Physicsfor All: How Technology Can Spark Universal Success in the Physics Classroom
Lawrence T. Escalada, H. Prentice Baptiste, Dean A. Zollman and N. Sanjay Rebello
Department of Physics, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas 66506-2601
(Published in The Science Teacher, February 1997, 64(2), 26-29.)
With each passing moment, our standard of living becomes more dependent on the applications of the latest developments in science and technology including everyday devices such as computers, cellular phones, and laser scanners found at the checkout counters of grocery stores. As a result, the scientific and technological literacy of the populace must be at a level that enables each citizen to maintain their standard of living and make educated decisions regarding these applications.
Math and science courses that develop student proficiency in the use of computers, microcomputer-based laboratory (MBL) tools, and/or calculator-based laboratory (CBL) tools are developing data collection and analysis skills that are necessary for students to be successful in math and science disciplines after high school and in future technology-oriented employment. Unfortunately female students, students of color, and students with language barriers are often under represented in math and science (Rakow & Bermudez, 1993; AAUW, 1992; Oakes, 1990; Atwater, 1986). These students will graduate from high school ill-prepared for technology-oriented employment and are less likely than white male students to enter science disciplines (NSF, 1994).
In addition, science teachers feel unprepared to teach in the diverse classrooms that exist in our nationís schools and topics related to recent applications of science and technology to everyday life (Neuschatz & Alpert, 1994; Baird et al., 1994). Unless the achievement and participation of students of color and female students in science increases, the nation will not be able to meet its technical and scientific needs because of the projected shortfall of scientific personnel in the U. S. (Oakes, 1990). Obviously modification of the traditional science curriculum is imperative if all students will function and contribute as literate citizens in a scientific and technological society.
A number of educators and researchers (Allen-Sommerville, 1996; Baptiste & Key, 1996; Baker & Leary, 1995; Anderson, 1994; Rakow & Bermudez, 1993) suggest that increasing the scientific and technological literacy of female students and students of color may be addressed by:
These suggestions embrace the premises of active learning, equity or fairness, quality, and diversity which are found in such national educational reform efforts as the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) and in an approach to learn science called multicultural science education. Educators who hold this latter perspective believe that meaningful learning for all students can only be achieved when all students are included in equitable experiences in the science classrooms (Atwater, 1994). The instructional strategies associated with these premises are especially effective for those students who have not traditionally enrolled or have not been successful in science. Utilizing these strategies to eliminate the attitude that science is only for the "elite" few who are extremely gifted would be a step in the right direction. We can no longer afford to maintain or support this attitude especially if our future will depend on the scientific and technological literacy of all our youth and not just a selected few.
Physics has typically been one of the science disciplines that students and teachers associate with being beyond their grasp because of the level of abstraction and mathematics associated with the subject. The use of technology in the physics classroom can facilitate the use of multiple instructional strategies, thus promoting a personalized learning environment in which all students are actively involved. This type of learning environment can provide opportunities for all students to make learning physics more concrete and relevant and to increase their technological literacy.
Computers in the physics classroom can provide students with quick and easy access to various forms of information. The Internet, multimedia CD-ROM databases, and computer programs are available that provide physics teachers and their students access to an alternative to the standard physics textbook and laboratory manual. Unlike the textbook and laboratory manual, these computer applications use multiple instructional strategies (drill, practice, tutorial work, animations, and simulations) and provide immediate and appropriate feedback through words, pictures, and sounds. The Internet and CD-ROM databases enable the user to browse through documents, search any or all documents, mark any interesting information for future references, and extract text and graphics to a word processing program with relative ease. These computer applications allow students to interact with their learning medium. Thus, the students play an active role in their learning.
Some CD-ROM databases even provide a user access to a calendar of historical events related to given topic (Fuller & Zollman, 1995). For example, with a click of a button a student could have access to a listing of the physics related events that happened on any given day. When the date of June 13 is selected, a student could find that Luis Alvarez, a Cuban American physicist, was born on this date and received a Nobel Prize in 1968 for his work in the field of high-energy physics (See Figure 1). With further reading, students would discover that Alvarez helped develop radar and used radioactivity to detect a comet collision with Earth that may have exterminated the dinosaurs (Sinnott, 1991).
