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Communicating to Teach and Communicating to Learn: Using the World Wide Web for Science Teaching and Learning

Evelyn T. Patterson and Gregor M. Novak

Much effort is being expended on exploring the use of the WWW for teaching and learning. One of the reasons for this is that the WWW presents unparalleled opportunities for modes of communication with which new and different teaching and learning techniques can develop. Since the heart of teaching and learning is communication, the WWW represents fertile ground for educational development.

In these early stages of development, what are some broad categories of web usage for science education? Let's consider five categories in terms of the technology they require and the kinds of communication they foster.

  1. Basic HTML - Information Delivery
  2. A basic HTML (hypertext markup language) document can deliver a great deal of information including text, images, movies, and sounds. Such documents are good for one-way communication, with information passing from the teacher to the student(s). A WWW browser can access such documents from the simplest storage medium, such as a floppy disk that the student picks up in a faculty office, as well as from a WWW server.

The vast majority of web-based education-related material falls into this "information delivery" category. Examples are standard syllabi, lecture notes, course calendars, etc. These materials, by their very nature, provide little interactivity. They do not permit communication from student to faculty, but they do provide 24 hours a day access to information - as the students need it.

Basic HTML + "MailTo"
A small step beyond the most basic HTML is a document with a "MailTo" hyperlink. A click on a hypertext link brings up an email message composition window, allowing the student to communicate with the faculty member via electronic mail. "Smart syllabi" which give students the ability to email their instructors at the click of a mouse are examples.

Another small step in HTML sophistication is an HTML document that contains "forms." Students can interact with such documents by typing into text boxes, clicking buttons and making selections. The students' responses are submitted to the instructor as an email message. This is a very powerful capability: students can interact with an HTML document and, by clicking a button in the document being displayed, send their responses to their instructor via email. This requires no interaction with an email application, and no need for a WWW server running a common gateway interface ("cgi") application. Students do not even need an email account. This is a very useful technique for establishing two-way communication between faculty and students without involving a WWW server.

Web pages including Java/JavaScript, No WWW server
A scenario that may play an increasingly important role, particularly in the use of the WWW for science education, involves a student computer running a WWW browser, with a look and feel of an interactive application. The interactivity is built into the document itself via JavaScript and/or Java applets. The natural uses of such a scheme include WWW-based self-assessment activities for the student, drill materials, and progress-check quizzes. The WWW technology is an ideal way to offer platform-independent, stand-alone mini-applications such as student problem-solving exercises and visualization and simulation activities. Although a convenient mode of delivering such materials is via a WWW server, this is certainly not required. The document itself contains the feedback data and logic. Using the browser application to leverage the logic contained in the document makes use of the innovative features of the Java technology. Of course, a natural and likely extension to this scenario is one in which a summary of the student's session is assembled by the browser and submitted to a WWW server for the faculty member's use for diagnostic, evaluation, or assessment purposes. With the recent rapid increase in capabilities afforded by JavaScript and Java applets, the possibilities for effective usage of this "client-side" (or "student-side") interactivity are exploding. Many programs making use of heavy client-side interactivity are currently under development, such as for example the Johns Hopkins Virtual Engineering/Science Laboratory Course1.

Scores of Java applets being developed are excellent building blocks with which to construct interactive student-centered WWW activities. The Davidson College physics applets known as "physlets"2 are excellent examples; these are being used regularly in WWW-based activities at many institutions in the U.S.

WWW Server
When the instructional materials reside on a WWW server, possibilities for increasing interactivity and two-way communication unfold rapidly. In educational settings an institutional WWW server is often available to the faculty. However, an individual department or research group may also maintain its own WWW server, on which educational materials may reside.

Available from a WWW server, curricular materials can provide a high degree of interactivity that is accomplished via communication between the student computer and the WWW server. This means that the HTML documents themselves do not need to be particularly sophisticated, since the "intelligence" can be provided via processing done on the WWW server.

Two remarkably different examples employing just student computer - WWW server interaction for science education and showing the gamut of uses of the technology are the "Virtual Prof" and "Cockpit Physics" sites. The Virtual Prof3 site is essentially a web-based service for students and faculty who wish to have help preparing for and writing physics examinations. The Cockpit Physics4 site is the home of 32 completely web-based lessons for the first semester of introductory physics. Each lesson consists of exploration, theory, and application sections in which students work through a variety of activities, entering answers to free-form questions and responding to multiple choice progress check quizzes.

WWW Server, Web pages with JavaScript/Java
By far the highest degree of interactivity and communication can be accomplished by combining the use of a WWW server and "intelligent" HTML documents which include JavaScript and/or call Java applets. It is in this realm that most of the "cutting edge" WWW-based educational developments are now occurring. With both WWW server access and HTML documents that carry their own "intelligence," all the lines of communication are open, and in a variety of ways.

What is striking about the developments in science education in this arena to date is the diversity of approaches, styles, and intents. For example, a very sophisticated web-based homework grading and interactive tutoring system called "CyberProf"5 by the University of Illinois-Urbana involves extensive JavaScript and WWW server programming and serves thousands of students yearly. An initiative that is extremely sophisticated technically is the web-based introductory Chemistry course6 under development at Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis (IUPUI). This initiative uses its technological sophistication to produce a web-enhanced distance learning environment. Representing a completely different mix of high technology and traditional mentoring techniques is the "Just-in-Time Teaching (JITT)"7 initiative underway in physics at the very same institution, IUPUI. The basic idea behind the JITT approach to using the WWW technology is to create a collaborative learning environment in which students work with web-based activities, submit their responses, and find that their classroom experiences are fundamentally shaped by what they have answered. A whole suite of web-based materials exists to support and engage the introductory physics students in a daily way, and these materials are fresh each semester.

In Summary:
Even a fairly casual survey of current WWW-based educational materials for physics indicates that, in this stage of infancy in the use of the WWW technology, innovations and initiatives are being tried and tested in a host of different directions, with a variety of intended goals and outcomes. In the opinion of the author, the best uses of the technology are those which use it to personalize and individualize instruction 24 hours a day, thereby accomplishing what the human faculty member and student cannot accomplish alone. In this way, the technology and the human each have vital roles. How to use the WWW technology to best create the partnership, with the ultimate goal of tailoring the learning process to each student's needs, will be the focus of many initiatives and assessments and much debate in the coming months and years.


  1. Johns Hopkins Virtual Engineering/Science Lab:
  2. Davidson College physlets:
  3. Virtual Prof:
  4. Cockpit Physics:
  5. CyberProf:
  6. IUPUI Web Chemistry: [requires Java]
  7. "Just-in-Time Teaching (JITT)": For more JITT, see also the following papers:

Evelyn Patterson is professor of physics at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, and Gregor Novak is professor of physics at Indiana University-Purdue University , Indianapolis (IUPUI). They have conducted many workshops for teachers on authoring and using instructional materials on the World Wide Web.

