Monday, March 23, 2020

Online Resources for Teaching Physics

Howdy all,

First, I'd like to thank my friend and colleague, Dean Baird, for inviting me to be a guest blogger here at The Blog of Phyz. Briefly, I've been teaching high school and college-level physics since 1998, and in that time I've seen a lot—but nothing like what we're all dealing with now.

In addition to my teaching duties, I am the secretary and webmaster of Physics Northwest (group of physics teachers in the suburbs north and west of Chicago), and we've worked with our own teacher network as well as the TAP-L email list to assemble a long list of available online resources for teaching physics. This list of information has been posted to the front page of the Physics Northwest website at

I apologize that the list isn't formatted and organized yet, as I've been busy tackling my own struggles with online teaching this past week, but now that I'm on spring break I'll have some time to tweak the list (so stay tuned). Any suggestions for additions and/or edits are welcome.

Take care, folks. It's a rough time for the lot of us, but in times like this I like to remind myself of the old Marine Corps motto: Improvise, Adapt, Overcome.

Cheers - Matt Lowry
[Matt has been my presentation partner for "Skepticism in the Classroom" workshops at AAPT and NSTA Meetings. To see our first collaboration, check this out! And if you click the Physics Northwest link above, you will see a collection of great physics teachers, some of whom you may know from Twitter or elsewhere. Matt's in the fourth quadrant in the fashionable "Keep Calm" T. –Dean]

Thursday, March 19, 2020

My path for instruction during coronavirus...

might be different from yours. And chances are, yours will be more robust than mine.

The physics instructor (and high school instructor) social media sphere is rife with tales of how best to lead online courses complete with live video lectures. A tidal wave of software tool recommendations have flooded in. Solutions that were previously subscription-based are suddenly free. Industrious instructors are assembling indexes of quality resources. Online instructional veterans are posting pro tips for the flood of novices.

All of this is appropriate, natural, and good. And I am completely overwhelmed.

Whatever path colleagues take into the uncharted waters of this coronavirus transmission break is correct as far as I am concerned. There is no One True Path for this. Different districts have communicated different expectations. Different teachers have different students and different temperaments and different resources and different abilities. One size cannot fit all.

My district has directed instructors to make themselves available to students via virtual office hours from 8:30-10:30am and 12:30-2:30pm each school day. No new assignments are to be given. No student work is to be graded. I am in a suburban unified school district (about 38,000 students at 50 sites). The district is not 1:1 (one computer for each student). We were duly warned that giving assignments or grading work online would likely constitute a violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

In the face of my trepidation, I pulled back for a little perspective.

When we left school last Friday, this break was going to be shockingly long: no classes for a month. Administrators would continue to report to their respective sites in the interim. Classroom access would be allowed for instructors (6am-6pm). Less than a week later, our sites are now abandoned shut—alarms are armed 24/7. Counties are on shelter-in-place or full lockdown. The governor does not foresee schools reopening this academic year. This is objectively a full stop.

Students have been thrown into an unprecedented spiral of lost activities (sports and other extracurriculars, prom, graduation). Their parents may be newly unemployed. Families with lost incomes wondering how they will obtain groceries amid the hoarding. They may have loved ones suffering from COVID-19, and they should be doing what they can to avoid being a vector for the contagion.

So how pressing is the physics curriculum to my students? Answers will vary. But I think it's safe to presume that it's less than it was a week ago. Substantially less.

What to do? I don't know. Here's what I've settled on.

I already have a decent "static" online physics curriculum presence at Much to read, many worksheets to do. Students do have their textbooks. And the Internet bursts with resources. I am going to encourage my students to learn the remainder of the year's curriculum. To learn it as if they were going to have their final exam at the end of the school year. My final exams focus on the big, important ideas that should be internalized by the end of the semester.

As is always the case, learning physics is a conscious choice. Some students choose to learn physics without ever having enrolled in the course. Many students enroll in the course but never choose to learn physics. It has always been thus.