Figure 1: Calendar of Events for June 13, 1996
If the date of June 28 is selected, the student could find that Maria Goeppert Mayer was born in 1906 and shared the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics with Jensen and Wigner for their work on the nuclear shell structure. With further research, students would find that Mayer did not receive an university salary until 10 years after her Nobel Prize-winning subject because she was a woman (McGrane, 1995).
A historical calendar could be used as a means to educate the teacher and students on the diversity of individuals who have contributed to the field of physics. Most electronic calendars also allow the teacher to add events that he or she thinks would contribute to the relevancy of learning physics to his or her students. For example, when electrical circuits is covered in the course, the instructor could add the birth date of Lewis Latimar, an African-American engineer and inventor to the calendar. In 1882, Latimer received a patent for his process of manufacturing carbon filaments which improved Edisonís invention of the incandescent lamp by making it safe and inexpensive for ordinary households. Latimer was in charge of installing electric street lighting in England, New York, Philadelphia, and Canada at the time. He connected these lights in parallel during a time when street lamps were initially connected in series. Listing this accomplishment in the calendar could lead to a class discussion on the significance of this decision. By integrating the contributions of individuals from various cultures to the field of physics, an appreciation for the diversity of the history of physics can be easily illustrated. The instructor, however, should avoid the use of the calendar as a means to "show and tell" about the contributions of various cultures to physics outside the context of the topic being introduced. The use of the calendar in this manner is very superficial at best in demonstrating the diversity of physics.
The instructor should also be cautious about limiting oneself to the use of "high tech" strategies in the classroom to develop student understanding of physics concepts when experience has shown that "low tech" strategies are more effective. For example, a "paper" calendar could be as effective as an electronic one in introducing the contributions of various cultures to the field of physics. When the physics teacher limits oneself to the use of "high tech" instructional strategies, he or she is conveying the attitude that physics can only be learned through the use of sophisticated and expensive equipment which may implicitly promote the view that physics is only for those who can afford it (Hodson, 1993). This limitation to "high tech" strategies should also be avoided at all costs because it trivializes and possibly eliminates studentsí concrete, real-world experience of physics which is often without the use of technology.
Computers and calculators in the physics classroom can also allow students to be actively engaged in and have control of investigations of physical phenomena. For example, computers can be interfaced with microcomputer-based laboratory (MBL) tools or have interactive digital video capabilities. Graphing calculators can be interfaced with calculator-based (CBL) tools. MBL and CBL tools (sensors or probes connected to a serial interface) allow students to quickly and easily collect physical data (motion, force, temperature) and make graphs of their data as it is being collected. Interactive digital video allows students to capture video of physical phenomena onto the hard drive of the computer by using a video camera. A variety of visualization techniques associated with this technology have been developed and are available to play back and analyze the motion of objects in video (Escalada, Grabhorn, & Zollman, 1996; Beichner, 1996; Laws & Cooney, 1996; Wilson, 1994). The use of MBL and CBL tools and interactive digital video are very conducive to an activity-based environment in which instruction is highly individualized and provides immediate and appropriate feedback.
Applications of modern technology in the form of inexpensive, everyday devices like light emitting diodes (LEDs), fluorescent lamps, infrared detector cards, light sticks, or "glow-in-the-darkí toothbrushes can also be used as a means to make learning physics less abstract and more relevant for all students. For the Visual Quantum Mechanics project, the Physics Education Research Group at Kansas State University is currently developing and field testing instructional units that focus on hands-on activities with these devices and interactive computer programs to introduce quantum principles to high school and introductory college physics students who have limited backgrounds in physics and mathematics. These common, everyday devices are very conducive to an activity-based learning environment because they exhibit unique, observable properties. These properties could lead to discussions on the contributions of various cultures to science and technology. For example, the hard plastic called resin which protects the LED from physical damage could lead to a discussion on how the first plastic (lacquer) was invented in China in the thirteenth century B.C., 3200 years before the Europeans were able to accomplish this feat (Selin, 1993). Another example is that the first written record of fluorescence was made in the 16th century by Nicolas Monardes- a Spanish physician and botanist (Czarnik, 1991). Monardes wrote about various medicinal substances found in the New World. In his journals, he described a certain type of wood named lignum nephriticum because of its supposed value as a treatment for kidney disorders. The wood, when made into cups filled with water and held up to sunlight, would emit an eerie blue light inside the container.