Message from the Forum Chair

Rush D. Holt

Roughly 10 percent of the members of each division of the APS are also members of the Forum on Education (FEd). That means that at every divisional or regional meeting of the APS there are sufficient people to make it possible and worthwhile to organize sessions on educational topics. You are surrounded by dozens or hundreds of colleagues who share your interest in education. Let's make the effort to educate ourselves and our colleagues about the interesting questions of education that are important to the future of our Society and our society. I ask members of the Forum in each division to plan such a session at their next meeting. The range of possible topics is enormous: "Successful innovations in teaching [insert your discipline here, e.g. fluid dynamics]", " The meaning of national educational standards for the future of physics", "Should graduate students be taught electrodynamics the same way we were?", "Why should a physicist run for school board?", "Does the cancellation or shrinkage of physics departments at some universities reflect a belief in the irrelevance of the field?", "What are students actually learning when teachers think they are teaching them sound physics?", or "How can you, an industrial physicist, help elementary school students when your company won't give you release time?" You choose. The members of the FEd executive committee would be pleased to help with ideas, references, and publicity. The APS Council has relaxed the restriction on one author presenting multiple papers at the same meeting to allow additional papers cosponsored by the Forum on Education or other cross-divisional units.

Another valuable activity that Forum members can undertake is to organize poster sessions at each meeting for undergraduates to present their research. Some APS divisions have had real success with these sessions.

Also, each divisional or regional meeting should offer something of value to local schools and teachers. Several divisions routinely offer workshops for school science teachers, free admission to the meeting (especially on a day with popular talks), museum lectures, television interviews. We can put you in touch with the local organization of physics teachers where your meeting will be held as well as with members of other APS divisions who have done these things.

So, please talk with your divisional leaders. The interest in education is there. The need is there. You are what is required to proceed.

Editorial: Are Teaching and Research Still Complementary?

Thomas D. Rossing

Traditionally, being a physics teacher has meant having the opportunity both to do physics and to teach physics. In my own career I am grateful for having been able to devote time and energy to both facets of our profession and never had to make a choice between teaching and research.

A few years ago, in a guest editorial "The teacher/researcher: An endangered species?" [American Journal of Physics 59, 487 (1991)], I pointed out that there are rather strong forces pulling physics teachers away from the traditional dual role of teacher and researcher. Young faculty members at many large universities are given the impression that tenure and promotion depend almost entirely on their success in research (measured all too often not by the quality of their publications but rather by the amount of outside funding they are able to attract). Innovative teaching, they are led to believe, is something you put off at least until you achieve tenure. Faculty members at many liberal arts colleges facing tight budgets are given heavy classroom teaching loads and little time or monetary support for research, even when it involves students.

It was therefore reassuring for me to serve two years on the selection committee for the APS Prize to a Faculty Member for Research in an Undergraduate Institution and to learn about the impressive research records of the nominees for this prize. It was almost an impossible task to single out the most outstanding candidate each year. Not only did these teachers have impressive records of publications, but they had closely involved undergraduate students in their research. I knew several of the candidates to be dedicated and outstanding teachers, and it is probably safe to assume that all of them were. So at least at undergraduate institutions, it appears that teaching and research are successfully coexisting and complementing each other, as they have traditionally done.

As I pointed out in my previous editorial, "teaching" physics and "doing" physics take on different meanings in different types of institutions. Doing physics at a large research university means original research and frequent publication of the results in scholarly journals; teaching physics includes being a mentor to graduate students as well as introducing freshmen in general physics courses to the excitement of physics. At a high school, doing physics might mean figuring out how a sophisticated toy or a familiar appliance operates in order to explain its physical principles to students. My activities in FEd remind me how much some research physicists in industry and at research laboratories contribute to teaching physics, largely as volunteers. They tell me that these teaching activities enrich their professional as well as their personal lives. We all remember times when fresh approaches to difficult problems occur to us when we are trying to explain our work to others.

So it appears that teaching physics and doing physics are still as complementary as they have traditionally been. I hope this tradition will continue in future years.

Physics and Toys: Physics Fun for Everyone

Raymond C. Turner

All too often when the word physics is mentioned people have a very negative reaction. Fortunately the basic principles of physics can often be demonstrated, as well as made fun, by using ordinary children's toys. By understanding how these toys work the observers can better understand the world around them. Toys also have the added advantage that they can be used with students of all ages. I used to say that I could use toys to teach physics to students from 8 to 80, but I have found that I can extend that range. I have successfully used the toys in presentations to pre-kindergarten classes and elder-hostel groups, as well as all ages in between. The detailed analysis of the toys differs depending on the background of the observers, but in every case the physics is the same and the toys allow for a non-threatening and fun presentation.

There are any number of toys which can be used to illustrate various physical principles of mechanics. A Hot Wheels race car and track can be used to demonstrate velocity and acceleration, or be analyzed by using energy concepts, while a water rocket can be used to demonstrate the principle of momentum. This essay will be limited, however, to discussing several toys that deal with magnetism and light. I am also limited in this discussion, in that a primary advantage of toys is that they are very visual, and I cannot even show you a picture of the toys. I hope that I can describe the toys sufficiently, or that you have seen them previously, so that this discussion is meaningful.

Toy PeriscopeA toy periscope can be used to demonstrate reflection of light and image formation with flat mirrors. A particularly interesting version is the rotating periscope. While a periscope is usually used to look at an object in front of you, the top of this periscope can be rotated about the vertical axis so that you can look behind you. (This might be particularly useful for teachers who are writing on the chalkboard, and need to keep an eye on their students.) A result that makes this more useful as a teaching device, is that when you rotate the top mirror in this way, the image is inverted. That is, the image is in the normal upright position when looking straight ahead, but inverted when you look behind you. (Now you know why submarine commanders in the movies always turned with their periscopes.) Examination of the toy periscope shows that it contains two mirrors, one in the top and one in the bottom, each of which is at an angle of 45° to the vertical. You should be able to quickly sketch two light rays from the object to your eye in order to analyze the upright and inverted images. This is exactly what I have my students do in order to have them begin to understand image formation using light rays.

Question: What would you observe if the top mirror in the rotating periscope were rotated by 90° about the vertical so that you were looking to one side? This is not as easy to analyze since the tracing of light rays must be in three dimensions. (The answer is at the end of the article.)

A more complex toy that became popular several years ago is called laser tag. It consists of a "laser" gun and a target. The gun emits an invisible beam of radiation, and the target is a sensor which emits an audible signal when the wearer is "tagged." The scientific question that can be asked is, "What are the properties of this radiation?" There are any number of specific questions that can be asked and then answered by investigation. Does the beam travel in straight lines or does it bend around corners? Can the beam be reflected and if so, does it behave like light when it is reflected? Can the beam be refracted? Can it be diffracted with a diffraction grating? Is the beam transmitted through a sheet of paper?

If you perform some of these experiments, you find, for example, that the beam can be reflected from a mirror or a sheet of metal, and that it obeys the law of reflection. The beam is also found to refract when it is sent through plexiglass and it is found to obey Snell's law of refraction. Perhaps surprisingly, it is found that the beam will transmit through a sheet of paper. The particular version of this toy that I prefer to use, because it does not have so many bells and whistles, is called the infrared blaster. With this name it should not be any surprise to you that when a diffraction measurement is made, the beam is found to have a wavelength of about 930ÿnm, that is, it is an infrared beam. This is one of my favorite physics toys in that it can be used to illustrate how a physicist goes about investigating the properties of an unknown, and then good experimental results can be obtained.

Flicker LightAnother toy, or perhaps better called a novelty, is a flicker light, which you have undoubtedly seen in a toy store or gift shop. This is an electric light bulb in which the filament vibrates in an erratic fashion that is supposed to simulate a flickering candle. What makes its filament vibrate? Examination of the bulb shows that the wire filament is free to move somewhat in the bulb, and there is a magnet near the filament. When a current flows in the filament there is a magnetic force on it due to the field of the permanent magnet. This magnetic force is in a direction perpendicular to both the field and the current. Since the light is operating on the usual 60 Hz ac line, the direction of the current reverses 60 times per second and so the direction of the force on the filament changes at the same rate. This causes the filament to vibrate back and forth, but at a rate too rapid to be followed by our eyes. So why does the light appear to flicker?

