Keeping it short

Sharing is a Good Thing.

Reflecting on teaching & learning is a Good Thing.

Writing in this space is a great place to both share and reflect, yet as can easily be discovered by scrolling down this site's homepage, I haven't been writing much. I want to fix this, but I'm not too great at simply wishing that into fruition. So, here's my plan (publicly declared so your peer-pressure will force me to keep it):

  1. Keep it short. The latest trend sweeping the baseball blogosphere are short, quick ~200 word posts.  I've too often felt like I needed to write 1,000 word posts full of images and explainers (see GDrive Lab Report Workflow). I like those type of posts- but they take a long time. Seriously long. I need to reduce the barrier to entry, so I'm going to try to keep posts about 200 words long.
  2. Keep it regular. I need to get back in the habit. My goal is to write one post a month for the next year. Yeah, I know, that's a pretty wimpy number. But seriously, have you seen how many posts were published last year? [Hint: It's less than 2, more than 0]

Good luck, me.

[FYI: There's 198ish words up there]

The SuperStorm Sandy Disaster Relief Marathon Results Are In!

Ben Pre-Marathon

The SuperStorm Sandy Disaster Relief NYC Marathon of Oakdale, CT is complete! I'm happy to say that not only did I finish first in my age group, I also won the overall classification. Let me break down the event by the numbers:

Total Distance

26.2-ish miles
The GPS app I use to track my running (iSmoothRun w/ Runkeeper) listed the total distance at 25.73 miles, but I've measured it using a few different mapping tools and I get distances between 26.1 and 26.3 miles. Maybe it was a little short, but whatever.

Running Time & Pace

3:52:46, at an average pace of 9:03/mile
A little slower than I was hoping to run the official NYC Marathon, but given the hilly nature of the course (not surprising considering 6-7 miles of the course were run on roads with the word "Hill" in their name), it's really faster than I expected.

Total Donations (as of this post)

That's a lot. Much more than I would've predicted when this seemingly hare-brained idea was hatched in an NYC restaurant on Friday night a few short hours after learning the NYC Marathon was cancelled. I can't thank everyone who donated enough. I also appreciate everyone who spread the word via Facebook, Twitter, or word of mouth. It made what might've just been a very disappointing weekend into a extremely positive experience.

Donations per mile run


Donations per minute of running


Average miles driven by the support staff to get from their home to the starting line

836 of which were driven by my amazing sister, who decided to take an impromptu vacation and drove overnight from Holland, MI(!) to cheer me on.

Number of support staff

Consisting of my wife, Samantha, my father-in-law, Gregg, and my sister, Meika.

Number of times the police were called because of the support staff

Once. (maybe)
Evidently they pulled into the driveway of some very suspicious homeowners to wait for me. My sister is pretty sure she overheard one of the homeowners on the phone reporting suspicious activity. Fortunately they were gone before any law enforcement officials showed up.

Pileated woodpeckers seen

I didn't realize Pileated Woodpeckers lived in Connecticut, but I spooked one between miles 3 & 5. It flew along the road before landing in a tree further up the road. When I caught up with it I saw it fly away again further into the woods. It was easily the largest (non-animated) woodpecker I've ever seen.

Reflections on the Event

My wife and I had just arrived in NYC. We'd checked into our hotel, and headed out to catch the shuttle bus taking marathoners from the hotels to the Marathon Expo. We just missed the bus and were standing on the sidewalk waiting for the next bus when I received a couple tweets telling me that the marathon had been cancelled. At first I figured these people were confused. I mean, Mayor Bloomberg had said in no uncertain terms earlier in the week that the marathon would go on. Turns out, they were right. Truth is, because we were without power for a 36 hours, I was busy trying to wrap up first quarter stuff at school, and planning for a run I hadn't been paying very close attention to the level of destruction Sandy had caused in the NY/NJ area. I knew it was pretty bad, but I didn't realize the extent of the devastation.

We eventually caught the bus anyway- we really just didn't know what to do- and attended the saddest pre-race expo I've ever seen. It was striking how many people were there from overseas. We passed a large group from Denmark and then were surrounded people talking French, Spanish, Japanese, Italian, and several other languages I couldn't easily identify. Clearly, these people had much more reason to be upset than I did, with my measly 3 hour commute which included a free train ride into the city from New Haven.

