Sunday, February 25, 2007

Clickers: First impressions

Attending a national meeting of physics teachers is a great way to get a "big-picture" view of the profession. I've been lucky enough to attend several American Association of Physics Teachers national meetings during the course of my career. One thing that's been a perennial topic of sessions since the late-90s is clickers: personal response systems.

Anyone who's seen "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" knows the gist of what the technology allows one to do. On the show, clickers are used whenever a contestant "asks the audience." And who could forget this instant classic of polling-gone-wrong?

Clickers have been used in introductory physics courses at colleges and universities for over a decade. Their use in large lecture sections allows a level of interactivity not previously possible. The instructor poses a multiple choice, "clicker question," and the 200+ students click their response. A receiver tallies the votes and sends the information to the instructors computer. After a given interval of time, the polling is closed and the result is displayed.

Students get a chance to test-drive the new material presented by the instructor. The instructor get instant feedback on how well the new material is being absorbed. This kind of interactivity is gold in the lecture hall. Book publishers are bundling clickers with textbooks. Universities are looking to standardize clickers campus-wide. And so on.

An important benefit of clickers is that they allow students to vote anonymously. "Low-tech" polling can be done by calling for a show of hands for each possible answer. Not only are students reluctant to reveal their preference for a potentially wrong answer, many simply focus in on the "smart kid" and raise their hands when he or she does.

It seemed to me that this technology could be put to use in the high school classroom, too. So I attended AAPT meeting sessions over the years to become conversant in clicker pedagogy. And this year I researched the several vendors and varieties of clickers on the market, and wrote a funding proposal. The school decided the proposal merited funding. In late January, the clickers arrived. I put them to use within hours of unpacking them.

Of the many vendors and varieties of clickers on the market, I went with i·clicker. The i·clicker solution in not tied to a particular piece of software: some clickers are tied to Microsoft PowerPoint or thier own proprietary software. With i·clicker, the voting software "floats" above whatever program you present with. I'm a huge fan of Apple's Keynote, so it was important that voting software not cramp my style or require a major rework of my existing instructional presentations. I think there are some clicker systems still out there that are not Macintosh-compatible. Unacceptable.

As you might imagine, students love the clickers. They like voting for their answer when a question comes up. And they're always eager to see the results of the poll. I've been able to modify instruction on-the-spot in response to clicker questions asked in class.

The cost to turn my classroom into a polling place was roughly $1400. For that we got 40 clickers, a base station, two instructors' clickers, and the software. If I use them only this year, the cost is about $10 per student. If I use them for 10 years, it's $1 per student. College students pay at least $25 for an i·clicker (other clickers are generally more expensive).

This technology does not shatter the earth, nor is it The Savior of Education. I'm still learning how to maximize its efficacy in the classroom. But it is appealing and engaging. (If I didn't think students and administrators were reading this, I'd say the clickers were "sexy.")

And so far, so good.

Friday, February 23, 2007

OT2: Everyone's an Ansel

In one of his comic tales, storyteller Kevin Kling recalled the living room of his childhood. In regard to TV viewing, "there was the one good seat, and every other seat was a lesser seat." And so it is at Yosemite's Tunnel View during a clearing winter storm. Every owner of a tripod in that row has seen this classic Ansel Adams image and wants to catch one for himself. And I use the term "himself" intentionally. Crowds like this do seem to require a y-chromosome for admission.

OK, I confess I'm just bitter over having lost to these guys for "the one good seat." But I was down at Valley View before racing up the hill to Tunnel View. (And I, erm, might have misrepresented the powertrain-related traction characteristics of the PhyzVan to the park ranger screening motorists at the bottom of the road to Tunnel View; he was checking for chains or 4WD.) Anyway, my non-zero rest mass probits me from being in more than one photo-shooting location at a time. Darned non-zero rest mass. Tomorrow I start my diet.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

OT: On a fool's errand in Yosemite

It's ski week and I was looking for a way to forestall whatever chores I should be tending to. So when I noticed that a winter storm was making its way to the Golden State, I booked a stay at Yosemite. I'm keen to get a decent shot or two of the park dressed in winter. Or at least to practice getting such a shot.