While the magnet for most of these lights is mounted inside the bulb, I was fortunate enough to obtain a magnetic wild flicker bulb which had the magnet mounted on the outside. This allowed me to move the magnet away from the bulb, so that I could see the effect of reducing the magnetic field at the filament. As you would expect, the further the magnet was moved away, the smaller the amplitude of the vibration. But this permits another aspect of the vibration to be observed. When the magnetic field is small, the vibration of the filament is regular (60 Hz) and is observed only as an apparent broadening of the filament. As the magnet is moved closer to the bulb, the amplitude of this smooth vibration increases until suddenly the filament begins to wildly flicker. This flicker is at a much lower frequency than 60 Hz and its rate is presumably determined by the mechanical resonant frequencies of the filament. The onset of this flicker is most likely a demonstration of chaotic motion that occurs when the amplitude of the motion is large enough to cause significant nonlinear effects. This simple toy thus demonstrates the magnetic force on a current carrying wire, as well as serving as a means for introducing the concept of chaos.

These are only a few of the many toys that can be used to illustrate basic physical principles. If you would like to see several other toys in action, look at the website. Only your imagination and ingenuity limit you in your application of the fundamental laws of physics to ordinary objects, even toys. Physics can be fun not only for students and others, but also for the teacher. By using toys, physics can be fun for everyone!

Answer to the question: It is found that the image is turned on its side.

Raymond C. Turner is an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Physics at Clemson University in South Carolina. He has recently received the first AAPT Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Physics Teaching. This article is based on an Essay in Fundamentals of Physics, 4th ed., E11:1-3, D.ÿHalliday, R. Resnick, and J. Walker, Wiley, 1993.

Editor's Challenge

Stan Jones (editor of spring newsletter)

In an effort to promote a dialog within the pages of this newsletter, to use it as a forum, so to speak, I present the following two challenges to you, the reader. I invite your comments which will be printed, summarized, rebutted, or otherwise addressed in the next issue, which I will be editing. Both challenges have to do with proposed (or implemented) changes in the physics curriculum.

  1. In an article that appeared in Physics Today about two years ago [December 1995, p. 25], Sol M. Gruner and his co-authors presented the thesis that our physics departments have not kept up with the times. They propose that we need to be much broader-minded about what we define as physics, and to encourage academic departments to foster new non-mainstream areas of research and education. While this article has already sparked an exchange within the letters columns of Physics Today, it is perhaps worth revisiting the issues that Gruner et al. raise. Is it appropriate for departments to promote new interdisciplinary research in areas not traditionally considered physics, and if so, how can this transition in attitudes and practices be facilitated? Is it a defensible strategy to broaden training for graduate students when traditional job opportunities are flagging? What changes are needed in the graduate curriculum?
  2. In the summer issue of this newsletter, Joe Pifer described efforts at Rutgers University that have dramatically increased the number of undergraduate physics majors. One of these is the introduction of a liberal arts physics major. This struck me as controversial. Just what is a liberal arts physics degree, and is this a good game for physics departments to be getting into? Readers are always invited to react to articles in this newsletter with letters to the editor; for the sake of generating some discussion, I ask you to give me your reaction to the idea of a liberal arts physics degree.

Stan Jones edits the Spring issue of this newsletter. His address appears on the last page.

The CPU Project: Students in Control of Inventing Physics Ideas

Fred Goldberg

The Constructing Physics Understanding in a Computer-Supported Learning Environment (CPU) project is a National Science Foundation supported project [1] aimed at creating laboratory and computer based materials to support a learning environment where students take primary responsibility for developing valid and robust knowledge in physics. The intended students are mainly secondary school physics and physical science students and prospective and practicing elementary teachers (through workshops and University courses). Rather than depending on the instructor as the source of knowledge, in the CPU classroom students develop, test and modify their own ideas through experimentation and discussion with their peers. This does not mean there is no organized structure to the classroom. Indeed, there is a carefully designed sequence of activities and a pedagogy that promotes and values extensive intragroup and whole class discussion. However, the students' own ideas, supported through experimental evidence, become the standard of authority.

The CPU project began early in 1995 and during the past two and a half years learning units have been developed in the topical areas of force and motion, current electricity, static electricity and magnetism, and light and color, as well as a generic skills unit called Underpinnings. Additional model units on wave motion and the small particle model of matter are currently under development.

The CPU units are divided into cycles, each intended to support students' construction of a relevant model or component of a model. Each cycle is divided into three phases: Elicitation, Development and Application. This approach is an extended modification of the Learning Cycle, developed by Robert Karplus and others as part of the science Curriculum Improvement Study (SCIS) of the 1960s.

The elicitation phase engages students in an extensive and robust discussion centered around some interesting phenomenon. They are usually asked to make predictions, explain their predictions based on prior knowledge, observe the outcome of the experiment, and then to suggest ways of making sense of the outcome, which is often a surprise to many students. The purpose of this activity is not to make judgements on which ideas suggested by the class are the most "correct" ones, but instead to open up important issues and ideas that make sense to at least some of the students in the class and can serve as focal points of further inquiry.

In the development phase students work in small groups (more or less independently), testing the class initial ideas in a wide variety of experimental (hands-on) contexts. They record their observations, ideas and explanations on the computer with special software and use computer simulators to receive model-based feedback. The sequencing of activities within the units is designed to challenge the common student ideas that are described in the vast literature on research in student understanding. As students go through the development phase, they modify some of their initial ideas, cast some aside as not being useful, and invent new ideas. The students should come to see that the powerful ideas in science are inventions of the human mind and not dictums from authority.

The purpose of the application phase is to provide students with myriad opportunities to see the fruitfulness (and perhaps limitations) of the class consensus ideas by applying them in a wide variety of new and interesting contexts. Whereas the development phase engages all students in a carefully structured sequence of activities to ensure they all have a common experiential basis for developing shared (consensus) ideas, the application phase allows students wide latitude to explore their own questions, using available apparatus, the simulators, or other resources such as the World Wide Web.

The entire learning process is supported by powerful software designed especially for the project: a page-layout program for instructors to author activities and for students to record their predictions, experimental observations and explanations; a set of pedagogically-oriented physics simulators that allow students to represent their predictions, and then provide both phenomenological and model-based feedback; and idea containers for students to keep track of their evolving ideas.

An Example from the Light and Color Unit-The first cycle of the Light and Color unit focuses on phenomena involving illumination, shadows and pinholes. Two ideas that the development phase activities are intended to help students construct are that an extended light source can be thought of as a collection of point sources, and that light travels outward from each point in all directions. Students often begin their study of geometrical optics by thinking about an extended source holistically; that is, they think of the entire source, rather than a point source, as the fundamental entity involved in optical phenomena. Also, their initial drawings showing how light goes from a source to a screen rarely show more than a single line connecting a point on the source with a point on the screen. To facilitate the invention of more sophisticated ideas about light and sources, students work with Mini Maglites® (to approximate point sources) and regular light bulbs (as extended sources) to investigate simple and complex shadows, and the reproduction of a light source on a screen using a pinhole. On the computer they write down their predictions, supporting ideas and draw ray diagrams on top of pictures of the apparatus. After performing experiments with the actual apparatus, they can set up similar arrangements with special computer simulations.

computer screen snapshots

Shown to the left are computer screen snapshots of various (side view) set-ups in the light and color simulator program: (a) shadow on screen formed with three point sources and a rectangular blocking object; (b) shadow using a linear source (representing a clear, tubular showcase bulb) and the same blocking object; (c) pinhole pattern on screen with three point sources; and (d) pinhole pattern on screen with an extended asymmetric source (representing a standard incandescent light bulb). At the far right of the figure is the elements palette for this particular simulator. For each set-up the student can obtain a representation of the pattern of illumination on the front of the screen. These screen views are shown to the right of the side views of the screen in each of the four set-ups. In the last set-up (d) the student has dragged out sprays of light rays from the top and bottom of the source. The simulator thus provides both phenomenological and model-based feedback.

