction. (Is there any term more derogatory than "traditional" in education?) There is some irony in that tradition-bucking Modelers use results from a multiple choice test to measure their success. There are some in education who find multiple choice tests to be incapable of measuring anything useful. I don't throw in with them, either. The FCI has excellent multiple choice questions. But I don't justify my curriculum by how various students have or haven't performed on a multiple choice mechanics test.

And if there is talk about CSEM (or equivalent) gains in Modeling Instruction, I haven't heard it.

3. The progression into any new topic seems a bit canned. Observe a prescribed phenomenon. Figure out how to make a graphical representation. Interpret the slope. Transpose axes; interpret. As an outsider, I could have it all wrong. But I prefer to let the content to be an important guide to instruction. My methodology for magnetism is different from that for motion.

4. As an "outsider," Modeling seems just a wee bit cultish. If this is my perception, alone, then it's my problem. But Modelers are the products of well-organized workshops in which they learn The Method. Once trained, they go forth and spread the good news. They tell joyful tales of how they used to be "traditional" but are now enthusiastic practitioners of The Method. The Method is not specific to physics, it can be applied to all sciences. Content is nice, but it's The Method that really matters.

Practitioners don't appear suffer much uncertainty regarding the superiority of The Method. Nor do they appear bothered by the physics content that is "left behind." A Modeling friend (great guy and great teacher) once assured me that Modeling teaches students how to think; physics is merely the delivery device. Me? I like physics! To me, physics is what we're painting, not just the canvas on which we paint.

In any case, I perceive an air of absolutism in the movement. And I find that disquieting. It's similar to the disquieting vibe I get from most Libertarians, who lace their certitude with impatience: "We've got it all figured out and why are you not already on board with us? Are you really that blind to the obvious?"

My fear in posting this note is that I will be labeled "anti-Modeling" and incur the wrath of the Modeling community. This post will be regarded as an attack. It's not. It is a list of my misgivings: the reasons I am not a Modeler. Maybe someday I will be a Modeler. And maybe I'll be happy when I am. (Then again, something chills me whenever I see "Number 12 Looks Just Like You." Scariest. Twilight Zone. Ever.) I may well make it to retirement never fully embracing Modeling.

If you think Modeling Instruction is the best use of the 180 days you get with physics students, I will make no attempt to take that away from you. I'm happy for you. I've decided on a different approach for my 180 days and hope not to be judged too harshly for that. I don't presume I've got it all figured out. If anything, I'm quite certain that I don't have it all figured out. I hope to do better next year than I did this year.

I've spent 25 years writing and rewriting and picking and choosing and polishing and smoothing. Much of what I do this year I will do again next year. But not everything. For what it's worth, a valued physics teaching colleague and enthusiastic proponent of Modeling, assured me that my curriculum and instruction—while not Modeling—bore little resemblance to the accursed "traditional" instruction that Modeling seeks to replace. So there's that.


Sunday, January 08, 2012

I'm done with heat and mechanics

As we head into finals week, I'll note that we have completed our studies of heat and thermodynamics, energy and momentum, and motion and forces.

That is, we are done with 3 of the 5 academic content standards sets in 9-12 Physics in California.

The second semester is reserved for electric and magnetic phenomena and waves. Our unit titles at Rio are Electricity, Circuits, Electromagnetism, Waves, Light, and Wave Optics.

For a more complete accounting of our time in Physics 1, see "Statewide pacing guide—where you should be by now." For TMI, click the unit titles above.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Isaac Newton just pooped his pants?

Maybe not. But Ørsted, Faraday, Ampère, and Maxwell are most likely smiling. And at $100, so are the Levitron's makers and resellers. Let me help them out by posting their ad for free.

Hat tip to Larry Auerbach via Facebook.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

High-speed photography to get the year moving

I don't do this stuff, myself. But Alan Sailer does it very well, indeed.

"A series of photos mostly taken with a home-built microsecond guided spark flash."

Take a look at http://flic.kr/s/aHsjnckLZ5

Hat tip to Kristjan Wager via Facebook.