Wednesday, September 13, 2006

I'm done with kinematics

When I started teaching high school physics (during the Reagan Administration), I felt an obligation to "reinvent the wheel." I didn't blindly follow the sequence of chapters laid out by whatever textbook the school had. I was in charge of the curriculum! I wrote my own handouts, homework, tests, etc.

But what I turned out was a pretty true reflection of the introductory college courses I had most recently finished. Mostly the same topics. Mostly the same sequence. It wasn't so different from the textbook's sequence.

I had a whole unit on vectors. It followed my robust unit on "preliminaries" (scientific notation and so on). After vectors was the Month of Kinematics. One-dimensional, two-dimensional; graphical and algebraic. Ticker-tapes, falling bodies, the monkey gun... what's not to love.

The trees were losing their leaves before any mention of Newton was made in my class.

But I noticed a few things. My students never thrilled to the lessons of kinematics as I did. It's difficult, abstract material if you go into deeply. It took the human intellect about 2000 years to figure this stuff out. And we start the year in physics with it. And the year usually ran out before we got to how rainbows work or why the sky is blue.

I was thinking about slimming down my kinematics coverage when I saw Paul Hewitt refer to kinematics as a "black hole" in a Physics Teacher editorial.

Now I speed through motion. I cover it as much as I think it needs to be covered, then move on. (Sorry about the puns, but I'm a physics teacher; we breathe puns the way most people breathe air.) Newton's name will be uttered into air that could be 100F here in Sacramento. The leaves are still green in New England.

There are other ways to handle the problem of not getting to rainbows. The original PSSC program started the year with optics, an approach that galvanized a following even after PSSC abandoned it.

My point is to go easy on kinematics in particular and mechanics in general. First-year high school physics students don't need it to that depth.

The first year I went with the slimmed down kinematics, I held my breath and wondered which part of the sky would fall down. When June rolled around, I noticed that the whole sky was still up. And my students knew why it was blue.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Where were the psychics on 9/10?

I know I appear to harp on the poor psychics more than they merit. But do I really? They continue to get thoroughly credulous coverage in the popular press. On Oprah. On Montell. On Larry King. On the Eleven O'Clock News. On The Medium! And so on. It seems to me that science teachers have an obligation to cast a little light into the demon-haunted world whenever they can. (If my students know KE=1/2mv^2 but call up the Psychic Friends to inquire about the future, have I done my job?)

So where were the psychics, clairvoyants, etc., on 9/10/01? Did the events of the next day not register on their radars? Was the attack not significant enough to carry psychic energy (or whatever) through the temporal aether to them?

With their vast abilities to "see" and "feel," how did they miss something so huge?

Are fabricated Nostradamus quatrains the best they can do? (After-the-fact, as is always the case with Notradamus.)

I'll pose the question--simply as a question to be pondered by anyone who doesn't see that "real psychic" is an oxymoron. I'll pose it in class. Not on 9/11. That day is reserved for other things. But it's a fair question on 9/12.

Where were the psychics on 9/10?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Quick Preso on the "Psychic Sketch"

The link below will take you to an interactive QuickTime presentation (export from Apple Keynote). It's slimmed down from the one I used in class to make it a quick download. The original included groovier transitions and build animations, and full audio for Gary Numan's "Cars."

Th!nk About It: Psychic Sketch

The presentation is done in the minimalist style that I prefer. It's all about the images. You can make up your own script based on the images. Mine went something like this

Title Page >
1. Who's this? >
Does this help? >
What do you think? >
Actually, it's supposed to be a sketch of him >
Good match? Bad match? >
2. News10 said this >
3. Here's a story from Denver >
4. And from New York >
5. I think this is a better match >
Gary Numan! >
Answer 3 of these 5 questions >
< > < >
> [End]

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Physics Begins With an "M"

A friend recently wrote me a kind note about the "First Day of School" post. In my response, I recalled the role that John Jewett's Physics Begins With an "M" played in the formulation of my first-day lesson plan. Jewett's idea is to introduce each new unit/section/topic/chapter with a small set of "M's." The M's are Mysteries, Magic, and Myth. The intent is plant to seeds of curiosity in students' heads. Each of Jewett's entries has a setup statement or question, then a subsequent response/answer.

Mysteries might include "Why is the sky blue" or "How do magnets work" or "How might you survive if your parachute doesn't deploy." Magic might include "Watch a test tube 'disappear' when placed in cooking oil," or "Use ice to start a fire." Myths might include "Astronauts in space are weightless because they are beyond the earth's atmosphere," or "Cats can see in the dark," or "Power is the rate at which work is done," or "Absolute zero is the temperature at which all molecular motion ceases." As a teacher, you cobble a small set of M's relevant to the topic you're about to teach, and present it before launching into the unit. On the first day of school, I present a large set spanning topics for the whole year. All questions. No answers. But with the promise that all will be answered before the year is out.

Another way I've used the book is as a source of extra-credit or lab make-up projects. A student will select an M and take home a photocopy of the text question/statement and the response/answer. They must then translate the text into the language they are studying at school (French or Spanish at Rio Americano). Then the student creates a poster with the translated text, splashy graphics, and a translation of "Take Physics: Understand the Universe" in big letters at the bottom. I get the poster, and give it to the appropriate language teacher to see if the translation is OK, then ask them to hang the poster in their classroom. Instant advertising for the physics program! AND cross-curricular synergy (or paradigm-shift, or whatever the latest buzzword is).

Jewett's original title was published b y a company that did an excellent job of keeping the book a secret. It's now available as World of Physics: Mysteries, Magic, and Myth. Get it! You'll use it all year long.

Since I'm recommending a book and I'll never have a MySpace page, let me make a few recommendations in the area of pop culture.. First, go see Little Miss Sunshine. In a theater populated with other people. Don't wait to rent it. The crowd reactions are part of the fun. As for music, you should all be listening to Zero 7, Corinne Bailey Rae, Los Lonely Boys, and Leigh Nash. Don't let yourself get stuck in the 70s (Rick), 80s (Bryce), or even the 90s (Linsey). C'mon, peeps, move into the 2000s! (/mySpace)