An Example from the Static Electricity and Magnetism Unit-In the first cycle of the Static Electricity and Magnetism unit the students focus on describing the similarities and differences between magnetic and static electric phenomena. In the second cycle they build a model for magnetism. It is not uncommon for students to begin this second cycle with a separation-type model to explain what happens when a magnet rubs an iron nail (thereby magnetizing it). For example, in the initial model they often imagine there are two kinds of entities uniformly distributed inside the nail (represented either with positive and negative symbols, or with north and south symbols), and in the act of rubbing the nail with a magnet the two kinds of entities separate to the opposite sides of the nail. This, they reason, can account for the two-ended nature of a magnetized object.

This model is immediately challenged in the first development activity, where students are asked to predict what would happen if a magnet-rubbed nail were cut in half. The observation that each half of the cut nail acts as a two-ended magnetized object encourages students to modify their model. This process of testing their model with various experiments continues throughout the cycle. One of the last activities has students look carefully at what happens when a magnet is rubbed over a test tube partially filled with iron filings. For students who are not already thinking about a "domain-like" orientation model to explain the act of magnetization, this analogy provides a strong impetus to imagine that two-ended entities inside a magnetic material become reoriented (and aligned) when influenced by an external magnet. One of the simulators is also used by students to gather evidence to support an orientation model.

Another simulator used during the Application phase allows students to explore more complex situations and to receive both phenomenological and model-based feedback. This simulator shows two magnets influencing a piece of ferromagnetic material (temporary magnetic dipole) constrained to rotate about a pivot. Clicking inside the material with a micro viewer opens a window alongside the ferromagnetic material, providing a microscopic model view of the inside of the material.

Project Dissemination-The CPU pedagogy and supporting materials will be disseminated through a series of workshops offered by 24 geographically distributed teams of college and precollege teachers over the next three years. Each team of three or four members has been prepared for this task by participating in special leadership training sessions held at San Diego State University during the summers of 1996 and 1997, and by trial testing the materials in classrooms during the intervening academic year. The teams will offer workshops for two distinct audiences: elementary teachers, to help them develop a deeper conceptual understanding of physics; and secondary school physics and physical science teachers, to help them adapt the pedagogy and materials for their own classrooms. Information about the teams, their planned workshops, the CPU project, and the availability of the software (which has been submitted to Physics Academic Software for publication) and other materials is available on the CPU project's Web page.

  1. NSF Grant No. ESI-9454341
Fred Goldberg is Professor of Physics at San Diego State University and head of the physics learning research group in the Center for Research in Mathematics and Science Education. He and Patricia Heller, of the University of Minnesota, are co-directors of the CPU project.

Automating Assignment Delivery on the World Wide Web

Larry Martin and Aaron Titus

Physics teachers have been using electronic media in their teaching for some years. Computers, in particular, have been quickly adopted into physics classrooms, because it is a natural extension of using computers in our research. With a wide variety of computer platforms has come a wide variety of pedagogical software of varying usefulness. With the advent of the World Wide Web and its cross-platform capability, a new tool has become available to deliver instruction any time, any place, to any platform. Much of the initial development of this new medium was driven by the needs of our research community to deliver research results electronically so that dissemination among experts could occur more rapidly than traditional publishing might allow. It seems natural to extend this widely supported technology into our classrooms.

Early uses of the Web in teaching have sometimes derisively been called "shovel-ware," meaning that traditional syllabi and lecture notes were simply exported to Web sites. As new methods became available on the Web, they were less likely to be adopted because of the difficulty in learning and using them. For example, as "forms" became available, the difficulty of learning to write the needed hypertext markup language (HTML) to produce radio buttons, text area boxes, etc., was enough to prohibit many from using this technology. Some simple forms have been used but often the extent of the post-processing was to email the results to the teacher, which was no more desirable than asking teachers to collect more papers to grade. What is needed is a way of generating the forms automatically and then collecting the results and grading them automatically. It is also desirable that the questions have some element of randomization so that student collaboration is limited. Such power is available through the use of a common-gateway interface (CGI), a program that runs on the Web server to create Web pages "on the fly" for display on the student's Web browser. The CGI may also handle collection, storage, and grading of the students' responses.

For several years at North Park University, and more recently at North Carolina State University, we have been developing and using such programs to aid in the delivery of interactive instruction. This article describes a program called WWWAssign (often pronounced as "Web Assign"), freely available from our Web site, which allows relatively easy construction of lists of questions ready for automated Web delivery and grading. This CGI is written in Perl and is fairly readable by anyone familiar with programming. Such assignments have been by us as homework, tutorials, quizzes, tests, and even exams. The formatting of the questions into HTML form is handled by the CGI which has been used successfully on Unix, Macintosh, and PC webservers.

For any assignment, there is a descriptor file containing basic information about the assignment, including a pointer to a file of names of students allowed to take the assignment. The students at our institutions log in using their normal user names and passwords, so there is no need to create new passwords.

Other information in the descriptor file is carefully annotated. An advantage of our program is that an assignment may have multiple sections, making it possible to present information in a later section which may "give away" an answer to a previous section; however, the student may not "go back" and fill in another answer since it has already been submitted.

Four modes of questions are presently supported: multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, numerical and essay. All but the last are automatically graded, and essays may be teacher-graded through a simple Web interface. The basis of an assignment is a flat text file of questions and answers with a few simple formatting constraints which allow the CGI to determine the mode of the question. The format of the source file is line based, with one line for each question, followed by a single line containing the answer.

The default question mode is multiple choice (of which "true-false" questions are a subset). The question is typed on a single line (including any HTML for extra formatting or links to pictures), followed by the correct response, and as many distractors as desired. From the question, the WWWAssign CGI will produce a "radio-button" form with the positions of the correct answers and distractors suitable randomized.

A fill-in-the-blank question creates a text box for the student's answer. The answer line contains all possible correct responses separated by tabs. The program will not accept misspelled answers; the match must be exact. A numerical answer line contains the correct number and the proper units. The default tolerance is plus or minus 1 percent, although an override tolerance may be added. For essay questions, the answer line starts with two numbers specifying length and width for the text box. These indicate an expectation for the length of the response. An exemplary answer may be added; this will appear to the students when they receive their graded key. The essay grading interface presents students' responses anonymously to the instructor to preserve some measure of objectivity. A new type of tagging on questions is used to created randomized questions. Each student may be given a set of random numbers in their problems. Several examples of the use of this method are available on our Web site.

Our experience is that these Web-based assignments are popular with students, since they can receive immediate feedback on their score. They also appreciate the fact that they are now forced to keep up on the reading and classwork by the regularity of the assignments. Such attention to "time on task" has been severely limited in the past due to teachers' inability to collect and quickly grade papers. Students will rarely heed the advice "do it anyway" unless they know it has a direct impact on their grade. This program allows students to complete assignments anywhere, anytime, on the platform of their choice.