I was extremely conflicted: I was mad, but then mad at myself for being upset knowing that the canceling the marathon was the right decision. I was ticked that the decision was made so late1, but humbled by the fact that so many people had flown thousands of miles just to have the marathon cancelled at the last minute.

Ultimately, this frustration is what led to the idea for the SuperStorm Sandy Disaster Relief NYC Marathon of Oakdale, CT. Since the NYC Marathon uses a lottery system, I'd been applying to run for 3 years before gaining entry for this year, and I'd spent the last 6+ months training. I'd made it no secret to those who asked that this was most likely going to be the last time I ran a marathon- the training is extremely time-consuming and strenuous. I do enjoy running, but coming home after school on a Tuesday to do a 13 mile run in the dark or waking up at 5am on Sunday morning to crank out 18 miles isn't so enjoyable. In the end, I didn't want all the preparation to go to waste. I also wanted to do something to help those still suffering- those people who should benefit most from the cancellation of the NYC Marathon.

The response to my fundraising marathon has been more than I would've ever expected. My post announcing the marathon caused a spike in traffic unlike anything this blog has ever seen. Then there's the $1,148(!!!) that's been raised for disaster relief. Here I was thinking that if people donated a hundred or two dollars on top of what we were donating it'd be a wildly successful event. Perhaps it's cliché at this point to say something about the power of social networks but this event certainly wouldn't have been as successful without being connected to awesome & supportive people from all over the world.

Race Recap

The route was a combination of routes I'd used when training, so I was very familiar with most of it- which means I knew it would be a tough run thanks to several long and several steep hills. That being said, the route is also gorgeous. The route is mostly made of narrow backroads through wooded areas, passing small family farms and scenic lakes along the way.

The first 7-8 miles I managed was maintaining a very fast 8:15ish per mile pace. I was hoping to do the NYC Marathon near an 8:30 pace (This may have been a bit ambitious), so I was really cruising. However, I was definitely being helped out by running down a lot of hills through this section. The support staff was stopping every two miles supplying water and cheers. It was fun to come up over a hill or around a corner and see my cheering section and the official support vehicle up ahead.

Just past 8 miles, I started on the only part of the course I had never run before: a 4-mile section that I hadn't actually scouted. It turned out that 3 miles in this section were extremely narrow unpaved roads- I was worried that these roads might not actually go through as they're shown on maps (something that's not all that uncommon in the area), but fortunately they did. At about the half-way mark, I was back on familiar roads- which was good because I knew what was coming- it was also bad because I knew what was coming.

The next 6 or so miles were the hilliest of the entire route, notably featuring a killer mile that included a gain in 280 vertical feet. About 19 miles in, I was thinking finishing this race might not be a guarantee. Fortunately the next couple of miles were more downhill that up, and I felt refreshed (well, as refreshed as one can after running 20+ miles). I was definitely feeling tired- my upper back and shoulders were sore, and my legs were pretty well thrashed.

By mile 24 or so, I was in very familiar territory, but I was also beat. The last mile includes a significant hill. The dread for this hill kept me from having many happy thoughts about being nearly done. I decided to walk up part of the hill since my calves were pretty tight and I was worried I might start cramping up. Fortunately that didn't happen. I got up the hill and ran in the last half mile or so, feeling pretty dern good at the finish. My wonderful support crew even drew a finish line on the street and managed to recruit one of the neighbors to honk his truck's horn as I finished.

I'm glad to have done this race for charity and I'm glad to be done with training. This still might be my last marathon ever- even if it's announced that the 2012 NYC Marathon runners are automatically qualified for the 2013 race. Training for a marathon sucks. For that matter, running a marathon really doesn't go under the "fun" category either.

Race Route


  1. Still my biggest gripe- it should've been cancelled right away on Tuesday. (back)

My first weeks as a Modeling Physics teacher

As I mentioned earlier, I'm teaching Physics at a new-ish high school this year. I've been spending a large chunk of time designing the curriculum and materials for this class. So far, the year has been a bit hectic (thus the lack of posts here), but the school community is really amazing, supportive, and progressive. A few things that are making what can be a difficult first year much better than average:

