Educators make time for physics workshop

Thursday, June 28, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:11 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008
Stephanie Harman, a physics and chemistry teacher from Salisbury High School, and Pam Didur, a physics teacher from Oakland Junior High School, discuss their results in a mock high school lab at the A TiME for Physics lab.

The idea of a classroom full of teachers discussing physics might make any student cringe. But when class involves making batteries out of potatoes and lemons, launching marbles into the air and stargazing in a field, students might take an interest.

At least that’s the hope for the participants of the second annual Academy for Teachers Inquiry and Modeling Experiences for Physics First workshop that was put on by MU and Columbia Public Schools.

The workshop, known as A TIME for Physics First, which ends tomorrow, is a three-year professional and curriculum development program for ninth-grade science teachers. It is based on an idea to alter the traditional high school science curriculum, which has most students taking biology in ninth grade, chemistry in 10th grade and physics in 11th or 12th grade, if it all. According to Toufic Hakim of the American Association of Physics Teachers, this is not the way it should be.

“It just makes sense to be teaching physics first,” Hakim said. “Understanding modern biophysics and organic chemistry requires an understanding of physics.”

Statistics from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for the 2005 school year reveal that just 9,074 students took Physics I, compared with 62,839 who took Biology I. The physics first initiative, which is being implemented by school districts nationwide, seeks to raise national test scores and increase students’ interest in science and math by teaching physics to ninth-graders before they take other science classes.

“It follows what many other countries do,” Hakim said, “which is having physics as a base, and then coming back to physics later on. They do that in France. It’s called the ‘spiral method,’ where you start with some introductory physics and then go to something else like chem or bio and then have more physics after that.”

A TIME for Physics First involved 72 science teachers from 25 school districts, including all of Columbia’s ninth-grade science teachers.

“Everything they are doing in the classrooms is something they will go back to their own classrooms and have their students do,” Sarah Hill, program coordinator, said.

Jason Bradley, a teacher from Aurora, said he believed in the workshop’s commitment to a teaching style called modeling, which has teachers oversee or guide students while they do inquiry-based labs.

“It helps me to be able to teach difficult content to students in a way they are going to be able to understand it more,” Bradley said. “The students have to have an opinion and show their opinions and discuss that with other students. Instead of a teacher directing the conversation, students are.”

In late 2005, MU Physics Professor Meera Chandrasekhar and Science and Health Coordinator for Columbia Public Schools Sara Torres secured a three-year, $3 million grant from the Education Department to fund A TIME for Physics First. The grant pays for a variety of things, including instructor salaries and lab equipment, and even reimburses some travel costs for teachers based outside of Columbia.

“After my first time modeling physics, what I noticed was that my kids were better engaged,” Carl Luecke, a teacher at North Kansas City High School, said. “There were less complaints about ‘I hate this class, blah, blah, blah.’”

The program’s leaders and participants are optimistic about their work and its potential to shape the minds and lives of Missouri’s young adults.

“It was definitely worth our time,” Jamie Foulk, a teacher at Camdenton High School, said, no pun intended.

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