We offer this program to the academic community in the hopes that it may be of service in our common task, that of creatively engaging our students in investing their time and talents to learning our discipline and becoming a part of our community of scholars.

Information, Documentation, Program

Larry Martin is professor of physics at North Park College in Chicago, and Aaron Titus is at North Carolina State University, Raleigh.

Some Simple Rules of Writing

Barbara Goss Levi

The nice thing about going into physics is that you don't have to write much...except for the grant proposal that has to convince funders to support your work or the research paper whose publication is the key to your promotion. Not to mention the general review article that explains to other physicists or maybe even your spouse what is so special about the work that consumes your every living hour.

Like it or not, competent writing is an important tool of the physicist. Recognizing that, a few physics departments include some kind of writing experience in the undergraduate curriculum. For example, students in the third-year lab course at Stanford University must write up each experiment as if it were a paper intended for journal publication.

Although I have written for Physics Today for nearly 30 years, I have never taken or taught a science writing class. So I can't say what or how one might teach communication skills to physics majors. I can only share a few rules that have stood me in good stead. I name each rule for the mentor who taught it to me.

Miss Ottenberg's Rule: Practice writing short summaries of longer articles.
This seventh grade teacher called such a summary a "pr‚cis," a foreign word no doubt intended to impress her naive students. Miss Ottenberg regularly gave us several pages of text and asked us to boil them down to one paragraph. The exercise taught us to cut down the trees to better see the forest and forced us to write more succinctly. To make our word limit, we had to sacrifice many colorful adjectives but along with them we jettisoned lots of imprecise and needlessly wordy phrases. (Miss Ottenberg also taught us the wonderful discipline of diagramming sentences.)

Mr. Orloff's Rule: Combine writing with inspiring reading.
I still remember Mr. Orloff pacing the front of my high school classroom teacher as he dramatically recited the lines of Hamlet (he was faculty advisor to the drama club). He also entertained us by grouping the required readings into various themes, such as humor, death and love. Stimulated by the divergent thoughts and styles of the assigned readings, we wrote essays on the given theme, no doubt trying to emulate the style of our favorite author. Maybe today's researchers as well as students would write better if someone held up examples of really well written papers in Physical Review Letters! Every once in a while I come across one that can be read by someone outside the narrow specialty, and it's a real treat.

Terry Scott's Rule: Get rid of superfluous words.
When I first arrived at Physics Today, I got important feedback from Terry Scott, who was then the managing editor of the magazine and now serves the American Institute of Physics as journal publisher. Among other things, he insisted I expunge wordy phrases from my stories. On the taboo list were phrases such as "there is..." or "the fact that..." As frustrating as it sometimes was not to have these phrases available to me, I soon found that the sentences I constructed without them were more lively and readable.

Gloria Lubkin's Rules

  1. Rewrite if it's not clear.
    Throughout my tenure at Physics Today I have had feedback from Gloria Lubkin, who founded the Search and Discovery news section in 1967. Especially when I first started writing for the magazine, I would feel quite annoyed when she scrawled "unclear" in the margin next to some paragraph. But when I critically reread my own writing, I would think of more direct and effective explanations to offer the reader. The rewrite has almost always been better than the first draft. Thus, I try never to invest so much ego in my writing that I am not willing to listen to comments and drastically rephrase if necessary.
  2. Define your terms.
    The other really annoying thing Gloria does is to circle a word and write "define" in the margin. I hate that: I have finally finished a complicated story and have become so steeped in the language of a particular subfield that I want to use its jargon. Frequently the jargon term is really complicated to explain and I am reluctant to interrupt the flow of my story to define it. On the other hand, if I stick it in unexplained, the term just might stop my reader in his or her tracks. So I am challenged to find a simpler way to say the same thing or else completely drop the particular detail that required the jargon word, often with no loss to the overall story.

Experience's Rule: Good writing is clear thinking.
If I have to explain the fractional quantum Hall effect in a palatable manner to a geophysicist specializing in mantle convection, I'd better be able to explain it first to myself; it has to make sense to me. That doesn't mean I have to take a course in every topic I write about, but at least I have to understand the main characteristics of the phenomenon. An even better test of how well you understand a subject is how well you can explain it to a colleague in conversation. Sometimes in staff meetings, we news reporters summarize for one another the stories we are working on. By having to field questions from the other writers, each of us has to hone our own understanding.

None of these rules is new. They are like the simple rule to tennis players: "Keep your eye on the ball." The players all know the rule but the challenge is to consistently follow it. Having completed this little piece, I wonder which of the above rules I have violated in writing it!

Barbara Goss Levi is Senior Editor of Physics Today, and a Member-at-Large of the Forum on Education Executive Committee. She has taught at Fairleigh Dickinson, Georgia Tech., and Rutgers Universities, and she has also served as Chair of the APS Forum on Physics and Society.

Astronomy Retains International Appeal for Teachers

Darrel Hoff

Over the last decade I have been privileged to work in several countries around the world with pre-college teachers who were eager to know more about the teaching of astronomy. Funding from the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the United Nations Space Agency, the National Science Foundation, foreign government support and personal funds have supported dozens of teacher workshops in such diverse places as India, Japan, the (former) Soviet Union, Colombia, France, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Norway, Denmark, and in nearly every one of the lower 48 United States. Without exception, teachers are excited by the prospects of sharing the sky with their students and are seeking guidance and help from educators and the astronomical community.

What are the major concerns of these teachers? What do they feel they need to improve their teaching of a subject that has inherent interest for a wide range of students, both in age and in abilities? Pre-college teachers who love this subject express concern for two major lacks: a "standard" plan for curriculum content and up-to-date and inexpensive resources for teaching the subject. What are the educational agencies in these countries doing about it?

Although there is no global plan for this subject, the IAU has an astronomy education commission, headed by John Percy, University of Toronto. Dr. Percy, as a research astronomer as well as a tireless worker for improving astronomy education, bridges the gap between these two fields. The commission he heads has held two international conferences on the teaching of astronomy, and a third is being planned.

Some countries with centralized education planning address some of the teachers' concerns that astronomy deserves to play a stronger role in the education of their youth. Recognizing that astronomy involves conceptualization that is difficult for young children, some countries do not include the subject in the early curriculum. Japan's recent 10-year educational plan, for example, does not teach astronomy until the fourth year. France has a an aggressive Liaison Committee of Teachers of Astronomy, which hosts meetings and workshops for teachers, but they don't stress the subject for very young children.

In the United States, recent attempts at curriculum reform have been undertaken by such groups as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences. How does astronomy fare? Not very well, I fear. For example, the AAAS's Benchmarks for Science Literacy index lists the "earth" with nine sub-listings while the biological topic of "body" has 10 sub-listings. "Astronomy" doesn't even show up as a separate heading in the index, and scant references to the moon, sun, planets, and stars are just scattered through the text. The NRC's National Science Education Standards similarly neglects the broad topic of astronomy. So, in the main, the teacher is left to his or her own resources for curriculum guidance.

Although missing any strong central direction in the United States, the professional astronomy community has responded. We can take pride in the outreach provided by the American Astronomical Society's AASTRA project under the leadership of Mary Kay Hemenway, University of Texas. A ASTRA alerts teachers to the need for hands-on experience for children to learn, and it encourages the purchase of inexpensive materials developed for astronomy education by other federally funded projects, including material developed for elementary and middle school students by the Lawrence Hall of Science as a part of their GEMS series (Great Explorations in Math and Science). A ASTRA is partly patterned after SPICA (Support Program in Instructional Competency in Astronomy), and both have conducted hundreds of teacher-led workshops to alert other teachers to available resources for the field.