I motored in today and, well, the good news is that the door to the park was open. Mostly sunny and warm as I arrived. The weather is running a bit late, but it's supposed to be coming in tomorrow. We'll see.

For now, I've posted some preview shots to this album. Notice the lack of snow and the drama-free sky. But it's the Sierra in winter. Things could change dramatically.

UPDATE: Early morning rain turned to snow. Heavy and wet, but snow nonetheless. Since it's my first rodeo, I bobbed and weaved in an attempt to get something. At one point, the valley road was chain-restricted! I posted some new previews for your enjoyment. Now I just need the weather to clear in a reasonable fashion so I can get some sun on the snow and make a clean escape.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Newsflash: Humans are the cause of global warming

Well, it's not much of a newsflash. As much as anything can be, the finding that humans are the cause of global warming has become established science. The American Association for the Advancement of Science did its part with this report on Sunday to advance the debate. And by "advance the debate," I mean move on from arguing over whether global warming is real or whether humans are the cause. The debate should now focus on, "What are we going to do about it?"

Unfortunately, it will be a while before the debate moves on to policy solutions. This is as frustrating to science-types as waiting behind a row of cars stopped at a green light. But this is par for the course. Creationists cling to their non-science nonsense and continue to confuse biology students. And as far as I know, the Flat Earth Society hasn't closed up shop.

The problem is that we all feel entitled to an opinion. An opinion that must be respected on the merits of arguments one might construct on its behalf. That's how normal discourse works. But in science, we respect evidence and simple, logical explanations. So science doesn't really care about opinions or impacts on the economy. So disrespectful and reckless, science. But that's how it goes.

And maybe you've heard, "But in the 1970s, they were scaring us with global cooling." It would be an amusing exercise to source that gem. Who were "they?" What was the evidence? Nevertheless, science moves on. Ask proponents of that argument if they would prefer medical treatment and medicines from the 70s or something from the 2000s. I mean, if we have better medicines now, that means "they" were wrong in the 70s. And hey, if they were wrong in the 70s, why trust them now? The logically consistent answer for "global cooling"-objectors should be, "No!" They should be skeptical of today's medicine because it has changed since the 1970s. Therefore it must all be wrong!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Scientific literacy fails to thwart pseudoscience

Increasing scientific literacy is a good and noble cause. I'm all for it, and I do what I can to advance it.

But a rigorous curriculum replete with standards-based content and mandated assessments is no guarantee against the appeal of pseudoscience. Or, as I am wont to say: If your students learn KE=1/2mv^2 then proceed to seek wisdom from their horoscopes, did you really do your job as a science teacher?

This story on a report delivered at the AAAS meeting in San Francisco fleshes out the answer. While scientific literacy is on the rise (for the most part), the popularity of pseudoscience continues to roll merrily along. Larry Summers can take comfort that women are more likely than men to consult horoscopes. Creationists can crow over the confusion they've infused regarding the reality of evolution. Creationists might lose every legal battle and school-board skirmish they face, but they can take comfort in the increase of college students who aren't sure whether evolution or creationism provides the better account of man's origins.

"'More recent generations know more factual material about science,' said Carol Susan Losh, an associate professor at Florida State University. But, she said, when it comes to pseudoscience, 'the news is not good.'"

So I would urge you to include some kind of specific critical thinking/skepticism strands in your already-crowded curriculum. The ones included on this page (Skepticism in the Classroom, also liked to the right) are fairly painless. You can probably do better. If you've got a plan already in place, let me know about it in the comments.

Thanks to Darren at Right on the Left Coast for ruining an otherwise pleasant day with news of this report.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Kansas rejoins the modern era

In the back-and-forth battle for science education that roils in Kansas, science has once again gained the upper hand.

