National Society of Black Physicists to host #iteachphysics chat on SCALE-UP on Saturday

The National Society of Black Physicists will host a twitter chat about SCALE-UP this Saturday during its biweekly #iteachphysics chat session starting at 10 am.  I will be moderating this week.

For participants in the chat, I’ve assembled this list of points that might help start getting the discussion going:

FSU’s SCALE-UP program serves about 200 students per semester in two SCALE-UP classrooms with capacities of 72 and 63 students. We teach mostly calculus-based intro physics in SCALE-UP, but we have recently added an algebra-based SCALE-UP sequence based loosely on the physics-for-life-science majors course developed at the University of Maryland. Our Physics Department maintains a parallel traditional lecture program that serves more students than SCALE-UP. So students can choose whether to take SCALE-UP or the traditional lecture class.

SCALE-UP was my first real lesson in the power of architecture to affect student behavior. The first class we held in our new SCALE-UP room in 2007 was actually just a recitation for a traditional lecture class – we hadn’t had time to schedule a real SCALE-UP class for that semester. Yet the first day the students came in, many of them sat down at the tables and started working on problems together without any prompting from me, the instructor. In a traditional classroom, students often come in, sit down and stare into space.  The round tables prompted students to start collaborating on problem-solving.

As the ideal physical learning environment for an interactive engagement pedagogy, SCALE-UP generally doubles student learning gains as measured by concept inventories like the Force Concept Inventory over traditional lecture classes. Although research has shown that instructors placed in a SCALE-UP classroom against their will can screw it up. And if a class decides to rebel against the pedagogy or the subject en masse, not much learning will go on. That happened to me once with a classroom full of biology majors.

SCALE-UP may not make an instructor popular with students. Learning science with deep understanding is not something most of my students have done before. They are at FSU in part because they have been fairly successful in lecture-and-regurgitate classes. As it becomes clear to them that the SCALE-UP learning experience is actually a repudiation of lecture-and-regurgitate, they can become very angry. This happens with 4.0 students at least as often as it happens to weaker students. This is one reason we have only brought tenured colleagues into our FSU SCALE-UP program.

SCALE-UP may not make an instructor popular with colleagues. If the administration of the department, college and university decide that it is important to encourage the SCALE-UP effort with both moral support and monetary support – as has happened at FSU – there can be simmering resentments among non-SCALE-UP colleagues. Mostly our colleagues here at FSU have been tolerant. After all, our colleagues are generally very nice people. But this is another reason we have limited our SCALE-UP program to tenured colleagues.

SCALE-UP may not be popular with advisors. I have had several advisors tell me they would not advise a student into SCALE-UP physics because they see taking a class like ours with its emphasis on deep understanding as a serious academic risk for a student who has been successful in lecture-and-regurgitate courses (Although the advisors didn’t use the term “lecture-and-regurgitate”. But they did use the word “risk”.)

Managing student interactions is both a great opportunity and a weighty responsibility for a SCALE-UP instructor. All of the things you have read about how women and minority students can be shunned and get lost in the mathematical sciences come to life in introductory physics classes. It’s just that in a traditional lecture class the instructor generally can’t see it happening and it’s easy to ignore. If a SCALE-UP instructor’s eyes are open at all, she or he will see these awful things happening. Therefore, the SCALE-UP instructor has both the opportunity and responsibility for managing these interactions. Here is one story from my own SCALE-UP class.

In establishing a SCALE-UP program or any other instructional program that breaks the traditional mold, it helps to have a core group of experienced faculty who know their way around the institution’s hierarchy. As described in some detail here.

Get the word out. Tell your SCALE-UP story to the world – and to your administration. Like this.  If you look carefully in the upper left hand corner of the picture below, you will see an older-looking fellow (the FSU President at the time) with his wife. They visited for a few hours several summers ago. Our present President and Provost were scheduled to visit a SCALE-UP class last Monday, but Tropical Storm Colin washed out the visit. They’ve promised to try again.

Class Panorama

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