Another organization that has a long history of public and teacher outreach is the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP), which is the parent of project ASTRO, conceived and operated by the energetic Andy Fraknoi. Project ASTRO, like A ASTRA, successfully employs the talents of master teachers to "spread the word" through teacher-led workshops. An inexpensive resource book "The World at Your Fingertips," with hundreds of pages of ideas, astronomy background information, and teacher's tips, is available from the ASP. This fine publication should be available in every college or university physics department with an interest in helping our colleagues improve the teaching of astronomy at the K-12 level.

Darrel Hoff is professor of physics and science education at Luther College in Iowa. Through the International Astronomical Union he has organized astronomy education conferences and workshops in many countries, and he is the author of astronomy laboratory manuals and "Activities in Astronomy." In recognition of his international work in astronomy education he was named a Fellow of the British Royal Astronomical Society.

A New College Physics Approach

Alexander Dickison

A new modular approach to the standard algebra/trigonometry based physics course is being developed, with the help of a NSF Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grant, in a project is called Introductory College Physics/Twenty First Century (ICP/21). The material, which will target engineering and medical technology students, will be at a level that will make it acceptable for transfer to any university. ICP/21 is unique in that it takes into account recent developments in physics education research, changes in student goals, and advances in technology that can be used in the classroom.

Course Philosophy
ICP/21 places importance on students understanding the basic concepts and having confidence in applying them, rather than exposing them to many ideas which are neither understood nor remembered. Several features are found throughout each module.

  • Students are actively engaged. The need for lectures has been greatly reduced. Most classroom time is devoted to laboratories, work sheet activities, and discussion among students.
  • The curriculum will have two tracks. One will incorporate the advantages of using high technology equipment in the laboratory and classroom (MBL, CBL, multimedia, computer analysis of data), while the second track will allow instructors to teach the same concepts using traditional equipment.
  • Quantitative problem solving is equally important as student understanding of the concepts. Procedures and problem solving strategies will be emphasized and not just getting the "right answers." Students will use multiple representations for most problems and be able to tie together the knowledge gained by analyzing a problem from a pictorial, physical, graphical, and mathematical perspective.
  • Through the use of learning cycles students will actively test their own conceptual understandings of our natural world. If their conceptual models do not work they will be led to the construction of a more accepted scientific module that does. Each module will contain 3 to 5 sections.

Motivational Techniques
In addition to the pedagogical approach used, there is also the problem of student motivation. College physics students more and more (especially technical students) want to understand why they need to take physics.

  • ICP/21 uses applications found in industry and medicine throughout the problem sets and examples. Students quickly understand that physics is an important underpinning in their field of study. This has turned out to be one of the hardest parts of the project for the authors. It is difficult to find applications that are not too complicated and that fit the simple models of introductory college physics.
  • Modeling is emphasized. The necessary simplifications and assumptions that are made by physicists in developing the simple models and theories used in introductory college physics are clearly explained. These models give "approximate" answers to "real-world" problems. Possible modifications are also introduced, which could be made to some models by engineers or researchers in order to give better answers.

Module Format
Each module (approximately three weeks of work) will be broken up into 3 to 5 sections. Each section will incorporate a Learning Cycle.

  • Introduction: Motivational with video showing "real-world" applications. Present an overarching question to be answered in the section.
  • Exploration: Hands on chance for students to test their preconceptions.
  • Reflection: Time for students to commit to their current beliefs.
  • Dialog: Usually by class discussion the model used by scientists is developed.
  • Extension: "Extend" the model with various "types" of homework and activities.
  • Application: Pull together many of the concepts into an application exercise or capstone project.

An exciting feature is that all ten modules, plus a toolkit, will be available on an CD-ROM. The CD-ROM will be for the instructor to use. It will contain a user's guide and the "quick pick" form of the student edition. The student edition can be edited. Instructors can change the laboratories, take out any parts they do not want to use, or add their favorite material. During the editing, the instructors can delete or add problems and exercises, so the modules meet the mathematical level of their students. The end result can be printed locally and sold in the bookstore just as a regular textbook. The authors and physics "topics" are as follows:

(Webmaster Note: I've inserted hyper links where I could find them. Some of these folks can't be located because insufficient information is given to identify the institution and/or their institution does not provide useful directory services.)

Name/College Physics Topic
Sherry Savrda/
Lake Sumter Community College
Alexander Dickison- PI/
Seminole Community College
Leo Takahashi/
Penn State University - Beaver Campus
Marvin Nelson - CoPI/
Green River Community College
Rebecca Hartzler/
Edmonds Community College
Pearley Cunningham - CoPi/
Community College of Allegheny County
Charles Robertson/
University of Washington
Charles Lang /
University of Nebraska
Lincoln and Omaha Westside High School
Brian Box /
North Oklahoma College
Roger Edmonds and John Terrell
Middlesex Community College

The authors are looking for physics faculty willing to review parts or all of any module. This input is important in the achievement of the best modules possible. The modules are presently available in hard copy. Toward the end of summer 1998, the first CDs will be available. Field testing will begin during the 1998-99 school year. If you are interested in getting involved, please contact the author.

Alexander Dickison is a Professor and Chair of the Physical Sciences Department at Seminole Community College, Sanford, Florida. He is Treasurer of AAPT.

Problem Solving and Learning Physics

David P. Maloney

Problem solving has been an integral part of physics instruction for many years. The reason for this is the belief that when the students solve problems they really learn the physics. Certainly that is the experience most of us had. However, most of the students in our general physics courses are not physics majors and do not have anything close to our motivation to learn physics. Physics education research has made it clear that students can succeed in general physics courses, even those which require significant problem solving, without showing any growth in reasoning skills or the development of

Research on Students' Problem Solving Procedures
One of the early studies of students' problem solving was that of Reif, et al. (1976), who pointed out students' tendency to grab an equation and plug in numbers. They tried, with limited success, to get the students to follow a more systematic problem-solving strategy, although the intervention was of rather brief duration.

Larkin, et al. (1980) compared the problem-solving behaviors of experts (graduate students and physics professors) with novices (students who had completed one or two semesters of general physics). In their research, two computer models were developed. The knowledge development model, which worked from the given information to the goal of the problem, did a good job modeling the behavior of the experts. The means-end model, which started with the goal of the problem and worked "backwards" to the given information, better matched the novices' procedures.

In the means-ends analysis, the problem solver identifies the goal of the problem, determines where he/she is relative to that goal, identifies steps he/she can take to reduce the difference between the current problem state and the goal state and then applies appropriate steps. For a novice student trying to solve a textbook physics problem, the goal they will identify is finding a specific numerical value and what will look like the most reasonable and efficient way to reach that goal is to find an equation. Consequently, the characteristic "plug and chug" behavior is understandable and not unreasonable.

Sweller, et al. (1983, 1988, 1990) have proposed that novices' use of means-ends analysis on standard textbook problems is counterproductive for learning the physics concepts, principles, and relations that underlie problem-solving with understanding. When the students focus on the goal of finding a specific numerical value that focus will direct their attention to the equations. With this focus, carrying out a qualitative analysis involving other representations seems to be of little value. In addition, applying the means-ends heuristic requires a significant part of the cognitive resources of the solver, so few resources are available to consider the concepts and principles and how they apply.