I will be in contact with my students through the school's SIS mass email feature to provide direction for how they can engage in learning. We will not have all the labs, activities, and demonstrations that face-to-face classroom instruction would afford. The learning may not be as robust. But the big ideas and fundamental principles should get through.

So that's my path. Providing some resources and guidance, with the student goal of being able to perform well on the semester final exam. With that vision, I feel like I can move forward.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

The CAASPP Practice items ... were online a year ago

The CAASPP / CAST practice / training / released test questions were apparently posted on Monday, February 24, 2020.

The hope I had nourished for them was in vain.

I had hoped for new items. Improved items. Robust items. But that's not what we got.

What we got last year's released items with newer publication dates and new graphics on the cover. If anything of substance has changed between last year's released items and this year's released items, someone will need to let me know in the comments.

CAASPP Practice Items (51—the same 51 released last year, so read about them here.)

CAASPP Training Items (7—All Life Science items. And all of them previously released.)

I've clearly been taking this new round of assessments far too seriously. When I'm wrong, I'm wrong.

Friday, February 21, 2020

POTU Evolution Part 1: From California to Rio Americano

UPDATE 2/23/20: Extant course chart added.

We plan to launch our Physics of the Universe (POTU) course in 2021-22. Physics of the Universe is the physics portion of the three-course model for Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) implementation. California is where I live and work; Rio Americano High School is where I've taught physics since 1986.

Our plan is to discontinue Physics as it has existed at the school since its inception in the 1960s, and replace it with POTU. We will continue to offer AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2 (when demand exists). I plan to retire at the end of the 2022-23 school year, so the course will evolve considerably after I'm gone.

Here is a pie-chart representation of the course as it exists, in terms of the unit topics.

But August of 2021 is coming, so there is a course to create. The POTU Evolution blog posts will chronicle my development process for the benefit of both of my blog readers.

The state of California has developed a framework for the three-course (Biology, Chemistry, Physics) implementation of NGSS. (Feel free to read it real quick. I'll wait.) Physics of the Universe is divided into six segments.

As this course-development project began, my first step was two turn those six segments into twelve units. And I felt I needed to move the nuclear unit. So already, some entropy is working its way into the pie chart. Notice that where I broke one segment into two or three, I maintained color fidelity to the framework's six segments.

As I read deeper into the framework, it became clear that some subsegments were more equal than others. As I began mapping out a day-to-day schedule, my concept of the course took this shape. It's not even trying to appear appealing anymore. But that's not what's important. There are 180 days to plan, and they're not going to plan themselves.

That's probably enough on the planning for now. I'll post unit schedules as I develop them. It's hard to overemphasize how drafty these visions are right now. But they are preliminary drafts at best.

A few additional details: the principal would like our POTU course to be accessible to freshmen. Given that our district is all-in on Integrated Math, any algebra necessary in the course will need to be taught in the course.

We will be adopting textbooks next year for all science courses. Our last adoption in physics was in 2008. POTU textbooks are... largely still in development. I think Conceptual Physical Science would work nicely for NGSS 3-course Physics and Chemistry, but we'll see what the adoption options are in 2020-21.

Thoughts? Ideas? Advice? That's what the comments section is for. I'm keen to hear about what you're doing as NGSS and new assessments appraoch.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Anxiety among high school students

TL;DR: Today's high school students suffer anxiety brought on, in part, by always being connected on their phones and by a perpetual need to know what their grade-in-progress is right now. I actively remediate against both of these things, but my methods are frowned upon.

We tend to imagine ourselves the heroes of the movies we live our lives in. And those of us with blogs rarely hesitate to trumpet our own heroism. (That includes virtually everyone on Twitter, the microblogging site where virtue signaling is like oxygen.) As a publisher of a blog and someone with a Twitter account, I am in no position to hold myself above the crowd.

The theme of a recent faculty in-service session for the faculty of my school was anxiety among high school students. Counselors hoped to raise awareness and broadcast availability of services.