  1. Experts at my fingertips & time to develop curriculum. The curriculum people at my new school were very proactive in trying to connect me to experienced physics teachers. I was (and continue to be) impressed with the level of support they're providing for teachers developing new curricula. Unfortunately, none of the teachers had used Modeling Instruction. Fortunately, I've curated a twitter feed that includes 15-20 active modelers and I've found countless helpful resources from those very helpful people. We've also had dedicated time to work on curriculum development. Besides a (paid) week in June, we've also been given time during our professional development time to simply work on building the curriculum. As someone new to the school developing the curriculum for a class that has never before been offered at this school, this has been invaluable.
  2. The willingness to help a n00b. Here's a Venn Diagram showing Teachers using Twitter/Blogs and Teachers willing to help out a poor Modeling Instruction rookie who wasn't able to make it to a Modeling Workshop this summer due to his crazy schedule:
    You people are awesome.
    Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising- I mean, if someone is actively spending time writing a blog or sharing via twitter they're more than likely into the whole "sharing" thing. I'm sure I've asked (and will continue to ask) more than my share of dumb questions. Amazingly, despite my frequent questions that surely induce heavy eye-rolling on the other side of the Internet, I've continued to receive an amazing amount of help with zero snark (and zero snark when we're talking about The Tweeter is nothing to shake a stick at!).
  3. The huge resource of online materials. I chose Modeling Instruction as the curriculum for my Physics classes because I believe in the process it supports- not because it's the easiest to design and implement. To be honest, it's a bit scary (especially because I couldn't get to a Modeling Workshop prior to implementation). However, there is no shortage of materials to be found online- and not just general "modeling-instruction-is-great-and-here's-why" materials (there's a lot of that too, though). There are detailed descriptions of labs and their results, handouts, tips for whiteboarding, worksheets, etc., etc., etc.

    Here's a partial list:

    • The American Modeling Teacher's Association. Yes, you need to be a member to access the resources, but the resources are huge. I shelled out the $250 for a lifetime membership. The materials and support I gained access to for that money is easily worth the $250 by itself.
    • Kelly O'Shea's Model Building Posts & Unit Packets. Kelly's an expert modeler. Her posts really helped me first visualize what a modeling classroom looks like. Her materials are also excellent.
    • Mark Schober's Modeling Physics. Contains materials and resources for every modeling unit, along with calendars- which was nice as someone new to modeling to get a rough timeline for each unit.
    • Todd K's DHS Physics Site. Even more modeling materials and calendars.
  4. Paying it forward. It's my plan to make the materials I develop and implement for my Physics classes readily available online in some format, at some point. I've gained so much value from the resources others have posted that it is (perhaps with some hubris) my hope that others in the future might gain something from my experience. Obviously I'm no expert- but my hope is that through sharing both the materials and my reflections on how they were implemented will, if nothing else, help me to become a more purposeful and reflective educator.

Perhaps I'm odd, but I really enjoy designing new curricula- which is a lucky break since I'm responsible for designing the Physics curriculum from the ground up. So far it's been a challenge given the specifics of my particular situation (which will undoubtedly be a topic for future post), but as I come to know my students better and gain more experience implementing modeling instruction, I've found the process more and more enjoyable.

Looking Back on EdCampCT 2012

Welp...a second EdCampCT has come and gone. EdCamps are always a great time for learning and meeting people you've only interacted with online. This EdCamp was special- as a co-organizer, it still amazes me that I had a part in bringing 100ish educators together to learn from each other. As an organizer, the day of EdCampCT was a bit hectic, but I was able to attend several sessions, talk to lots of people, and think a little about who attended and what was going on at EdCamp.


It's great that EdCamps are conferences where 100% of the attendees actually want to be there. I've been to several education conferences where the majority of attendees were required to go by their administration. Some of those conferences were good, though most weren't. When the attendees want to be there and have a personal stake in the content of the conference it makes for a much happier conference culture and more involved attendees.

We don't have exact counts, but based on the simple number of hands that were raised when we asked participants if this was their first EdCamp, it looks like it was the first time for about 50% of EdCampCT 2012 attendees. Though I have zero actual data to support the following assertion, it seems like many newcomers heard about EdCampCT through word of mouth recommendations from participants of previous EdCamps.
For example:

