Browsing articles in "Physics Education"

Creating Together in Compass: Strategies To Support Participation

Apr 22, 2013   //   by AngieLittle   //   Community, Physics Education, Teaching Philosophy  //  No Comments

Introduction co-written by Gina Quan and Angie Little

In this blog we discuss the development and implementation of organizational and classroom strategies around fostering participation.

Broadly, Compass is a place where we work on improving undergraduate education in the physical sciences.  We work on challenging organizational and physics problems together.  One of our design goals for our classrooms and organizational meetings is participation.  Underlying this goal is the value that the more people who participate, the better and richer are our conversations, decisions, and creations.  We believe that every member of a discussion can contribute something unique from their individual experiences.  For instance, one of Compass’ strengths is the role of undergraduates and graduate students as co-leaders.  Although Compass was founded by graduate students, the undergraduate leadership’s perspective has been central in continuously improving Compass to better meet the needs of students in our classrooms and programs.

Discussions and group problem solving are central to the Compass classroom and organizational structure. Compass classes are modeled after best practices in scientific research.  In small and large groups, students focus on open-ended scientific questions about physics models and measurement (such as exploring the ray model of light or measuring thermal expansion).  We also explore important questions related to college life, study habits, and how to measure learning and growth. More details about this can be found on our website or in this 2012 paper.

As an organization we operate on consensus decision-making.  Because Compass is in a process of continual refinement and progress, it’s important that our members have a say in major decisions affecting how the organization operates.   The day-to-day functioning of the organization is done in small groups of undergraduate and graduate students, while major decisions for the organization (such as “should we apply for an NSF grant?”) are decided by consensus at our monthly meetings.  After a proposal for a major decision, the proposal is amended and discussed until everyone agrees.

In trying to create a space that is friendly and open, we have employed many types of strategies over the years to encourage participation.  Core to Compass is building community through spending time together outside of a physics classroom setting.  We’ll get more specific about what happens during community building time and how we see direct implications for participation in more formal contexts like our classrooms.  We will also discuss jargon buzzers, a classroom tool that we’ve found to be particularly impactful.

We see these strategies as important strands in the fabric of a larger classroom and organizational culture that was cultivated by the undergraduate and graduate students involved.  We’re not sure how they would stand alone when added to a new environment, but if you also share our values, we hope they help you in generating related strategies that work in your own context.

The Story of the Jargon Buzzers

taboo buzzer

A buzzer from the game of taboo that we currently use in our classrooms. Photo from link here.  

In our first experiences teaching for Compass, our students often tossed around a lot of science jargon terms that they had picked up from high school that their classmates (or often they themselves) didn’t really understand.  As instructors, we would frequently challenge students to unpack jargon, but wanted the students themselves to become more self-aware of their jargon use and to hold each other accountable to explaining ideas.  We also wanted to make sure they felt comfortable asking instructors for clarification.  To put the power in the hands of the students as well as to make more of a fun game of challenging each other, we introduced something called a “jargon buzzer” to the classroom in 2010.

Jargon buzzers are, simply, any object that makes a buzzing noise that can be placed at every table of 3-4 students (for instance, a buzzer from the game Taboo, as show in the photo).  Our first jargon buzzers were simple, made of cheap parts from the local Radioshack, and housed in altoids tins.

We started using jargon buzzers consistently during the entire Fall 2010 Compass course. Instructors put a jargon buzzer at each student’s table and told everyone the idea at the beginning of class:  if any person in the class used a word that you didn’t understand, you could press the buzzer and “buzz them.”  Instructors were no exception; in fact, co-instructors would often buzz one another to support the students in feeling more comfortable doing it.  The first day that we used the buzzers we tried to do a lot of buzzing to get everyone comfortable.  Students laughed at the silly noise it made .  Refraction? *buzz* Snell’s Law? *buzz*  Big words were no longer things that you had to feel bad that you didn’t understand.  Students could buzz a classmate and the classmate would often realize that they didn’t really understand it either.  Once students began realizing that other students didn’t fully understand these words or were at least willing to explain them, big words weren’t such a big deal.  Now, I don’t mean to say that we were able to completely erase the scary feelings that can happen when you feel like someone in your class knows a whole lot more than you, but it seemed to help students feel much more comfortable.

Ana Aceves, a student who took the class and is now a junior astrophysics and media studies major and Compass leader, reflected on the jargon buzzers:  “It became more of a ‘we’re learning together’ attitude instead of a competition to see who knew more. If I remember correctly, there was a big sense of competition at the beginning as well; people wanted to show off how much they actually knew. The jargon buzzers seemed to solve that a bit. It made it more clear that not everyone knew what others were talking about.”

Another reason we believe that the jargon buzzers had a big impact was that they made calling out jargon use feel more like a game, more playful.  A colleague who studies play in education mentioned that the jargon buzzers reminded him a lot of tools from improv that he had used in his own classroom to help students feel more comfortable messing up around one another. Aceves noted that, “for me, it was also like ‘I want to be the first to buzz that word!’ or ‘How many words can I buzz today?’ It was a lot of fun, and you learn a lot in the process.”

Hikes, Shared Meals, and Road Trips Together: The Impact on the Classroom and Organization

 In Compass we aim to bring more personal connections to the classroom and organization.  Working on hard problems requires vulnerability and in doing something hard, people inevitably mess up and won’t have all the answers.  Yet, many spaces feel intimidating difficult to participate.  We encourage participation by doing both life and physics things together and by practicing problem solving more informally outside of the classroom.  We don’t expect everyone to become best friends with one another, but we seek to expand our perceptions of people past simply “physics knower” to be more multi-dimensional.

When people ask what sorts of things are important to Compass, Angie likes to use the phrase that we “brush our teeth together.”   Compass starts with freshman students staying in Berkeley’s dorms for two weeks together.  In addition to learning about physics, they do in fact get to brush their teeth together, take windy road trips up mountains to observatories, sing silly songs under the stars, get lost on hikes, and generally live life together.  Similarly, Compass tries to have at least one retreat each year where people in the organization stay at a hostel a few hours away, cook and share meals, share life as well as organizational development, and yes, brush their teeth together.

Figuring out how to climb walls together was one way that our community grew during the summer program.

Figuring out how to climb walls together was one way that our community grew during the summer program.

When people know each other outside of the classroom, it can be easier to ask, “hey, I don’t get what you mean by that,” or to choose to help someone out if they don’t understand something.  This casual time also supports opportunities for low-stakes informal problems to solve together.  Gina reflected that some of her earliest Compass bonding was while learning how to climb up the hallways of the dorms, which is safer than it sounds:  “I remember Geoff and Alex figuring it out and then teaching the rest of us. Getting the rest of us up the walls was certainly a challenge, and those who had figured it out coached us through the process.  By the end, we had developed several different ways to climb up the walls and invented our own game of wall wrestling.” Spending free time with people can grow a community.  These small activities, no matter how mundane or ridiculous, give us a sense that we create together, we laugh together and we figure things out together.

Conclusion

In this blog post, we’ve outlined some concrete strategies to create spaces where everyone feels comfortable participating.  This directly follows from our values: in the classroom and the organization, we’re working on interesting, hard problems together, and everyone’s diverse experiences and skills can offer a unique and important contribution.  We hope that this discussion will support you in developing strategies appropriate to your values and contexts.

 

A big thanks to folks who gave us editing feedback in writing this blog: Lauren Barth-Cohen, Dimitri Dounas-Frazer, Jon Bender, and Bruce Birkett, as well as many students from the 2010 Compass course who gave thoughtful reflections about their experiences with the jargon buzzers.

 

 

Measuring Growth, Part 2: Self-Evaluation in Compass

Dec 4, 2012   //   by Dimitri   //   Blog, Physics Education, Teaching Philosophy  //  No Comments

hummingbird One student symbolized their growth with a hummingbird for three reasons. (1) According to the student, the hummingbird is “special in its ability to hover” which “embodies the moments over the course in which I felt . . . ‘stuck’ in my studies, unable to propel myself forward.” (2) The hummingbird can also “fly in any direction, including backwards. . . . The second midterm, for example, was my fall backward.” (3) On a more positive note, the student compared their growth to a hummingbird that “elevates and flies over ground, ascending over obstacles and any problems.”[/caption]

Introduction

This post is the second part of a two-part story about how Compass encourages students to measure their growth according to a rubric of qualitative skills (which can be found here). The rubric that Compass uses is an adaptation of two rubrics developed by Jon Bender. How Jon developed his rubrics is the subject of the first part of this story, and can be found here. Compass’s rubric is very similar to those created by Jon, and a helpful description was given in Part 1:

These rubrics include a bunch of qualitative behaviors and skills, e.g., persistence, communication, skepticism, and self-compassion. They can be used in two ways: (1) by teachers to provide feedback to students, and (2) by students to evaluate themselves. Jon has taken both approaches, whereas Compass uses the rubrics primarily in the context of student self-evaluation.

In order for students to gain a rough understanding of the skills, each skill is accompanied by a list of defining questions. For example, one of the questions that accompanies “persistence” is: what do you do when you’re frustrated? A particular student’s proficiency can be ranked as either beginning, developing, or succeeding according to the rubric. The stages of proficiency are described through qualitative statements. For instance, the rubric characterizes the beginning stages of persistence by the following statements: I tend to try one or two things; and, I give up more easily than I should. On the other hand, succeeding at persistence is characterized by look[ing] for new ways to think about a problem.

In this post, I discuss how and why Compass started using Jon’s self-evaluation rubrics in our courses and I describe how we adapted the rubrics to serve our needs.
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Measuring Growth, Part 1: Origin of the Self-Evaluation Rubrics

Nov 28, 2012   //   by Dimitri   //   Blog, Physics Education, Teaching Philosophy  //  1 Comment
Status rubric governing document

This is one of the early documents that later evolved into the status rubric. Character traits (top level) are developed by practicing skills (middle level) in the context of developing ideas and using scientific processes (bottom level). Major learning goals include developing traits and skills useful for scientific thinking. This happens in a classroom characterized by respect for individuals and ideas.

 

Introduction by Dimitri Dounas-Frazer

This post is the first part of a two-part story about how Compass encourages students to measure their growth using tools developed by Jon Bender, a former Oakland middle school teacher who has since moved away from the Bay Area. Jon’s training is at the high school level, as is most of his teaching experience. His background also includes teaching courses at the University of Alaska Anchorage and through CalTEACH.

In Fall 2011, Jon shared with Compass two rubrics that he developed for measuring his students’ growth: the status and progress rubrics. These rubrics include a bunch of qualitative behaviors and skills, e.g., persistence, communication, skepticism, and self-compassion. They can be used in two ways: (1) by teachers to provide feedback to students, and (2) by students to evaluate themselves. Jon has taken both approaches, whereas Compass uses the rubrics primarily in the context of student self-evaluation.

In order for students to gain a rough understanding of the skills, each skill is accompanied by a list of defining questions. For example, one of the questions that accompanies persistence is: what do you do when you’re frustrated? A particular student’s proficiency can be ranked as either beginning, developing, or succeeding according to the rubric. The stages of proficiency are described through qualitative statements. For instance, the rubric characterizes the beginning stages of persistence by the following statements: I tend to try one or two things; and, I give up more easily than I should. On the other hand, succeeding at persistence is characterized by look[ing] for new ways to think about a problem.

In this post, Jon shares with us the rubrics’ origin story by outlining the history of their development. In a following post, I’ll talk about how the rubrics have been adapted for use in the Compass classroom.

Without further ado, here is Jon’s post.
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Reflecting on the Physics Education Research Conference: What makes Compass unique?

Aug 11, 2012   //   by Dimitri   //   Blog, Compass Presentations, Physics Education  //  No Comments

Compass was pretty well-represented at the recent Physics Education Research Conference (PERC); Angie, Anna, Gina, Joel, and I all made our way to Philadelphia to share ideas with a national network of physics educators. (Check out our presentations here and here, and our paper here.) A lot of really smart, thoughtful people are paying close attention to how students learn, and there are tons of great ideas out there for improving the way we teach physics.
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Writing About Science

Nov 29, 2011   //   by Harjit   //   Compass News, Physics Education  //  3 Comments

Over the past few months, I’ve been interested in writing about science viagra ou trouver. When I say science, I’m primarily talking about astronomy and physics. I would like to be able to talk about a concept and explain where it originates from and its basic elements to a layperson. Does anyone have any advice/suggestions on how I can get started and how far I can take my writing. Currently, I’m thinking about trying to explain the idea of dark matter, candidates for dark matter, and why we know it exists. I would appreciate any help! Thanks!

Compass goes to AAPT winter meeting!

Mar 6, 2011   //   by badr   //   Compass News, Compass Presentations, Physics Education  //  No Comments

Angie and I just got back from presenting a talk and poster at the Winter Meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers in Jacksonville, Florida.  We presented the handsome poster you see below and a talk entitled “Teaching Physics Though Modeling the Physics Research Community” with the following abstract:

In this talk, we will discuss The Compass Project, a program we created at the University of California, Berkeley, five years ago to support physics students from all backgrounds.  Drawing on physics education research, we had two major goals in creating a two-week summer program for incoming freshman:  building community and helping students develop productive beliefs about what physics is and how to learn it.  This presentation will focus on a newly developed semester-long course that follows the summer program.  One focus of both the summer program and the course is developing the students capacity to see the world through physics models; students also hone their ability to communicate and collaborate productively with their peers.  We will discuss some of the successes and challenges of introducing college freshman to our model of a physics research community.

Pretty snazzy, huh? Read more >>

Poor Teaching Incentives for Science Professors

Jan 24, 2011   //   by badr   //   Physics Education  //  No Comments

Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article entitled “Scientists Fault Universities as Favoring Research Over Teaching” by Paul Basken.  The article itself is interesting and cites two commentaries (one in Science, the other in Nature) in which scientists speak out about the skewing of reward structures at universities entirely towards research.   Any graduate student instructor at Berkeley could have told you how bad the situation is here, so it’s good to see that the issue is starting to receive more attention nationally in science and education circles.

The importance of social relationships in science

Oct 7, 2010   //   by Anna Zaniewski   //   Physics Education  //  No Comments

As I evolve in my scientific career, I  understand more and more the incredible importance of group work.  Progress in science depends upon others- the notion of the isolated scientist making breakthroughs with his/her abilities alone, though popularized by mainstream media  (see, for example, Iron Man) is inconsistent with how science actually progresses.  Scientists are, first and importantly, humans.  One of the distinguishing characteristics of our species is our capacity for cooperation and socialization.  This characteristic gives us vast power for taping the collective intelligence of our species to understand nature and engineer technology.  This goes beyond summing up individual contributions.  It is my experience that we are most powerful when working together on a problem.   This experience is corroborated by a recent study published in Science: “Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups”
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A Class of My Peers

Aug 16, 2010   //   by JoshShiode   //   Physics Education, Summer Program 2010  //  No Comments

Like most of the new Compass students, the only experience I had discussing things with my teachers in high school (and really all through undergrad) came from staying after class, going to office hours, and random encounters outside of school all together. Every “discussion section” I had in undergrad consisted of a TA standing at the blackboard “helping” us work through the particularly difficult problems on the current homework (generally by solving the problem as we all watched and pretended to understand). So when I came to Berkeley… three years ago, and sat in on the first sessions of my class for first-time teachers and heard about students working in small groups to solve problems that are explicitly not on the homework, I was… confused… I thought to myself, “this actually sounds like teaching!” And then I thought, “Oh crap.. I can probably do their problem sets just fine, but I don’t actually know how to teach!”
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Teaching and Grad School

Aug 10, 2010   //   by Joel Corbo   //   Physics Education  //  3 Comments

This is a guest post that I wrote a few years ago for Cosmic Variance (an awesome physics blog that you should read!) about being a grad student who’s interested in teaching and some of the troubles with traditional physics education.  I decided to link to it rather than repost it here because there were a lot of great comments posted by readers that are worth reading.