One potent source of anxiety was that students were constantly on their phones, connected to social networks that functioned as stock markets, chronicling the ups and downs of their individual social status.

I bit my tongue. I had a suggestion, but it would not have been welcome in this setting. This setting was to paint the picture of how bad things are for today's high school students. The aim was for recognition and accommodation. The problem was described as too pervasive and universal for remediation or solution.

Another stressor was the constant obsession with academic grades. Students and parents are in a state of perpetually refreshing their online grade book page to see if the latest assignment's score raised or lowered their grade-in-progress.

I bit my tongue again. Had the biting been literal instead of figurative, there would have been blood.

In my classroom, I do not ask students to refrain from phone use. I physically separate students from their phones as a matter of classroom policy. Violators are assigned Saturday School. That is my in-class, temporary remedial effort to alleviate phone-based anxiety during instruction.

Students hate it. My enrollments have suffered. Colleagues won't do it. Many teachers never want to be cast as the bad guy in their own classroom. So they beg/plead/bargain with students, who deploy the full measure of their genius to stealthily maintain their ongoing phone activities while instruction plays out around them. I cannot change my colleagues, but I also cannot allow my classroom to be another phone zone. I have a finite number of minutes to teach a difficult topic, so I'll don the black hat.

When I began teaching in 1986, we tendered grades four times a year. That evolved to six times. That, in turn, evolved into eight. Every increase in frequency was heralded as a solution that would lead to better student performance. In my personal experience, the actual outcome has been the diametric opposite.

With the advent of online student information systems (SIS), there is an expectation of daily grades-in-progress updates.

But I don't use my district's online grade book. I do not post daily updates to the SIS. I post updates at the district-mandated grading interims, eight times a year. (I prefer Excel over the online grade book; I can bend Excel to my will, and I like math. To me, the online grade book is a horrendous kludge.)

So when we learned that a source of student anxiety was their constant need for grade updates, I might have raised a hand and described how I didn't play into that practice. But doing so would have cast me as the jerk. Counselors and parents, too, want up-to-the-minute grades-in-progress. I make my students wait a month (a month!) between grade updates. What kind of luddite barbarian am I?

Of course, there are some who would argue that I'm actually precipitating anxiety through my solutions. While separated from their phones during instruction in my class, students might not be able to think about anything except when they will be reunited with their phones. And two weeks into that one month eternity between grading updates, students could be wracked with anxiety over what their grade has progressed to.

If this is the case, it's a Kobiyashi Maru. I have chosen one losing path while others choose another.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

CAASPP link added to sidebar...

UPDATE 2/20/20: With testing about one month away, the CAASPP/CAST practice and training items remain in "Coming Soon" status. Will we run through the administration of the tests before practice and training items are posted? Time will tell.

California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress is the part of the California Department of Education responsible for the statewide tests administered to students, such as the CAST (California Science Test).

They ostensibly publish training and practice exams ahead of the operational administration in March. As we close out January and head toward February, the training and practice exam status is as follows:

Scoring Guides for CAASPP: CAST, Smarter Balanced, CAA Practice Tests, and CSA

California Science Test (CAST)

Practice Tests

  • CAST Practice Items Scoring Guide—Grade Five (Coming Soon)
  • CAST Practice Items Scoring Guide—Grade Five, Braille (Coming Soon)
  • CAST Practice Items Scoring Guide—Grade Eight (Coming Soon)
  • CAST Practice Items Scoring Guide—Grade Eight, Braille (Coming Soon)
  • CAST Practice Items Scoring Guide—High School (Coming Soon)
  • CAST Practice Items Scoring Guide—High School, Braille (Coming Soon)

Training Tests

  • CAST Training Items Scoring Guide—Grade Five (Coming Soon)
  • CAST Training Items Scoring Guide—Grade Five, Braille (Coming Soon)
  • CAST Training Items Scoring Guide—Grade Eight (Coming Soon)
  • CAST Training Items Scoring Guide—Grade Eight, Braille (Coming Soon)
  • CAST Training Items Scoring Guide—High School (Coming Soon)
  • CAST Training Items Scoring Guide—High School, Braille (Coming Soon)
I added a permanent link in the sidebar to the right to make it easy to check in and determine CAASPP's definition of "Coming Soon").