Traditional textbook problems helped us learn physics not because solving such problems is the best way to learn physics, but because we were motivated to use them to help us learn. Our success does not mean such problems will be just as useful to less motivated students. There may actually be better types of problem structures for helping the majority of our students learn the concepts, principles, and relations that underlie solving physics problems with understanding. Recent work in physics education research has led to several ideas for alternative problem structures, or alternative ways to approach traditional problems; these have been shown to be more productive for focusing students' attention on the conceptual basis of problem-solving. coherent conceptual framework (McDermott, 1993). Does this mean problem-solving is not a productive instructional activity?

Alternative Approaches to Problems and Problem Solving
Two proposals for using traditional textbook problems in different ways emphasize the qualitative and conceptual aspects of the solution process. Van Heuvelen's (1991) technique, called "multiple representation problem solving," is a direct application of Larkin's sequence of representations. Students encounter a traditional word problem with a goal of finding a specific numerical value. However, the problem is at the top of a page which also contains, in sequence, a region to draw an everyday sketch of the situation, a region to draw a physics sketch (a free-body diagram, an electric field map, a lens diagram, etc.), a region to write the relevant equation, a region to work out the answer, and finally a region to make comments about what they learned from solving the problem.

An important part of this approach is that students are explicitly told that they must have all sections of the page filled in order to get full credit for solving the problem. One way to enforce this is to grade the problems by starting with the first representation in the sequence and as soon as anything is missing, the grading process stops. In other words, a student who simply writes down the answer, or the correct equation and the answer, would get a zero for the problem, since the earlier qualitative representations would not have been found. This may seem like an unfair procedure which would penalize some students who actually had the correct answer, but the whole idea is to shift the focus from the answer to the process, and if students are alerted at the outset there should be no problems.

A second way to use traditional problems, described by Leonard et al. (1996), requires students to provide a qualitative strategy for solving a problem. The strategies contain three components: (1) identification of the appropriate concepts, principles, and relations that apply to the problem; (2) a reasonable and appropriate explanation of why they apply; and (3) a description of how they apply. Students in the section where the strategy writing was employed were found to be better at problem classification tasks and at recall of major ideas from the course when tested several months after the end of the course.

Other approaches proposed for problem solving employ different problem structures from the traditional items. In one approach D'Alessandris (1995) has developed problems which do not ask the students to find any specific numerical value. Instead the students must thoroughly analyze the given situation, determine exactly what is happening and essentially find all major values associated with the situation. With the focus of finding a specific numerical value removed, the students cannot simply look for an equation into which to plug numbers. Before deciding what values to find, and what equations to use, the students must figure out what is happening in the situation and what physically important quantities are relevant.

D'Alessandris has developed this alternative format as a part of an entirely different way to run the introductory course. The problem format is an integral part of his "Spiral Physics" approach. However, the idea of modifying the format of the problems to make students thoroughly analyze physical situations is certainly one that can be adopted by other instructors. There are actually several ways to produce problems of this type. One way is to present a traditional problem without the identification of a specific value to find and instead ask the students, "What can you assert about this situation?" They then have to determine, and calculate, all of the major quantities they can from the given values.

Research in physics education has shown that having students solve traditional textbook problems is of limited usefulness in helping them learn the concepts, principles and relations. One possible explanation for why these problems are less productive than expected is that the students' use of means-ends analysis in trying to solve the problems leads them to plug and chug procedures which ignore the qualitative analysis that is involved in problem solving with understanding. In employing plug and chug approaches the students do not work with the other representations, such as physics diagrams, which is where the links are to the appropriate conceptual knowledge. Modifying how traditional problems are done, or modifying the problem format has been shown, in certain cases, can produce better outcomes for conceptual understanding. A fuller review of the physics education research relating to problem solving can be found in Maloney (1994).

  • D'Alessandris, P., "Assessment of a Research-Based Introductory Physics Curriculum" AAPT Announcer 25 (4), 77 (1995)
  • Larkin, J.H., McDermott, J., Simon, D.P., and Simon, H.A. "Expert and Novice Performance in Solving Physics Problems" Science 208, 1335-1342 (1980); also, "Models of Competence in Solving Physics Problems," Cognitive Science 4, 317-345 (1980).
  • Leonard, W.J., Dufresne, R.J. and Mestre, J.P. "Using Qualitative Problem-solving Strategies to Highlight the Role of Conceptual Knowledge in Solving Problems," Am. J. Phys. 64, 1495-1503 (1996)
  • Maloney, D.P., "Research on Problem Solving: Physics" in Handbook of Research on Science Teaching and Learning D. Gabel (Ed.), MacMillan Publishing Co., New York (1994).
  • McDermott, L. C., "How We Teach and How students Learn-A Mismatch?" Am. J. Phys. 61, 295-298 (1993).
  • Reif, F., Larkin, J.H. and G.C. Brackett "Teaching General Learning and Problem-Solving Skills" Am. J. Phys. 44, 212-217 (1976)
  • Sweller, J., Mawer, R.F. and M.R. Ward "Development of Expertise in Mathematical Problem Solving,"J.Exp. Psych.: General 112, 639-661 (1983)
  • Sweller, J. "Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning" Cognitive Science 12, 251-285 (1988)
  • Van Heuvelen, A. "Overview, Case Study Physics" American J. Phys., 59, 898-906 (1991)
  • Ward, M. and J. Sweller "Structuring Effective Worked Examples" Cognition and Instruction 7, 1-39 (1990)

David Maloney is professor of physics at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne.

First Two APS Mass Media Fellows Complete Their Terms

The first two APS mass media fellows have completed their fellowship tenures, one with a newspaper and one with a radio station. Jeffrey Chuang, a physics graduate student at MIT, spent 10 weeks this summer at the Dallas Morning News, while David Kestenbaum, a staff scientist at Femilab, spent 10 weeks at radio station WOSU in Columbus. Both of them report their experiences as interesting and profitable.

The APS Mass Media Fellowship Program was initiated by the Forum on Education, particularly through the efforts of Natalia Meshkov and James Wynne. Rather than create an entirely new program, it was decided to work with the AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellow Program, an established, successful program with administrative infrastructure and contacts with the media. In its 21-year existence, this program has placed approximately 350 fellows with news magazines, newspapers, and TV networks. The FEd Executive Committee proposed to the APS Council that a similar program be set up to enable physicists to spend up to three months working in the mass media. By all accounts, the program has been successfully launched.

Jeffrey Chuang, who received his BA in chemistry and physics from Harvard, is currently a PhD candidate at MIT, working in quantum computation theory. During his term at the Dallas Morning News he wrote more than 20 articles, including a film review and a story about a strange rotation of the Earth, which was published in the front section of the newspaper. From his editor, he says, he learned how to explain complex ideas and how to keep the reader interested. Also important to him was the new perspective he gained on science and the importance of mixing specialization with breadth in science. "It will be much easier for me to read and appreciate scientific journals when I get back," he commented. His experience didn't change his career goals, however. "I still want to be a professor at a liberal arts college, and I'll write on the side when I have time. That's what I thought I wanted to do before the summer, and this has confirmed it."

