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)


Anonymous said...

Los Lonely Boys are great. I have been dying to see Little Miss Sunshine since I saw the preview on MYSPACE (irony?) a while ago.

The Physics begins with an M handout really gets you interested and curious about phyz. I'm dying to know how you can start fire with ice.

Anonymous said...

I really like your site, although I've barely scratched the surface. As a physics teacher as well I feel a bit inadequate ,however, when I read that 'power is the rate at which work is done' is a myth. Oops, that was my working definition for it. Looks like I have some learning to do!

Anonymous said...

Love your site, Dean! As a fellow physics teacher, albeit, less accomplished, I value the information and guidance it provides. I must admit I was a little dumbfounded upon reading that 'power is the rate at which work is done' is a myth. Thats always how I knew it. Oops?!

Dean Baird said...

The problem with "Power is the rate at which work is done" is that my 60-watt light bulb has been burning energy at 60 joules per second all day and it hasn't done a lick of work. It hasn't exerted a force, nor has it moved anything through any distance. No force, no displacement, no work. And yet *the bulb* has a power rating of 60-watts.

So how about something like "Power is the rate at which energy is transformed or transferred." Work is one method of transfer, but it's not the only one.

Anonymous said...

do you have any recommendations for an interesting physics book to read for students?

Anonymous said...

Regarding the myth of Weightlessness in space, may I offer the following short story?