The instructional units allow students to explore the physical properties of common, modern technological devices like an LED and the applications of these devices to real-life problems. Because LEDs are inexpensive and readily available, teachers can utilize these devices in their classrooms with very little difficulty. Since these devices are cheap and fairly accessible to most everyone, the use of these materials does not convey the attitude that learning physics can only occur through the use of sophisticated and expensive equipment. Thus, the view that physics is only for those who can afford it is avoided.
By focusing on common, modern technological devices, students are able to see the relevance of physics to their everyday lives and are introduced to concepts that explain the operation of present and future devices. Students who will be pursuing careers in engineering and/or science and who will be designing these devices in the future need to be introduced to these concepts early in their education. By introducing these concepts early in the studentsí education, all students, especially female students and students of color, may be motivated in pursuing these disciplines and careers.
In these instructional units, students use a simple circuit apparatus to explore the LEDís electrical properties and an inexpensive spectrometer to measure the spectral properties of LEDís, light sticks, and fluorescent lamps. After their explorations, students use computer simulation and animation programs to visualize the physical phenomena at the atomic level and to construct the physical model (Wells et al., 1995) of an atom that is consistent with quantum principles and their prior observations. For example, the Gas Spectroscopy computer program illustrated in Figure 2 shows how students can replicate the line spectrum for a hydrogen gas lamp by constructing energy levels for a given electron bound to a hydrogen atom and the resulting electronic transitions.
Figure 2: Gas Spectroscopy Computer Program
These instructional units utilize visualization techniques provided by the computer programs in place of higher level mathematics which has been traditionally used to teach quantum physics. Thus, the computer programs eliminate the mathematical prerequisites found in the traditional methods of teaching quantum physics which prevent all students, especially female students and students of color, from learning the subject. As a result of the computer programs being integrated within the student explorations of the modern devices, the common pitfall of abandoning students to the isolation of individualized computers is avoided (McDermott, 1991). In developing these units, we realize that the computer by itself does not promote active learning; the interaction of the students with one another, the teacher, the materials, and the computer constitutes active learning.
Although the use of technology can facilitate a number of the instructional strategies recommended to increase the scientific and technological literacy of all students, especially female students and students of color, it cannot be considered an ideal solution because of the issues of the availability and accessibility of technology in science classrooms. Secondary science teachers, characterize limited access to computers and software and lack of materials for individualizing instruction as the most serious problems in their classrooms (Neuschatz & Alpert, 1994; Weiss, 1994; Baird et al., 1994). In addition, Oaks (1990) found that "low-income, minority, and inner-city" students have fewer material and equipment resources. An ideal solution to increase the scientific and technical literacy of all students cannot be one that contributes to the problem of inequity that already exists in our schools.
In addition, the use of technology in the classroom does not address the human factor that is necessary in solving the problem. While the use of technology in the classroom can make learning physics less abstract and more relevant by utilizing multiple instructional strategies that create a personalized learning environment in which all students, especially female students and students of color, are actively engaged, it alone cannot facilitate the demand for hard work and excellence, the development of self-esteem, the appreciation of the diversity of the history of science, and the assumption that all students can learn. These strategies can only be implemented by teachers who are committed to the premises of active learning, equity, quality, and diversity. The ideal solution must include the human desire and commitment to create an equitable and active learning environment in which all students can learn science. However, the strategies utilized in the instructional units developed for Visual Quantum Mechanics and other technology-based projects are a step in the right direction in developing and reinforcing student conceptual understanding of physics concepts as well as increasing the scientific and technological literacy for all students. We just need to work on making the materials more accessible for all students.Note Visual Quantum Mechanics is supported by the National Science Foundation under grant ESI 945782.
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