The newly-elected Kansas Board of Education dismantled the previous Board's work on behalf of "intelligent design" creationism. So "2+2=5" science will no longer be taught side-by-side with "2+2=4" science--or what scientists refer to as "science."

Read all about it in this Reuters article. Or enjoy the subtle, muted musings of The Bad Astronomer (c'mon Phil, tell us how you really feel). Or learn more about the ongoing, national nature of this battle at The National Center for Science Education website. Or click the graphic above to get it straight from the Kansas State Department of Education.

This is a debate that never seems to end. It didn't end with the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. It didn't end when the Supreme Court struck down Louisiana's Balanced Treatment Act in 1987. It didn't end with the thumping of "intelligent design" in Dover, PA in 2005 (a thumping delivered by a Bush-appointed judge). And it won't end with the Kansas Board of Education in 2007.

While this is more of an issue for our biology-teaching colleagues, the anti-science flotsam and jetsam does gurgle up into physics classrooms. The most common form is declaration that the Second Law of Thermodymanics prohibits the evolution of simpler forms of life to more complex ones. Some of the non-scientists who float this nonsense grant that simpler forms could evolve to more complex ones, but only if there were a huge source of energy available to earth-bound organisms. It's just embarrassing to be the one to point out the presence of the sun to them.

Anyway, today's action of the Kansas Board of Education was a victory for science in Kansas. And in this battle, a victory anywhere is a victory everywhere.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

FedEx delivers bad science on Sundays

Superbowl Sunday, at least. Bad Astronomer Phil Plait posted nicely on this, so I will proceed to my flattery forthwith.

You had to pay $2.4E+6 to have a 30-second spot run during Superbowl XLI. Federal Express shelled out its cash for this catalog of science misconceptions.

But when FedEx delivers a lemon, I say turn it into a lesson!

Read the Bad Astronomy post for Phil's well-articulated objections. Then use this student worksheet and show the clip in class. Students really do enjoy ripping these things to shreds, and many will be inspired to be on the lookout for bad science in other ads, too.

Maybe we should pass a hat to fund more ad/"lessons" like this one!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Found video: Firewalkers put to the test

Richard Wiseman is a rockstar at The Amaz!ng Meetings. He was an accomplished magician before he became a highly-regarded researcher in psychology. He has an entertainer's sensibilities and he's British, so he's always fun to watch and listen to. He had the opportunity to put "mind-over-matter" firewalkers to the test through the auspices of a BBC television program. He showed a clip of the program at TAM3, but it wasn't included in the DVD set of TAM3 due to copyright restrictions. I recently did a Google search for the clip and turned up this take. It's not as robust as what we saw at TAM3, but it does the job.

The question at hand is whether firewalkers accomplish their spectacular feat (!) by way of an altered state of consciousness or by way of simple thermal physics. You already know the correct answer, but the video puts a dramatic exclamation point on that answer. And Wiseman tells the story well.

The clip as it exists at Google Video is here.

Wiseman warned us that the emcee of the program was also the announcer on an extreme sports show. So his empathy leaves something to be desired. Take out a stopwatch and measure the delay between the word, "commiserations," and his call for "Next!" Upon repeat viewings, notice that Wiseman holds back a smile or two while he describes the setup. I would not have done so well. Imagine multiple takes and me bursting out with laughter every time. It would take a day to shoot.

This clip is a great follow-on to Jearl Walker's Kinetic Karnival episode on The Leidenfrost Effect. I enthusiastically recommend Walker's series for high school physics classes. Note to teachers: you will want to preview the tapes and you might want to hit the mute button once or twice during in-class playback.

The content of Kinetic Karnival is fantastic and highly engaging. But you do have to endure the fact that Walker drinks beer and smokes cigarettes on film. If your students are unaware that adults engage in such behavior, Kinetic Karnival may not be for you.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

I'm on Skepticality!

