A look back at my 4th year of teaching

Here are some highlights from the past year.

FCI Results

FCI updated chart year 4Honors physics averaged 86% and regular physics averaged 72% for an overall post-test average of 78%. Last year I wrote a post about how some of my practices changed throughout my first years of teaching and why I think they contributed to improved understanding of Newtonian mechanics…but why did they do better this year than they did last year? What did I do differently? Honestly, much of what I did this year was similar to my 3rd year.  Here are a couple of key things I think may have contributed to better understanding this year:

  • Weekly physics journal responses (only 1st trimester) – While we only used these during the 1st trimester, they were a great window into student thinking, gave students the opportunity to reflect, organize, and articulate their ideas.  Perhaps they encouraged students to be more reflective from the start of the year.
  • Better use of Standards Based Grading – This was my 2nd year using the assessment system and perhaps I explained it better and used it more effectively to promote 2nd, 3rd, & 4th attempts at mastery.  Students also weren’t too resistant this year due to a heads-up from the students the previous year.
  • Better discussion facilitation – I was perhaps more consistent in promoting scientific discourse this year.  Students were encouraged to articulate their ideas to each other more frequently and I more consistently expected contributions from all members of the class during class discussions. I also was lucky to have some smaller class sizes this year, which I think contributed to more frequent and meaningful interaction with each student.
  • Focus on the underlying model – I often would ask students to “zoom out” of the problems we just discussed and think about the main concepts behind them.  I’d also ask them what was similar about all of the problems, focusing their attention on the underlying model being deployed.  Maybe this is just a result of experience. I think I am doing a better job of emphasizing what’s ‘most important’ about each set of problems.


Project Based Learning and Modeling 

This year I tried to incorporate meaningful, long-term, creative opportunities into the modeling cycle. Students had to make or do something that mattered with the science model they developed.  I’m still trying to figure out how to best plan and carry out these projects, but I’m happy with what students did this past year.

Project 1: Weight Room Posters

After initially developing a model for torque (see how here) we decided to apply this model to the school’s weight room and make safety posters for weightlifters. This included spending a couple of days in the weight room bulking up, taking measurements, doing calculations, and in other words “getting to know the balanced torque model” really well. From the video above, you can hear the rich conversations this context provided.  So many questions came up that would never have come up if we were only using ‘book problems’. We also spent some time in the computer lab designing posters to keep those weight lifters safe!

IMG_2338 IMG_2331





Project 2: Human Energy Use and Environmental Impacts

We started by watching some episodes of “Beyond the Light Switch” and the recently released “Do The Math” video about human energy use and climate change.

The project (guidelines here, final self eval. rubric here) was then introduced as a motivator, then we developed and deployed the conservation of energy model using the modeling materials for about 1.5 weeks, then we used what we learned to apply it to making products and planning presentations to community members.  I’m telling you, have your students present to groups outside of your class!  The motivation was way higher and students didn’t see this as “just an assignment”.  They knew that they were doing something that mattered by presenting to groups in the community.  Most students wanted to present to younger kids at the other schools in our district.  What leadership! Also, I was still able to watch the presentations via video. In their final papers, many students talked about how much they enjoyed this project and that I should continue to do this in my class.




Nature of Science for 9th graders


We spent some time working with a black box that would output different amounts of colored water when water was poured in.  We collected data, designed models to explain the data, collected more data, refined our models, and then presented our models to each other to defend them.  In the process, students acted like real scientists and learned about what it meant to ‘do science’. I also introduced many scientific terms and ideas to them during this investigation.  We constantly referred back to this activity throughout the semester as we did other science investigations.  It really seemed to stick with students.


I’m really happy with how this portion of the class turned out.  I’ve really come to appreciate the idea that students must understand how scientific ideas (models) are developed in order to appreciate the scientific discipline and what it’s all about. Here’s a packet we used to guide our discussions and data collection.

Much of this unit was taken from or based off of work from MUSE. They’ve done some really excellent work in designing progressive science curricula.


Balloon Launch

Also…we went to space.

What’s next?



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3 responses to “A look back at my 4th year of teaching

  1. Sam,
    I’m really intrigued by your energy project—I’ve been thinking about doing energy first in our intro course, and I want to get well beyond the closed, isolated system and relatively simple LOL diagram problems that we do in the modeling curriculum.

    I tried to access the google documents you shared, but they don’t seem to be publicly viewable…

    • Sam

      They should be viewable now. I just changed the share settings. If you have any questions about them, let me know. They are certainly a work in progress.

  2. Pingback: In defense of Newton, but… | laid-back science

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