The administration is, once again, scheduled for March. Fingers crossed that these items will post prior to that administration.

PTSOS Workshop 2 Links of Phyz

Here are some notes and links relevant to PTSOS Workshop #2. If you're new to teaching physics in Northern California, check out

Momentum and Energy
I prefer momentum before energy, but I've run into teachers who consider those to be fightin' words.

Phyz Momentum Curriculum

One highlight here is our Grass Omelette (Egg Toss Competition). In 2013, I had five sections of Physics, so I was able to compile an adequate set of images and video to make a tidy video: Egg Toss 2013

Phyz Energy Curriculum

If you're a fan of ranking items, you might enjoy
Potential Energy Ranking - Answers
Kinetic Energy and Momentum Rankings

Further distinctions between kinetic energy and momentum are explored here.
Kinetic Energy and Momentum Conundrums - Answers

For video resources, there's
The Mechanical Universe High School: Conservation of Momentum, and Conservation of Energy
The Mechanical Universe (College): Conservation of Energy, Potential Energy, and Conservation of Momentum.

Waves and Sound
Phyz Waves Curriculum

One of my favorite lessons is a nice foray into skepticism: Back Masking and EVP (Drop Box Link to Keynote Presentation). I connect it to a lesson that involves Musical Roads and Talkie Tapes.

Demo: Science is Fun!

For video resources, there's
The Mechanical Universe High School: Introduction to Waves
The Mechanical Universe (College): Waves
PBS: The Secret Life of Waves

Charging Ahead 2020

This year's Van de Graaff portrait gallery. Enjoy.

I'm migrating from Flickr to SmugMug. One apparently owns the other, but they continue to operate as separate entities.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Another call you don't need to return

Jeff Lind at 888-227-8212 navigated his way into my school voicemail box to request a call back. He is not a parent of any of my students. He is not someone I have elected to do business with. No, it seems he's on a cold-call campaign from WorldStrides, an educational travel company from North Carolina.

Nope. I blasted a mass email to all my colleagues at school to ignore any call-back requests from him.

I reported a similar cold-call telemarketer in a previous post. I can only imagine these will become more common. Apparently school voicemail systems are not protected by "Do Not Call" lists.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

My Mechanical Universe Sagrada Família

I've been enjoying moving my Mechanical Universe curriculum out of the classroom and into the realm of YouTube homework this year. Posting the high school adaptations to YouTube and having a one-stop index webpage that links to every episode makes it easy. And they wouldn't be a part of my curriculum if I didn't have question sets to accompany them.

Every once in a while, I prefer to use a full college edition during a unit. So I decided to jump down the rabbit hole and begin developing Lessons of Phyz question sets for the college edition episodes. So far, I've been able to put together 12 sets.

[12/7/19 Update: 17 sets]

So that means there are only 40 35 episodes left to go. And writing a question set for a Mechanical Universe episode is a heavy lift compared to writing them for more straight-forward science documentaries. So I don't foresee completing all 52 episodes any time before 2022.

I have divided the series into six groups that make sense to me. In the event that I complete any of those groups, a TpT bundle will be assembled. When the whole series is completed, a megabundle will be prepared. 2022 will be a great time to be alive! Until then, I'll add question sets as I make them. One at a time. Unhurried.

For now, take a look and see if there's anything you can use before we get to that 2022 paradise, college or high school.

The Mechanical Universe of Phyz page (with links to every episode, college and high school)

Basilica de la Sagrada Família is the famous Barcelona church designed by Antoni Gaudí to be constructed on a 100-year+ timetable. The last true Alan Parsons Project album was all about Gaudí, and the opening track was La Sagrada Faília.