I am envious of people who listen to a lot of podcasts and contribute frequently to online forums. They cleary have better time-management skills than I do. I contribute to two online forums, The JREF Forum and Bad Astronomy, but that's only because I'm addicted to the content of those sites. I listen to one podcast: Skepticality. I found Skepticality in the summer of 2005 and became an instant fan of the show. It helped with my mid-year TAM withdrawl symptoms. Hosts Derek and Swoopy were producing top-shelf skeptical content on a regular basis. And with each episode, you got to know them better.

In September 2005, Steve Jobs named Skepticality as a top podcast. That same month, they suffered a setback that would have sent most podcasts into oblivion. But they re-emerged in 2006 as the official podcast of Skeptic magazine. What a ride!

Anyway, I think the world of Derek and Swoopy--two ordinary folks from Roswell, Georgia who built a polished, excellent podcast from scratch. Meeting them at TAM5 was a highlight of the meeting. The fact that they included me in their TAM5 episode was an unexpected thrill. Swoopy mentions me by name and says something nice about me, I get to weigh in on the ongoing "monkey news" controversy, and they linked to my website on their show notes for Episode 45.

Download that episode to get a sampling of TAM5 audio gems that Swoopy was able to catch. I'll post to report when I can get my head to fit through a doorway again.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Speak up and be seen!

I am eager to see your comments (good or bad) on the latest released CST questions. But so is The California Department of Education. So if you want your comments to be seen by me and other visitors to this site, post them in the comments. If you want your comments to be seen by someone important (who can make a difference), post them to this page:

Comments there go to people involved in the STAR (Standardized Testing And Reporting) Program.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The symphony of CST criticism: Somebody does it better

"California has lousy standards and assessments. If you want to see a state that gets it right, check out what they've done in [StateName]."
Actually, I've never seen this criticism. I hope for it every year, but it never comes through.

While it is a great and worthy exercise to criticize California's published and readily-available standards and assessments, the product of such criticism is a statement of "how it would be if I were king." And those are great. But alas, you are not king. Nor am I. (Make no mistake; I should be king. But I am not.) There is a process by which standards and assessments come about. The process is filled with panels, committees, the legislature, the state board of education, obligations to state and federal law, etc. None of which fetter your (or my) vision of the perfect assessment tool.

My challenge to the critics is to point out the state that got it right. Did Idaho nail it? Was it perfected in Kansas? Should we hope to emulate Texas? Which state does it in a manner you would approve of? (And your own state of mind doesn't count on this one.)

Some come close to this criticism when they mention Advanced Placement, SAT Physics, or the Force Concept Inventory.
The problem is that none of those are standards-based, criterion-referenced assessments intended for all high school students. That's what the CST is. So comparisons between the CST and those other exams are apples and oranges.

So let me rephrase to make the challenge more clear. California's statewide assessment of high school physics (The Physics CST) is the best one in the country. There isn't a single state in the union that does it better. If you think I'm wrong, let me know. And name the state.

The symphony of CST criticism: Burn down the mission

"Standards and assessments are wrong."
Fair enough. We should all have an opinion on that matter, and we're likely to disagree with one another. Nothing wrong with that. Some of my best friends in the biz are mortally opposed to standards and assessments. Nevertheless, here we are. Standards and assessments are the reality on the ground. Like them or not, here they are.

Some say that the standards and assessment in physics should be openly opposed by the AAPT. And that if physics teachers organized, we could put an end to the tyranny. The harsh reality is that we could not. Standards and assessment in physics is but one brick in the Standards and assessment fortress. Chemistry, biology, and earth science have them, too. As does math, English, and social studies. As do the lower grades and subject-areas. We might peck away at one brick, but bringing the whole fortress down is at least an order of magnitude harder.

In any case, I cannot do much about the existence of standards and assessments from my position on the Assessment Review Panel. Efforts to abolish standards and assessment should be directed to the state legislature. But don't hold your breath.