Things to consider for future EdCamps

  • First, there seems to be demand for future EdCampCT events. Let me lay everyone's worries to rest and let you know we are planning on holding EdCampCT 3.0 in 2013. Keep an eye on the official website and twitter feed (@EdCampCT), though we probably won't be announcing the date for the next EdCampCT until early 2013. If you'd be interesting in helping organize next year's EdCampCT, drop us a line1.
  • It's exciting to introduce so many educators to the EdCamp movement. It does make me worry that we might not be meeting the needs of first time EdCampers as well as we could, however. In general, I think the whole ideology behind EdCamps helps include newcomers, but there's always room for improvement. Did we explain the EdCamp ideology/format in a way that made it clear to those who are unfamiliar with EdCamps? What more could we do to encourage first time EdCampers to lead sessions? If you have any ideas or insights, I'd love to hear them in the comments.
  • EdCamps are definitely becoming a thing that happens more and more frequently. The only EdCamps that were held in New England prior to the first EdCampCT in 2011 were EdCamp Keene, EdCamp Boston, and EdCamp NYC. In between EdCampCT 2011 and 2012 there were eight EdCamp events in New England- and that's only counting the recurring EdCamp BHS & RSD6 events as one each. Before 2012 is over another four EdCamps will be held in New England2. I love that there's such a high demand for EdCamp-style professional development. I wonder, though, what effect the increasing ubiquity of EdCamps will have on attendance at any one EdCamp:
    • Will average attendance decrease because educators can attend EdCamps closer to home?
    • Will attendance increase because more people will be exposed to EdCamps (and obviously love it) and thus want to attend more events?
    • If more and more schools adopt EdCamp-style professional development as a regular part of the school year, will the demand for "special event" EdCamps (like most EdCamps held to date) decrease?

    While I'd miss the "special event" EdCamps when they're gone, I think it'd be a major feather in the hat of the EdCamp movement to have had a major effect on professional development all over the world. In this hypothetical future, I'd bet there'd still be room for a few "special event" EdCamps if for no other reason than because it's always fun to meet with people from outside your school and district. I'm sure EdCampCT would be one of those that'd still go on even after we've totally revolutionized PD across the world- after all as the EdCamp Foundation Chairman of the Board says:


Possible Improvements

  • Overly technology focused? Personally, I'd like to see a little less of a focus on technology and a greater focus on effective teaching & learning in general. Maybe this is just a somewhat selfish hope from someone who has been paying attention to the EdTech world for several years now. The conversations & sessions I've really enjoyed at EdCamps have focused primarily on some aspect of teaching other than explicitly on technology (on Standards-Based Grading, for example). That said, there's no doubt that the technology-centric sessions are extremely popular- and I recognize that these sessions are great for teachers who are getting started with technology in the classroom.
  • Better outreach & publicity. We (the organizers of EdCampCT) tried pretty hard to spread the word about EdCampCT to as many educators as possible. There's no doubt, however, that Twitter is how a lot of people hear about EdCampCT. This likely means there's a bias in who attends the event towards educators who are already at least somewhat tech-savvy. I wonder what else we might do to spread the word about EdCampCT to those who might not use (or even heard of) the Tweeter. Certainly these teachers could benefit from the EdCamp PD model as well.

Other Items of Note

  • EdCamp Food. It seems we've become known as the EdCamp of tasty food. This is not a bad thing. We're pretty lucky that our host, The Ethel Walker School, has a food service crew that is also used for special events held at the school (weddings, alumni events, etc.). They know how to make super tasty food. I'd have to say that although the potato chips- which earned international acclaim last year- were still super delicious, the rest of the food was also wa-a-a-a-ay above average. I realize the food isn't what makes an EdCamp great (it's the learning & sharing, natch), but if we're lucky enough to be in a position to also provide tasty food it ain't gonna hurt the learning that happens. 🙂
  • The second time around. Last year I can remember being seriously worried that nobody would sign up for the first ever EdCampCT. I remember worrying that we wouldn't have enough people who would be willing to lead sessions. This year- the second time around- I wasn't nearly as worried. In fact, the whole planning & preparing for EdCampCT 2012 involved much less all-around anxiety- not because it was necessarily less work the second time- but rather because we already had the experience of organizing one EdCamp under out belt. Something I need to work on is taking time to talk and connect with people a little more at EdCampCT. As an organizer I wanted the event to go smoothly for everyone so I found myself leaving conversations to go check on this or that. While there are a lot of things that I do need to help with as an organizer, it's probably well worth taking a little extra time to make connections and have conversations.
  • Session/Conversation Trends.
    • iPads were again a hot topic: There were five individual sessions that focused specifically on iPads. That seemed a big increase from last year, but it turns out there were four iPad sessions last year. So, the trend continues.
    • Evernote and Symbaloo seemed to be hot topics on Twitter. Each tool had its own session, but it definitely seemed that the sharing went beyond just the participants in those sessions (Unless the people who attended those sessions were just tweeting like crazy). While I've been using Evernote for awhile now (mostly for recipes, actually), Symbaloo was new to me. It's now on my short list of things to check out before school starts.
    • A few tools from the SmackDown (see the full list of tools shared here) that I really like and fully endorse:
      • DarkSky App: An iPhone/iPad app that gives very detailed forecasts one hour out. For example, it'll tell you something like, "Moderate rain will start in 10 minutes and last 35 minutes." It's already been useful helping me decide when I should go out for a run and mow the lawn.
      • Caffeine: An app for Macs that does one simple thing- it keeps your computer from going to sleep. If you ever use your computer to present or watch longer form videos, it's a great thing to have. It's also free.
      • Waze: A mobile GPS navigation app (available for most smart phones) that uses community information to determine the best routes. What's great is that it uses information from Waze users to update traffic conditions. If there's a slow-down on the highway that will automatically show up on the map with the average speed of traffic. It'll also look for faster alternative routes. I've been using Waze for a couple years and it's saved me from getting caught in nasty traffic many times.

