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.

Compass already uses a lot of cutting-edge learning strategies in our classes. For instance, students tackle challenging problems in small groups and build understanding of underlying physics principles by performing experiments, looking for patterns, and reaching consensus with their classmates. While this process is totally different from the traditional format of large lecture courses that are so common at Berkeley, it isn’t unique in the country.

Fortunately, these types of classrooms–ones that are organized in ways that education researchers know to promote genuine understanding–exist at many institutions. For instance, at PERC I met some researchers from Florida International University who are implementing and studying Modeling Instruction, an approach to teaching and learning that is similar to what we do in Compass. They aren’t alone; lots of groups have recognized that meaningful group work and consensus are useful tools for teaching and learning physics.

So, what makes Compass unique?

One thing I’m coming to appreciate about Compass is that all of our programs serve multiple purposes. The 2012 Compass Summer Program officially starts today (hooray!), so let’s use the summer program as an example. In addition to the goal of learning about earthquakes or non-Newtonian fluids, a second major goal of the program is building strong friendships among the new freshmen and teachers, and folding them into the larger Compass community.

At PERC, some people talked about “communities of learners.” My impression is that this term means that the students in a given class are a community, but that the sense of community does not extend beyond the classroom. Don’t get me wrong, I think that approaching a class of students as a community is a fantastic way to teach! But I think “community” means something bigger to Compass; our friendships last beyond the summer program, and our community transcends the four walls of 396 LeConte. (I would even venture to say that our community extends even beyond the Berkeley campus!)

There are other examples of multi-purpose programs, too–like how we use science concepts and vocabulary to talk about grades in Physics 98–but I’ll leave those for a different day.

Really I just wanted to say that Compass is a space where teachers and students know that learning science means supporting each other as whole people, and where our curricular goals include things like building friendships. In this sense, Compass really is unique in the country.

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