Learning as a Sum of Experiences

by Brian Bennett on 02/10/2016

I've been working very hard this year to make sure students experience science - or the process of science - as much as possible. Physics and chemistry are real and they matter to us. It's my job to help them see why they matter to us.

Placed into a school context, I ask students to prove that they've learned something. I grade based on standards with a very simple standards-based method (based largely on Frank Noschese's writing): if you know it, full credit. If you don't know it, no credit. I don't fuss with percentages or sliding scales. The objectives (standards has a different connotation to students, more on that another time) weight in at 80% of their final grade. I still give tests and quizzes which can demonstrate the learning, but students are free to show me what they know at any time for credit.

I've run into an issue where students memorize snippets in hopes of earning the objective. It's a checkbox to them. I'm trying to show that learning is more than the simple recitation of information. It's the sum of the experiences and, more importantly, what you do with those experiences.


I get this way every time I give a quiz or test because I have to constantly reiterate the importance of learning, not just in "passing."

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The Earthquake Lab

by Brian Bennett on 02/8/2016

Waves are tricky to teach. Students feel like they already have a ton of experience with them (you've been to the beach somewhere, I'm sure.) and that there isn't a whole lot more to learn. So, I try to make it hands on and connect with other areas of interest.

For instance, I brought my guitar into school. Music is waves working well together. So, I fiddled around during class while they were working and had them make connections between the guitar and the theory of waves. A few days later, I moved into a NOVA episode about the 2011 Japan earthquake and resulting tsunami...more waves. Students were able to connect the abstract - longitudinal and transverse waves - with the concrete - P and S seismic waves. At this point I introduced the earthquake lab.

The Setup

Students broke into teams of four and assigned roles - Project Manager, Treasurer, Research Director, Architect - based on their interests. Their task was to build a building at least 40cm tall out of spaghetti, marshmallows, and tape which would stand up to an earthquake. I modified this doc (Word download) and gave one sheet per group.

The Challenge

When I assigned this task, I said the structure had to be at least 40cm tall, but I didn't tell them that it should be as tall as possible. Some groups naturally went for it (one group hit 98cm!) while others played it safe. Next time, the height challenge will be added.

Also, if you look at the document, I dropped the line of credit to $4000, thinking it would make them think through their designs. I also limited their trips to the store (me) to two visits to really make sure they designed. Nearly every group was very intentional, but I still wish I had added the "economy" challenge to the height: tallest building you can make (at least 40cm) while staying cheap. Things to remember for next year...

The Shaker

The final hurdle was designing an earthquake machine that would shake every building fairly. I also wanted them to see the difference between P and S waves, so it had to shake on two axes. I tried to work through a couple of ideas which would have required cranks, drills, drawer sliders, and lots of engineering and instead landed on something sweet and simple: a tone generator on our LabQuest sets and a hacked apart speaker.

IMG_20160202_154302 P Wave arrangement. Speaker is mounted below the platform.

IMG_20160202_154444 S Wave arrangement: lateral speaker with the LabQuest hooked up.

I used some 10-gauge house wire and industrial strength hot glue to add some hooks to the speaker baffle. A small power source let me control the volume of the tone being generated. I drilled holes through a small whiteboard to mount on top of a speaker (P waves) and beside a speaker (S waves). We ran the P waves at around 25Hz and the S between 10-12Hz. The goal was to show students how properly-built buildings resonate with the shake, not fight against it.

It gave a pretty good shake...my speakers this year were a little small, but it worked well to show resonance. I think if we went for height next year, we'd get a few more building failures, which are just as important as building successes.


Thanks to Anthony Purcell for making sure I wrote this up. Leave a comment if you want tips on building your shaker.

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My Favorite Video Tool

by Brian Bennett on 02/5/2016

I've done a ton of labs with students this month. We're learning about waves and there are some fun demos and experiments you can use to illustrate ideas.

My absolute favorite tool is: my cell phone and a ring stand with a claw clamp.

Don't put a ring on it. Don't put a ring on it.

I'm now super mobile and can film some sweet science action to use in videos, post on the website, and just generally have in my back pocket when I need something.

Like today, we were discussing how waves travel faster through some media (solids) than others (gases). So, I set up two rows of dominoes, one spaced tightly and the other less so, and let the science happen.

I have a lot of other examples, including a couple which will have their own posts...someday...maybe. If you don't teach science, ask your friendly neighborhood chemistry teacher if they have an extra stand and clamp. Or, just head over to Amazon and grab yourself a little phone tripod to have. It makes a ton of difference in how you think through teaching a lesson and the more you use it, the more opportunity you'll find.

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The Environment

by Brian Bennett on 02/5/2016

My video was rambly this week. I think it's because I have complete control over my environment, but there's just not much I can do with it. I have a really small classroom and some big classes, so it gets packed quickly.

It's easy to fall back into default "classroom mode" where desks are in rows for ease of movement, which is important. If you can't do what you need to do because the arrangement isn't working, (but hey, they're in groups!) you're environment still isn't flexible enough to push students into owning their learning.

I'm pretty open about where students sit. A year ago (nearly to the day...wow...) I wrote about seating charts and they're influence on the environment. I've resisted making new charts this semester because I'm shooting for the right balance in the room. This ties more in with the culture, but the physical environment is affected: who sits where, how does their interaction demand attention from the space, etc.

Being flexible with the environment starts the change. Being okay with (sometimes) big groups of kids helps send a message that learning is collaborative. Moving around your space (yes, it's okay to have a desk and a space of your own) so you work more effectively in the classroom space will also help make that transition. Since moving my desk, my interactions have improved, my rapport is better, I feel more aware, and students expect more interaction from me. All good things.

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Back to the Flipping Basics

by Brian Bennett on 01/26/2016

Ken Bauer has more energy than I know what to do with. I met him two or three years ago (something like that) and ever since, he's taught courses, advanced in his university position, joined the FLN board, and really just been a great friend.

Ken is running an open course (a cMOOC if you want to get technical about things) on Flipped Learning over the next eight weeks just because. He organized everything, set up the website and syndication, promoted, and is now managing 40+ people going through the course. I helped out last year by hopping into a hangout or two with some folks to talk about the Pillars. But, I wasn't in the classroom - I was an invited guest.

This year, I'm back in the course because I'm back in the classroom, trying to work out a lot of the same problems I thought I already had answers to. Kudos if you can follow that deeply meta line of thought.

I'm hoping to reevaluate what I think about flipping. Paul Andersen talked about his love/hate journey with flipping last year at the annual conference. We continued the discussion on a boat. I think I'm paralleling his journey now...I like the idea, I'm frustrated with the implementation and bottle necking (some of which is definitely my fault), but I think it's still the right thing to do.

I want to find balance. I want to rework my understanding of what I do and why I do it. I want to articulate what flipping looks like for me in more concrete terms when I'm asked. I want to see what other people do. I want to be challenged.

I'm really looking forward to the next eight weeks.

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