Improving student learning through research in a time of institutional distractions

The FSU Physics Department’s Studio Physics Program has been the university’s leading evidence-based teaching initiative for the entire decade of its existence.

But we are still trying to get better at helping our students learn physics with the understanding they need to be innovative engineers and scientists.

During yesterday’s weekly teaching assistant meeting, we were trying to assimilate the recommendations that new Apopka High School physics teacher Cody Smith made in his Honors Thesis study (completed this past summer and posted below) of how a group of three students in a studio physics class worked through a laboratory exercise on kinetic and gravitational potential energy.

We affectionately call the lab the “Bouncy Ball Lab” because in it the vertical motion of a bouncing playground ball is tracked by a Pasco ultrasonic range finder. The height and velocity of the ball are graphed in real time on a computer screen so students can relate what they see on the screen to the motion of the ball while it is happening. Or at least that is the theory.

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Performing the Bouncy Ball Lab

But what Cody found is that some students were having a difficult time relating what they saw on the computer screen to the motion of the ball. The range finder actually looks downward during the experiment, and the position graph the students were looking at was actually the opposite of the height because it was the distance downward from the range finder to the ball – not an upward distance. Cody’s conclusion was that making the transition from a downward distance to a height was more difficult for some students than we realized and kept the confused students from learning what we wanted them to about energy.

So today we changed the way the computer display is arranged and added an additional exercise – tracking a falling book using the range finder – to give students additional practice in understanding the graphs on the computer screen and relating them to energy concepts.

A week later in the semester, we will add a laboratory exercise about kinetic and gravitational potential energy in two-dimensional projectile motion – also because of a recommendation Cody made in his Honors Thesis.

Cody’s Honors Thesis work spun off from a larger project led by science education doctoral student Father Mark Akubo (yes, a Catholic priest) to examine in detail the conversations that students have in our studio physics classes and to use analyses of these conversations to improve instruction. Even though Cody’s analysis was limited in scope, it was a remarkable demonstration of the power of examining in a microscopic way how students navigate the course’s learning exercises.

The idea of focusing on boosting student learning in a classroom environment designed to improve the prospects of all students through collaborative hands-on laboratory and problem-solving exercises is particularly relevant now that FSU has embarked on an effort to judge the success of classes through the rates at which students earn grades of D or F or withdraw (so it is called the “DFW rate”). A student who earns a grade of D or F or withdraws from a course required from her or his major must repeat the course to continue in the same major – and that is inefficient. Faculty members will now have to decide whether to give every student a grade of C- or better (regardless of a student’s learning) in order to avoid possible sanctions, or whether to focus on student learning and keep this weird new incentive from undermining the academic environment.

It is a frustrating change for a university that had just become the state’s leading undergraduate institution.

If one of the goals of the implementation of the DFW metric is, as the administration says, to improve the retention and persistence of members of underrepresented groups – and in fields like engineering and physics that includes women, black and Hispanic students – then the Studio Physics classes should be regarded as models that should be emulated by other academic units on campus. They have certainly been so at institutions like North Carolina State (where the SCALE-UP model we adopted as Studio Physics was created), Clemson, the University of Minnesota and Virginia Tech.

But for now there doesn’t seem to be any interest in such a project.

It is sometimes too easy to get caught up in the tumult over issues like the DFW rate. Fortunately, my students often bring me back to Earth. Three of my women students arrived almost simultaneously for my office hours on Wednesday morning, and I enjoyed watching them feed off of each other while they built their understanding of Newton’s Laws. I added a suggestion only occasionally. It was fun (for me, that is) and a welcome break from the difficult discussion that the Physics faculty is having over several issues. On Wednesday evening, I wrote to these three students and thanked them for reminding me why I’m an educator.

Cody’s Honors Thesis is here:

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Making sense of data from the Bouncy Ball Lab with the help of a graduate teaching assistant

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A Studio Physics classroom

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One Response to Improving student learning through research in a time of institutional distractions

  1. Pingback: Why do I teach in FSU’s Studio Physics Program? Because I am able to look in the mirror in the morning and know I’m doing the best thing for the students in my class. | Bridge to Tomorrow

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