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City physics educators retool their teaching in summer school

On most days, Room 404 in Zankel Hall is a laboratory used by graduate students at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

But for the next two weeks, the lab is the temporary headquarters for a group of educators who are rethinking what it means to teach physics to high school students.

The educators are participating in a workshop about a three-decade old teaching strategy called Modeling Instruction in Physics. The strategy shuns the rote memorization of physics formulas and instead applies abstract ideas to real-life situations so that students can observe and understand concepts from “model” experiments.

“This modeling instruction method incorporates the best things that have happened in physics education in the last 50 years, and puts it in a way that is teachable and reproducible to a large extent if the teacher is motivated, interested, and well-educated,” said Fernand Brunschwig.

Brunschwig chairs Physics Teachers NYC, a 100-member group of educators who meet once a month to share ideas and trade instructional methods. The group organized the summer workshop.

“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “We started this organization a year ago because we wanted to do something positive for physics in New York City, which we felt hadn’t built up very well.”

Teachers who have taken part in Physics Teachers NYC said the group provides crucial opportunities in a system where physics teachers are relatively scarce.

“I found it extremely helpful,” said Elizabeth Dowdell, who teaches at Frederick Douglass Academy VII in Brooklyn. “In my school, I’m the only physics teacher in the building so it’s my one opportunity to collaborate with other teachers in other schools. For me, it’s my main way of getting ideas and refining my own practices.”

A large part of the summer workshop is teachers playing the role of students, completing hands-on experiments to derive theories about how the world works. On a hot morning last week, participants raced to solve equations on whiteboards before presenting their answers to each other and working together to resolve mistakes. And while the teachers might have relinquished part of their summer vacation, they get to play with bowling balls, motion detectors, basketballs, and other “toys” in their experiments.

“I’ve learned a tremendous amount in nearly five days but one of the most profound things I really learned is just the experience of being a student again in the class,” said Ali Kowalsky, who teaches at the NYC Lab School for Collaborate Studies.

“Being a teacher all year sometimes removes you from the student lens,” she added. “It’s kind of great over the summer to have an opportunity like this to put myself back into the student voice and student experience so I can draw from it and learn how to best meet the needs of my students.”

Brunschwig, an adjunct professor at Teachers College, developed the three-week summer workshop to build upon the first year of Physics Teachers NYC — and open its approach to teachers from elsewhere. Of the 23 participants, half teach in private schools, and half come from outside of New York City. One teacher came from Florida.

Participants come from all over the country because of a national shift toward modeling in physics instruction since the method was introduced by David Hestenes, a physicist and professor, in the 1990s, according to Mark Schober, one of the workshop instructors and president of the American Modeling Teachers Association.

“Just having memorized some science fact doesn’t give you further mileage down the road,” said Schober, who also teaches at the private Trinity School on the Upper West Side.

“It’s about learning to interact with the world and finding patterns in it,” explained Schober. “That’s what we’re trying to help people understand so they can allow students can use the techniques of science, which is very different from sitting and listening to someone talk about science.”

The modeling method, Brunschwig explained, also helps physics teachers learn how to incorporate new learning standards, known as the Common Core, which emphasize real-world applications of abstract concepts. Plus, the group uses a curriculum that closely follows a new science education framework designed by the National Science Board and National Research Council to be Common Core-aligned.

For Bill Parsons, modeling simply offers a new way of keeping his students interested in tough material.

“I had a terrible year teaching,” said Parsons, who became a Teaching Fellow in 2008 after being laid off from a job as a technology project manager. He teaches high school physics at the Secondary School for Law in Brooklyn. “This year was the worst ever. It was a combination of my techniques and it was a particularly tough class in general.”

“I am actually going to try and follow this with some modifications starting in the fall,” added Parsons, who paid for the $450 workshop out of his pocket after his principal declined his funding request. “I just felt I had to do something differently to suck them in more, to get them better engaged.”

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