    And not least

    Finally, it was great to work with such a great group of co-organizers to help put this event together. Thanks Sarah, Jen, and Dan! It takes a good bit of work to pull off EdCampCT, but everything always goes smoothly because of the dedicated work of all my co-organizers. I also want to give a special shout out to Sarah- who as a result of working at The Ethel Walker School (in addition to being amazingly awesome) always gets stuck with putting in more work than any of the other organizers.

    I look forward to helping plan EdCampCT events for many more years! 🙂


    1. The best way to do that would be by either: posting a comment to this blog, sending a tweet to @EdCampCT or any of the organizers (Sarah- @sedson, Jen- @jweeks21, Dan- @DanAgins, or Ben- @WillyB). (back)
    2. EdCamps Hudson Valley, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and SeaCoast (NH). You should check them out. (back)

Why attend EdCamp CT?

I have a love/hate relationship with professional development. I like getting better at teaching. I like hearing from people who are smarter and/or more experienced than I am. Unfortunately, my experience with "official" school-district provided professional development is too than stellar.

This less than stellar PD is one of the main reasons Twitter has been an amazing resource. It allows my professional development to be self-directed: focusing on what I want help with when I want help with it. As great as the Twitter was (and continues to be) for this, I missed the face-to-face interactions that can't happen over the Twitter.

Fortunately, EdCamp is a thing. It combines the just-in-time, self-directed professional development I enjoy from Twitter with the great face-to-face conversations I value so much from traditional professional development. It also happens to be free (which is a bonus, because it's worth my hard-earned money).

What makes EdCamp different?

Well, quite a lot, actually.

  1. It's democratic. At the beginning of the day the participants propose sessions and design the schedule for the day.
  2. It's participatory. Sessions at EdCamps are encouraged to be conversations between the session leaders and participants. No hour long terrible comic-sans slide decks with one person droning on. I promise.
  3. It's organized and run entirely by volunteer educators. Sure there are sponsors to help pay for lunch, prizes, and so on, but there's no exhibitor hall with salespeople hawking their wares or sessions that are just sales pitches. In fact, if such a sales-pitch session did happen you would be encouraged to...
  4. with your feet. If you find yourself in a session that just isn't the topic you had hoped it would be, you can leave. It's not just okay to walk out, it's encouraged. We don't want you to waste your time sitting through a session you don't find applicable to your needs. In fact, you can wander in and out as you please. Or skip a session if you simply need time to organize your thoughts or even take a break.

If you're free August 10, 2012 and in the New England region, you should attend EdCamp CT. It'll be a great day of professional development with passionate educators from all over the region1. You can register for EdCamp CT here. I hope to see you there!


  1. There might even be amazing potato chips again... (back)

Encouraging Creativity with a Growth Mindset

Packed house at #edcampbos opening session

I found myself thinking a lot about what schools are doing and what they should be doing to prepare students for their lives after formal education while attending EdCamp Boston this past weekend. During a session where Katrina Kennett and her students were sharing about how they create a learning environment based off the EdCamp model1 I found myself wondering what it was like for Katrina's students to hear their teacher discussing how she designed the system and has addressed specific issues.

My mind wandered back to a discussion at an earlier session discussing ways the training/education of pre-service teachers could be improved. During that conversation the idea of encouraging pre-service teachers to employ a "growth mindset2" came up- mainly because we thought a growth mindset was something we desired for our students and as a result it's something desirable for teachers so they can encourage it in their students.