The symphony of CST criticism: Bad science

"The science is wrong in question X."
My experience with physics teachers (high school, college, and university) is that we tend to have some opinions on content and assessment. Strong opinions. And they don't all match.

Given a hundred potential exam items, I wonder how many would gain unanimous approval from attendees of a section meeting of The American Association of Physics Teachers. We're a clever lot, and we can likely poke holes in any test item you put before us, no matter how simple or straightforward you think it is.

All questions on the CST are vetted and field-tested. Items written for the testing contractor are vetted by the contractor, California Department of Education personnel, and the Assessment Review Panel, which is made up of professional scientists and science educators (kindergarten through university). Many questions get burned at one level or another as they make their way to the CST. Some less-than-perfect questions even get included on operation forms. But as far as anyone in the process knows, the questions have solid content and are aligned to standards.

And if I failed to mention it before, releasing a question puts it beyond the reach of future operational forms.

The symphony of CST criticism: Standard mismatch

"Question X doesn't match the standard it's supposed to assess."
This is nearly the only topic of criticism applicable to my service on the Assessment Review Panel. But it requires a knowledge of the state-approved content standards. And there is a level of nuance involved. For example, newly released question number 16 could be judged an inappropriate question for the Physics CST. The question requires a mathematical understanding of Newton's law of universal gravitation. Such knowledge is the subject of Physics Content Standard 1.m. That standard is an untested "opportunity to learn." Since the CST is not supposed to assess students on untested standards, the question could be deemed inappropriate.

When a question from the database of CST items is sent out as a released test question, it can never again be used on an operational form. It has been put out to pasture. If a question made it on to a live test but really wasn't aligned to a given standard as well as we hope for, the pasture is exactly where it should be.

The symphony of CST criticism: An overview

Now that the latest set of released CST questions has been published, it's open season on California's standards and assessments. And let me be clear: I'm all for it. An annual physics exam imposed by the state on all high school underclassmen enrolled in physics is a topic worthy of discussion and criticism. Anyone concerned with high school physics instruction in California should pour over the RTQs. And anyone who does so is likely to find shortcomings.

Some might become disillusioned from this exercise. Surely the only questions that would ever be put on such an important exam would be constructed by content experts who were also assessment professionals. And those questions would be vetted by a deliberative panel of experts. I'm all for such a process. But that's not the process we have. The process we have is pretty good, but it's not perfect. So the exam questions are not always perfect.

All the easier to criticize, I say. Some criticism has already been offered in the comments to the previous post. My experience with CST criticism is that it follows about four different paths. I will discuss those paths and the relative merit of each in the next few posts.

Thursday, February 01, 2007


The newly updated Released Test Questions for the California Physics Standards Test are now available. Each year, the California Department of Education releases 25% of each CST administered the previous spring. This process has been in place since 2003, so we now have access to questions released from the the 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006 tests.

The Physics CST is 60 questions, so each year, 15 questions are added to the pool of RTQs. The physics RTQ document now has 60 questions. You might think that with 60 questions, the RTQs now constitute the equivalent of an administered, "live" test form. But you would be in error. The nature of RTQ selection and live test form construction are such that no, the RTQs do not match the blueprint of an operational test form.

The RTQs do constitute useful practice test items. They show the breadth and scope of typical test questions. You can get the newly updated physics RTQ document here:

I recommend running these questions past your students before this year's live administration.

Feel free to send comments and criticisms to me. I serve on the state's Assessment Review Panel, so I may have recommended some of these questions for use on the live form, and I may have recommended them for release in this document. If you find fault with any of them, I ask that you engage in a corrective discussion with me so that I might serve better in future reviews.

For readers eager to evaluate the worthiness of the newly released questions, they are items 1, 2, 10, 12, 16, 23, 27, 32, 34, 40, 41, 46, 54, 58, 60 on the new document.

If you want to see the full offering of newly updated RTQ documents, visit this page: