Teaching can become a very structured and repetitive process if you let it. In the intro to mechanics for life-science majors course I teach during the semester, the same topics are covered every semester. Students always have the same difficulties, and much of the work I have done in previous semesters can be used in the following semesters. This might present itself as an opportunity for self-reflection and improvement, but what usually happens is that there is so much material to cover and test score are so highly valued compared to any long term improvement that my lesson plans do not evolve much.
Teaching for the Compass Project summer program 2012 exposed me to a complete change in the paradigm within which I teach. In the Compass summer program, the curriculum changes every year. This means there is very little time for curriculum refinement and we only get one chance to do it right (which we don’t always do!). At the same time, there are no exams or topics that need to be covered. The lack of constraints on the summer program teachers allowed us to develop an entire curriculum based on our own interests and values.
Calvin, Punit, Ryan, and I choose to develop a curriculum based on using the falling slinky experiment as a framework to understand how to build models in physics. This was inspired by a recently popular youtube video of a slow motion slinky drop. We had our students develop two models of a falling slinky: a discrete model that took advantage of breaking the continuous slinky into simpler masses on springs that could be understood by forces and a continuous model where they could understand the motion of the slinky in terms of waves on the medium of the slinky’s coils. The students’ models gave them useful insights into the mechanics of a slinky drop.
During the last few days of the program, the students either investigated some question that extended their model of the slinky or came up with new behavior to model or interpret experimentally. I was impressed with the students creativity and ambition on the final projects. The result of the project are four interesting videos that have been posted on the Compass youtube channel. The end of the summer program left me proud of all of the concepts, both physical and metacognitive, that our students had begun to master. I’m very excited to continue to be involved in curriculum development and teaching within Compass.