Teaching students to be resilient, creative, and independent thinkers is hard. It's not something that can be done with a "good" textbook or curriculum and is essentially impossible to assess using the current regime of standardized testing. It's not simply about having students take lots fine arts classes (though that's not a bad thing)- it's something that should be an integral part of the school culture. But how do you do that?

Personally, I think we should model it for our students in our classrooms. When Katrina was discussing how she designed and implemented EdCafés in front of her students, they were able to get a behind the scenes view of how she addresses problems that come up and how the process was changed and tweaked over time. This behind the scenes view of the teaching process can model how problems and failures can be jumping off points to future success. Often classrooms are places where both teachers and students are afraid of failing. Instead we need to model how failures today can lead to some of the best learning opportunities tomorrow. I've heard it said that the biggest challenge for science graduate students is the transition from undergrad- where information is taught like we know everything- to research- where the best place to work is in the unknown3.

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny ...'
-Isaac Asimov

In today's manic "Ed Reform" environment, there's plenty of talk about preparing kids for the future. But the future is uncertain and what knowledge they'll need in the future is uncertain. What we do know is that students will need to be flexible. They'll need to be able to adapt and change to new situations. While a good background of knowledge in science, math, history, etc. is important, it's more important we help students lose their fear of failure and help them learn how to be resilient. These are things I'd like schools to be doing explicitly.


  1. It was a good session- largely (for me) because students led the discussion most of the time modeling how the EdCafé system works in the classroom. It was nice example of good professional development design. If you're interested, you can read about EdCafés at the EdCafé posterous. (back)
  2. What is a growth mindset? "In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment." via Mindset Online For (much) more, check out John Burk's numerous posts on encouraging a growth mindset in his students. (back)
  3. I can't remember where I heard this. If you know drop me a line and I'll update it. (back)

Things That Drive Me Crazy

In no particular order. And I reserve the right to be driven crazy by things excluded from this list.

  1. My example "bad" slide deck (from this post) has been viewed on SlideShare over twice as often and downloaded 4+ times as often as the new, improved, better version.
  2. The number one route people on the internetz take to get to this post in which I lament the poor quality of worksheet labs is by searching the Google for, "Worksheet for Hooke's Law," or some variation thereof.
  3. Grade grubbing. A couple weeks ago we got back the scores from the second exam in my Organic Chemistry class. I lost 10 points for making a small silly mistake in a reaction's mechanism. I wasn't very happy about receiving 0/10 points when I clearly showed more that 0% understanding of the topic (I'd've given myself a 7/10- proficient, but with room for improvement). The professor was overwhelmed with grade grubbers after passing back the exam who were quite clearly simply looking for extra points to improve their grade. I couldn't bring myself to ask for partial credit because I didn't want to be associated with the grade grubbers.

The first two especially bother me- most notably because they have this ironic quality of juxtaposing things I've posted about moving away from "traditional" instructional models and people looking for resources to use teacher-centrically. Today I changed the description of the poor slide deck in SlideShare to, "Please don’t use these slides to teach. Really. I only posted this as an example of how I used to (poorly) use PowerPoint." Let's see if that helps.

What is the purpose of Physics class?

I took three physics classes through a local community college last semester. From how the content was presented in each class, it would be fair to say Physics is primarily concerned with learning a set of equations and then figuring out which equation you need to use in order to find the right answer.

This is not a very useful skill. People wiser than I have pointed out similar things. So why, in high school and introductory college physics classes, do they lean so heavily on "learning the formulas?" Here are the two arguments I've heard the most often:

They'll need it in college/their careers

It could be argued, perhaps, that it is good preparation for students who will be pursuing engineering or scientific careers- after all, they'll be taking college classes and graduate classes and probably use a couple equations during their careers. However, there's a big problem with this line of thinking. Are all the students in a high school physics class there because they're planning on becoming scientists and engineers? A few, maybe. Most of them will not- and that's OK, but this realization should cause us to rethink how we present the material.

The equations explain the relationship between variables

I'm sympathetic towards this line of thinking (more on this later)- but not enough to think it's valid. Whenever I hear this argument the first question that comes to mind is "Is this the best way to explore those relationships?" In my experience, students who have struggled understanding physics often did so because they couldn't make sense of what the equations actually describe. Given an equation and all the variables but one and they'd be able to work though a problem, but they weren't understanding why that answer makes sense and any further obfuscation of the problem quickly threw them off track. I agree that the relationship between variables is an important bit. I don't believe that equations clarify that relationship for the vast majority of students.

