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Celebrate the Titanic

It's been several months since I have felt called to write about something. I have been readjusting to life away from DC and back in the classroom. I find myself in a familiar teaching situation, trying to grow the physics program. There's something about the word- Physics- that seems to invoke fear or adulation. When I introduce myself as a physics teacher, the common responses are, "that is sooo hard, you must be very smart" , "I was never good at physics", "wow, you must be good at math" or "I was never good at math". The problem is that we need all students to understand basic physics because it governs how we interact with the world on a daily basis. Another Einstein Fellow, Mike Vargas, who is doing great work in STEM in Arizona shared that in 2023, the entire state created 4 new physics teachers. Four for a state that has 1.13 million students. I currently have a student teacher who is a physics education major and he thinks he's currently the only one. What is it about physics that scares people so much and how do we change the perception? How do we get more students taking physics and create more physics teachers?


The key for me has been changing the perception. How do you do that? You make the physics classroom a safe place to make mistakes, you make it relevant and engaging, and most important, you make it public.


My classroom focuses on the conceptual knowledge first, then we use math as a tool to help us solve problems. This helps take away the fear that physics is all math. There are also multiple opportunities for students to practice the concepts that are low stakes- not worth many points so they have little, if any, impact on their overall grade. Providing opportunities for students to learn from their mistakes on higher stakes assessments is vital. I am quite good at modeling making mistakes and so the students feel comfortable doing the same. I have built their trust with the knowledge that my goal is for everyone to succeed.


To make it relevant, we must connect concepts to topics and situations in the real world. I can relate motion equations to how the students drive, collisions between cars are analyzed and we discuss the physics behind standard car safety features. Students are engaged with interactive notes, group practice and hands-on labs. Only in a physics classroom would you have labs that use battery operated buggies, pull-back cars, hot wheels cars, flying pigs, streamers, slinkys, dolls, playdough, electric keyboards, springs and nerf projectile shooters. Fun projects allow students to apply what they have learned to a new scenario while challenging them to use the engineering design process while thinking outside the box. Many of my labs and projects are done outside my classroom- in the halls, in the gym or anywhere that will make other students stop and ask, "what class is this?". That's the public part.


My students recently finished their fluids projects, the Cardboard Boat Regatta. I had done it for years in my previous district, but it was a 1st for my new district. In groups, students had about 6 weeks to construct a boat made from cardboard, duct tape and sealed with latex paint. They had to come up with a theme for their boat and prepare to come to the regatta in costume. Each boat started with 1 team member paddling across the pool and back and then they had to trade drivers and do it again. The event took place in the school's pool and students, teachers, administration, and parents were all invited. The district sent out a press release and a news crew showed up and did a great story (https://go.screenpal.com/watch/cZer2KV7AoW). A picture of one of the students paddling across the pool even made the front page of the local paper.


We had a great crowd that was very excited to see all the boats and made it a real event. Awards were given out for the 3 fastest boats to finish the course, best costumes, bust boat design, team spirit and my personal favorite, the Titanic Award for the most spectacular sinking. Projects like this go a long way to change perceptions about physics because they are fun, visible and simultaneously celebrate success and failure. A parent emailed me after the race to let me know that she overhead other students saying that they need to take physics so they can race boats in the pool. That's a win!


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