Talking About Physics: NO COMMENT


First of all, I gotta tell you we played with MakeyMakeys today in Engineering class and it was amazing!! So much fun. And the learning.


Here’s the project we’re going to start working on next class. I’ll let you know how it goes.

But really I want to talk about talking. Specifically, we’ve been working on getting better at having discussions in physics. I had been thinking for a while about trying this Talking Points activity (since as soon as I heard about it). The basic idea is that you have a list of statements and the students take turns agreeing or disagreeing with the statements (and each other) and saying why. Check out the link for more details. And click around on her site for plenty of solid reasoning and even research on the topic.

Here’s the handout we used today:

What went really well is that we “fishbowled” a round first. We had one group do three rounds with the first talking point while the rest of the class watched and listened. It was interesting to talk about it right after because they seemed to know exactly what might go wrong.

“It’s hard not to comment even when you agree with the person. Like, you want to say so right away, but then you interrupt them.”   -student in 4th block

So I think they were better equipped to learn something from the activity right from the start. I got a chance to sit with most groups for one round (8-9 groups) and I found that it was hard for me to stick to No Comment as well (go figure, right?). But I love the timing of the activity, go for 10 min, then 2 min to assess, then share out with the class. One thing I changed was that I had each student complete the group self assessment at the end. I found that some students were not participating at all on that, so I printed it on the back of the talking points. So they discuss as a group, but everyone writes it.

Overall, I think this will improve discussions because it allows everyone to be patient, listen to each other, and change their minds once they’ve had time to be patient and listen to each other. Only time will tell, but I’m sticking with it. And I’ll blog it when we do it.

Marshmallows and Buggys and Wild Ideas!


First week down and one of my goals for this year is to blog at least once a week, so here I go!

In physics, we did marshmallow towers and then Buggy Lab. I loved the way we did marshmallow towers this year because we did them twice. The first time was at the freshmen orientation, so it was a great activity to do with the new kiddos, meet a bunch of them and have some fun. Most towers failed.


Pixel face here looks like he’s enjoying it nonetheless.

But that’s the point. They try out these amazing tall designs and realize too late that they aren’t sturdy enough to hold a marshmallow. Last year, that was the end of it. We just discussed what I wanted them to take away from the activity. But this year, they got to experience the takeaway. The second time we did the challenge, students were armed with a few new tricks:

1.) they knew of at least 3 designs that wouldn’t work because they all took pictures of their first fails

2.) they knew that the secret was to place the marshmallow on top first and build up from there

Almost every group had a successful tower the second time around. What a powerful visual to promote a growth mindset! A bunch of failed towers one day, a bunch of awesome sturdy structures the next! BAM!

IMG_1212 IMG_1216

We also did our buggy lab this week and I think I’ve got the setup for this one down. But I’m never sure how much to feed the students about the structure. This year, I gave away a little more than usual. I told them to make sure to include a graph, equation, sentence, and motion map, and I helped them out with creating all of them as needed. Some might say “well, um, isn’t that your job?”. Yeah, but it still feels a little weird, like I’m robbing them of a good learning experience. But in the end I think I did the right thing here. My science dept’s big goal is improving scientific investigation skills. And one of the things I’ve been doing wrong is not providing enough scaffolding early on in the year. Here’s the handout we used:

And here’s a board ready to go into the discussion next class:


Ok, so that’s it for marshmallows and buggys, what about the Wild Ideas I promised?! Well, in my Intro to Engineering and Design class (awesome right?!), we did a challenge where they had to get a HotWheels car to travel between two tables on a fishing line. One of the materials they had to accomplish this task was a balloon. So one group had the idea to put their car inside the balloon and then blow it up and tape a paper clip to it to attach to the line. It totally worked! Sorry no pictures, but take my word for it, it was awesome!

And that’s one of our first lessons for the class. Don’t throw out any wild ideas, sometimes they’re the best ones. Also, sometimes they suck and the boring-est idea turns out to be the best. But the ability to tell the difference and pick the winner makes for a good engineer. I’ll take pictures next time. :)

I’m Terrible At Following a Design Process: Why It Matters


I just got back from my first Project Lead the Way (PLTW) training so I can teach the Intro to Engineering Design class in the fall. It was an awesome experience! A full 2 weeks of draining 12-hour-day, dreaming-about-3D-models kind of awesome. ;)

I learned way too much to talk about in one post, but don’t worry I plan to blog weekly this year so I’ll get to everything eventually. For this first reflection, I wanted to talk about one of my big takeaways. I learned that I’m bad at following a design process and it’s kind of a big deal. First, here’s the design process we used (we’ll use this one in the class too):

1.) Define the problem

2.) Generate concepts

3.) Develop a solution

4.) Construct and test a prototype

5.) Evaluate the solution

6.) Present the solution

So, why am I bad at following the process? Seems pretty simple, right? And what am I even basing this evaluation on? Lemme explain.