How I'd like to teach physics

Understanding the relationship between variables, in my mind, is the key to a useful understanding of physics. If I push twice as hard on this shopping cart, what happens to the cart's acceleration? That's a tangible situation that is easier to understand than simply throwing out F = ma and hoping students figure out that relationship on their own. Further, students should discover these relationships. Give students some equipment and tools and have them measure what happens to an object's acceleration as they apply more or less force on the object (some tracking software would be really handy for this). Then have them apply the same force but change up the mass. Chances are pretty good they'll be able to discover F = ma on their own. Chances are they'll have a much better conceptual understanding of what F = ma means at this point than if you simply gave them the equation and had them do some problems. Or if you simply had them prove the formula is correct in a lab.

Why it matters

  1. I believe the focus on relationships promotes a better conceptual understanding of physics- the students can more effectively internalize the way the world around them works. A populace with a healthy baseline of physics knowledge could prevent silly and potential harmful pseudoscience such as magnet therapy from becoming an issue.
  2. There's been a focus on increasing interest in STEM careers- and a special focus on recruiting women and minorities into STEM fields (see this White House press release). An equation-focused physics curriculum can seem intimidating to students. A collaborative, constructivist approach can be perceived to be less intimidating and more welcoming (I'd recommend giving Episode 32 of the Shifted Learning podcast for some interesting bits on gender issues in STEM).

Modeling Instruction

I don't have much experience with Modeling Instruction, but it seems from my reading that the instruction I've been describing is essentially what it is. As a bonus, it's well developed, well researched, and well used instructional method to improve students' ability to construct a better understanding of the physical world around them.

If you're interested, I've found both Kelly O'Shea's series on model building and Frank Noschese's primer to modeling instruction to be great resources. Check their blogrolls for even more good stuff from teachers using modeling.

As I look forward to potentially teaching physics next year I want students who take my classes to come out with a lasting understanding of the topic. I don't want them to half-heartedly memorize equations that they'll forget two weeks after we finish a unit. I'd like to teach for all the students, not just the future scientists and engineers.

Missing school

This morning I volunteered to help out one of my physics instructors with an activity on fiber optics at a local high school. I had to skip one of my classes this morning in order to volunteer, but I'm killing it in that class and I haven't been in a high school classroom in a long time. I've been out of the classroom since the middle of June, 2011. Okay, okay, so that's not even 6 months, but the 60ish minutes I spent in a high school today reminded me how much I miss it.

I miss the mental gymnastics of devising solid lessons and activities. I really miss the relationships with students. After playing a minor part in a classroom for an hour this morning I wanted to stay the rest of the day observing teachers, tweaking lessons, and talking to students.

My life is much less stressful this year (despite the lack of a salary). I go to class. I do my homework. I come home to more free time than I've ever had in the last 9 years.

And yet, I miss teaching1. It's good gig.


  1. I'll be back teaching next year (assuming I get a job). In fact if you know anyone hiring a physics/earth science/chemistry teacher next year...(back)

Pipe Insulation Roller Coaster Assessment

Welcome back. If you haven't joined us for the last two posts, let me recommend that you first read about determining rolling friction on the coaster and the project overview.

On to the assessment...

Assessment is extremely important. It explicitly informs students what things we value (and thus the things we value). If we assess the wrong things, students will focus on the wrong things. This can turn an otherwise excellent project into a mediocre project. For this post, I'll share two methods of assessment: First, the "old" method I used when I last taught physics (in 2008). Second, my updated assessment scheme that I'd use if I did this project again.

The old assessment strategy

Embedded below is the document I gave to students at the beginning of the pipe insulation roller coaster project. Most noticeably it includes a description of the assessment scheme I used way back in January of 2008.

As you can see, I split the assessment of this project into two equal parts:

An assessment of the finished roller coaster

I wanted students to think carefully about the design, construction, and "marketing" of their coasters. I wanted them to design coasters that not only met the requirements, but coasters that were beautiful and interesting. Individual items being assessed under this rubric were weighted differently. For example, "Appropriate name of the coaster" was only worth 5%, while "Creativity, originality, and aesthetics" was worth 20%. Here's a link to the sheet I used when assessing this aspect of the coaster project.

An assessment of the physics concepts

In the embedded document above, you can see the breakdown of what items were being assessed. In my last post on pipe insulation roller coasters, you can see how students labeled their coasters with information on the marble's energy, velocity, and such along the track. Groups were required to turn in a sheet with the calculations they performed to arrive at these numbers. These sheets were the primary basis for determining whether students understood the physics concepts.


There are a lot of problems with the assessment scheme as described above. I'm not going to try to address them all, so here are a couple of the biggest issues:

  • Assessing coaster design
    • I'm a fan of elegant design. For this project I'm a fan of finished coasters that look well designed and exciting. That's why I included the first part of the assessment. I wanted to incentivize students to think about the design and construction of their coasters. In retrospect this is probably unnecessary. Students generally came into this project with plenty of intrinsic motivation to make their coaster the best in the history of the class. While I'd still stress the importance of quality design in the future, I'd completely cut this half of the assessment. Students already cared about the design of their coaster. If anything, awarding points for coaster design had an net negative effect. Especially because it doesn't assess anything related to the understanding of physics.
  • Assessing student understanding of physics concepts
    • As a normal part of working in a group while attempting to complete a large project in a limited time, students split up the work. Students are generally pretty smart about this in their own way. While I stressed that everyone in the group should contribute equally towards the calculations. Most groups would have the student who had the best understanding of the physics do most of the calculations. Why? Because it was faster. They needed to finish their coaster and just having the fastest person do the calculations meant more time for construction. While I generally knew when students in a group were adding very little to the calculations (and would assess them accordingly), on the whole this method didn't give me a good picture of each individual students' level of understanding. There were certainly students who skated through the project while minimally demonstrating their understanding of the energy and friction concepts involved.

The new assessment strategy

You've probably already picked up on a few of the improvements I'd make for this project.

  1. Use standards-based assessment. Standards-based assessment is an integral part of the classroom throughout the year- not just for projects. If you're unfamiliar with what this "standards-based" business is all about click the little number at the end of this sentence for plenty of links in the footnotes1. Here are a list of standards that would be assessed through this project:

    Content standards assessed

    • Energy
      • Understand and apply the law of conservation of energy.
      • Explain and calculate the kinetic energy and potential energy of an object.
      • Explain and calculate the amount of work done on and by an object.
      • Solve basic conservation of energy problems involving kinetic energy and potential energy.
      • Solve conservation of energy problems involving work and thermal energy.
    • Circular Motion
      • Solve basic circular motion problems using formulas.
    • Habits of Mind
      • Collaborate and communicate with others to meet specific goals.
      • Handle and overcome hurdles creatively and productively.

    The specific standards used can vary based on your specific implementation.

  2. No points for coaster requirements. As I mentioned earlier, it proved unnecessary to incentivize their coaster designs and meeting the basic requirements of the project. This decision also comes out of standards-based grading, which focuses assessment around, "Do you know physics?" instead of "Can you jump through the right hoops?" That isn't to say we don't talk about what makes a coaster "exciting" or "aesthetically pleasing" or whatever. It just means a student needs to demonstrate their understanding of the physics to earn their grade.
  3. A focus on informal assessment. Rather than heavily relying on a sheet of calculations turned in at the end of the project (and probably done lopsidedly by one or two group members) to determine if the group understands the physics, I'd assess their understanding as I walked around the classroom discussing the coasters and their designs with the students as they work on them. Starting with questions like, "Why did you make that loop smaller?," or "Where are you having trouble staying within the requirements?" can be used to probe into student thinking and understanding. The final calculations would still be a part of the assessment, but no longer the single key piece of information in the assessment.

On the whole I was very happy with this project as I used it in the past. As I've learned and grown as a teacher I've found several ways I can tweak the old project to keep up with the type of student learning I want to support in my classroom. If you have other suggestions for improvement, I'd be happy to hear them.

As a bonus, here's a student produced video of the roller coaster project made for the daily announcements. The video was made by a student who wasn't in the physics class, so there's a little more emphasis on the destruction of the roller coasters at the end of the project than I'd like. Kids. What can ya do?


  1. Here are posts I've written about my experience implementing standards-based assessment. I'm not an expert, so let me also direct you my bookmarks related to standards-based grading, and some resources written by a couple people who are more expert: Shawn Cornally and Frank Noschese (who offers blog posts, a shared google doc foler, and a collection of bookmarked links). There are certainly other great resources out there, but these are a great starting point. (back)