One of the first design challenges was to design and build a machine to fling a cotton ball as far as possible. We only had about 15 minutes, so my partner and I went right to work prototyping. We made a catapult-like thing (because duh! the challenge is called “fling machine”, how else would we make it?). Here’s a sketch we made and our completed masterpiece:

Screenshot_080315_012910_PM IMG_1002 (1)

Turns out our design was THE WORST. I mean like by a lot. Our cotton ball hardly went anywhere. The clear winner in the design department was the slingshot.

And that’s why it matters that we skipped the brainstorming and concept development that we were supposed to do first. We thought, “no big deal, let’s get this thing done” and “that group over there just talking is never gonna finish”. But those groups were the ones that came up with the slingshot idea and won the challenge! Stuff like this:


But my lesson learning on this topic was not done. Oh no! Our last project was a virtual design challenge, so called because we were each paired up with another trainee from Kentucky (I’m in Louisiana). So my partner and I met up through Skype and we decided to design a locker organization system for high school students. Now, had I learned my lesson in the fling machine challenge I would have insisted that we brainstorm ideas and then sketch several concepts before deciding on a solution and beginning to develop a product. But I had not. And I guess she hadn’t either because what we did instead was immediately decide on a design and split up the parts to be modeled. While this division of labor proved to work nicely in terms of getting things done, and our end product was actually pretty good this time (as opposed to the fling machine disaster), we missed an opportunity to innovate! We could have made next generation locker organization products that change the world. Instead we made a shelf and some bins (booorrriinngg!!!).


And that’s why the design process matters. Using it as a guide, you can see where you might make improvements in your workflow and/or problem solving. For me right now, it seems I can improve on the first few steps. I need to learn to brainstorm better and to slow down and let ideas simmer for a bit before rushing straight to the prototype.

Woodblock Slingshot


So, we did the woodblock slingshot as a way to fit a parabola to a set of student collected data. The setup is easier to show than explain.



Here’s the handout I used:

What went well:

-The discussion about the shape of the data was great. As long as multiple groups got a smooth curve, the class tended to agree that a quadratic model would work best.

-The data was pretty easy to collect. It’s just linear distance measurements, so…

What didn’t work:

-The data collection was pretty messy, it was hard to get a consistent measurement across multiple trials. And as always, some groups just decided that multiple trials weren’t necessary, so their data was all over the place.

-My handout wasn’t crystal clear about fitting the curve. I think maybe I should include hints (does your data look like a linear or quadratic model might fit?)

-The payoff wasn’t flashy. I’m thinking next time, we’ll have a contest to see whose equation can make the most accurate prediction (like closest to the edge of the table or something). They’ll have to explain their prediction, including the graph and the equation, then we’ll test it out.

Ideas for next time:

-Leave the data table blank. Let the students decide how far to pull back in order to get a good range of measurements.

-Many groups were recording the position of the block (because that’s what my instructions said, whoops), not the distance it traveled. They are different because you pull back on it, so it doesn’t start at zero. I think the better method might be to have one measuring tape, and columns in the data table for “starting position”, “final position”, and “distance traveled”.

-Use a roll of tape as the object. the woodblock would rotate as it traveled, making it hard to get accurate distance measurements. One group used a roll of tape instead and worked nicely because the spin didn’t matter.


Why Don’t We Always Start with Puzzles?


That is what a student asked while working on the intro activity today for my systems unit. Got it. Note to self: start more units with puzzles, kids like them.

So, I got the idea from Kathryn (her post here) who got the puzzles from Mimi (her post here). Here’s the direct link to the handouts Mimi so kindly shared in the comments section of her blog.

As I liked the order of the puzzles and the wording of the questions, I just used them as is. Here’s a completed example from today:


I just had to blog about this because it went so beautifully. First of all, that one kid who asked why we don’t always start with puzzles was not the only one excited about the activity. Most kids took to it right away, including some who normally groan at the sight of anything that might require them to think. Second, they really learned a lot by doing these puzzles. They not only noticed that finding the value of one shape allowed them to substitute into another row/column, but some also started to notice that by eliminating certain shapes from a pair of rows/columns, they could find the value of a shape.


One girl wasn’t getting it though. She had heard others describe this tactic of noticing the differences between columns/rows, but it wasn’t clicking. Enter the color discs!!


The best thing about using these here is that it forced the student to focus on two shapes at a time.

Anyway, so I asked her to build the first row and first column of this one:


And she did it like this:


I moved that one yellow disc a little bit as a hint, but still nothin. So then we moved them into two columns, like this:


Eureka!! That was it. The light bulb that went on above that girl’s head was so bright, you could see it for miles. The circle has to be this because that. So obvious to her now, she didn’t stop when the last puzzle gave her a bit of trouble. With her new puzzling skills, she persevered and nailed it.  I watched her math confidence go up right before my eyes, it was amazing. She is gonna do just fine with systems, and all it took was playing with some color discs (and a cleverly designed set of puzzles, thanks for that Mimi and Kathryn).