"I had the time of my life this summer," says David Kestenbaum. "I have been in love with public radio since I was a kid, but before this summer I hadn't the faintest idea how to put a radio piece together." Kestenbaum, who received his BS degree from Yale and his PhD from Harvard, is a staff physicist at Fermilab. He has written articles for the Cern Courier and Fermi News, as well as freelance articles for the Chicago Reader. His second day on the job at radio station WOSU, he proposed a story idea on Manatees (the Columbus zoo was vying to house the first one outside of Florida). He went to the zoo, talked to animal rights activists and biologists, and the third day he was on the air with a three-minute piece. His fellowship firmed up his desire to pursue a career in scientific journalism, and he would like to work for NPR.

Student Problem Solving

Alan Van Heuvelen

A recent survey (Blake, 1995) by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) asked former physics majors who are now in the workplace to identify the most important skills needed for their work. Solving problems was rated first, followed closely by the interpersonal skills needed to work effectively in groups, and by technical writing. The 864 respondents judged physics knowledge as low in importance in the workplace.

This outcome-the lack of importance of physics knowledge and the considerable importance of problem solving-may be a blessing in disguise for our physics education. We can select a reduced content of the most important principles-a less is more philosophy endorsed by the Introductory University Physics Project. Students can be given more responsibility for acquiring that knowledge-a strategy that enhances learning. Time made available by this reduced content can be used to help students develop the skills needed to address more complex problems.

The ability to work effectively in groups was also judged very important in the AIP survey. Eighty percent of our former physics majors work in a group or supervise a group. Fortunately, promoting group work in education is a win-win situation. Johnson, et al. (1981) analyzed student achievement in 51 high-quality studies comparing cooperative learning to so-called competitive lecture-based learning. They found that the cooperative groups on average scored 0.81 standard deviations (almost one grade point) higher than the lecture-based groups.

What about the recent emphasis on conceptual understanding in our college courses? This is yet another win-win situation. Research indicates that good problem solving starts with a strong conceptual foundation. Hake (1997) reports a strong correlation between student scores on a conceptual test and on a problem-solving test. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts have found that problem-solving performance improves when students use a hierarchically structured conceptual analysis strategy (Dufresne, et al., 1992) and when they integrate qualitative strategies into their problem solving (Leonard, et al., 1996). Ron Gautreau at New Jersey Institute of Technology and I have found that student problem-solving scores in university physics courses improve when concepts are introduced and used qualitatively before their use in mathematical form.

There are important reasons why a strong conceptual foundation is correlated with the ability to use with understanding the principles of physics in their mathematical form. Cognitive research indicates that the mind is essentially a symbol-processing device. The symbols in our minds are not mathematical symbols but are some special brain descriptions in a sort of internal brain language. A person makes sense of spoken language, written language, and the math symbols in an equation by a dynamic interplay between internal imagery and these external representations. If the external representations have no links to a person's internal imagery, then the person cannot construct meaning for the external representations. The symbolic language of physics is very abstract. For the symbols to make sense, they must elicit internal mental images that give meaning to the symbols.

To address this difficulty, we can integrate the mathematical descriptions of physical processes with qualitative descriptions that students learn while building their qualitative foundation-a multiple representation strategy. These representations provide links between the abstract math and the more qualitative picture-like and diagrammatic descriptions. Technology that includes intuitive diagrammatic and picture-like representations show promise in helping students visualize the quantities and concepts of physics. Familiar context also helps relate the physics to imagery in students' minds.

As students develop better understanding, they can be asked to "read" an equation and then invent a process that is consistent with the equation-I call these "Jeopardy" problems. Their description can involve words, pictures, or some other more intuitive representation. In the example below, students are to invent a process represented by the equation.

(100 kg)(9.8 m/s2)(50 m sin 37o) = («)k(50 m)2

Finally, having developed a better qualitative understanding and facility with the mathematical language, the student is ready for more complex multipart problems. To solve these latter problems, students learn to add definition to poorly-defined problems, divide complex problems in parts, access the appropriate knowledge to solve each part, choose quantities whose values must be determined in order to solve the problem, make rough estimates in order to supply missing information, interpret data tables and their graphs, and justify approximations. The problems can involve experimental apparatus, so-called "experiment problems" (Van Heuvelen, 1995), and context-rich problems (Heller, et al. 1992).

Does such a system improve learning? There is considerable evidence that strategies such as those described here enhance students' abilities to reason effectively about physical processes without using mathematics and to apply the symbolic language of physics with better understanding. There is also growing evidence that the strategies also enhance students' abilities to analyze and solve more complex problems.

  • Blake, G. (1995), "Skills used in the workplace: What every physics student (and professor) should know," American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD.
  • Dufresne, R., W. J. Gerace, P.T.Hardiman, and J.P.Mestre (1992), J. Learning Sciences 2, 307-331.
  • Heller, P., R. Keith, and S. Anderson (1992), Am. J. Phys. 60, 627-636.
  • Johnson, D. W., G. Maruyama, R. T. Johnson, D. Nelson, and L. Skon (1981), Psychological Bull. 89, 429-445.
  • Leonard, W. J., R.J.Dufresne, and J. P. Mestre (1996), Am. J. Phys.64, 1495-1503.
  • Van Heuvelen, A. (1995), Phys. Teach. 33, 176

About 30 Experiment Problems Instructions

Alan Van Heuvelen is professor of physics at Ohio State University, where he does research on physics education. He conducts workshops on physics problem-solving.

Browsing Through the Journals

Thomas D. Rossing

Elementary school students in the United States do well in science in the lower grades, but their achievements drop off sharply in later grades, according to a note in the 13 June issue of Science. These findings, from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), have led science educators to conclude that the good performance of students in the lower grades is due more to what happens outside the classroom than inside. Educational television, science magazines for young readers, and science museums may be giving U.S. children a boost over their international peers. While the fourth grade science curriculum in the U.S. looks similar to those in other countries, says William Schmidt of Michigan State University, by eighth grade they look quite different. While most of the rest of the world studies algebra and geometry, many U.S. students are still reviewing arithmetic.

U.S. scientists can perhaps take some comfort from the fact that research budgets are suffering in the rest of the world as well. In an effort to eliminate an $18.5 billion budget deficit, the Russian government announced that it will slash the budget of the Russian Foundation for Basic Research by 55%, according to another article in the 13 June issue of Science. The budget of the Russian academy of Sciences will be cut by 25%, a smaller amount because much of its spending is on salaries. Elsewhere in this same issue is the news that Japan's Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto wants to pare the budget deficit by cutting spending. The council's recommendation is to raise the science promotion fund by only 5% (as compared to 8% this year), while many nonscience areas are targeted for budget cuts of up to 10%. How different the approach is to deficit cutting in Russia, Japan, and the United States!

A baseball that clocks itself is being marketed by the Rawlings Sporting Goods Co., according to a note in the September 1997 issue of IEEE Spectrum. Called the Radar Ball, the ball incorporates an omnidirectional accelerometer, which starts a timer upon release from the pitcher's throwing arm and shuts it off when the ball hits the catcher's mitt. One model is set for standard pitching distance, 60.5 feet, and another for Little League pitching distance, 46 feet. The Radar Ball is not recommended for game use. Although the internal components can withstand the impact of a bat, it is not likely that the liquid-crystal display would hold up if struck directly.

The title of an article in the May issue of Journal of College Teaching "The 'Old Dogs' Project" attracted my attention, since I certainly qualify for that category. The arcane title of the project, the work of 7 experienced teachers at George Mason University, supports the notion that "old dogs" (teachers with many years of experience), can learn new tricks. Some of these "new tricks" which are a part of modern pedagogy are the use of student projects, Socratic dialogues, at-home experiments, electronic mail, computer software, role playing, and cooperative learning. However, the authors caution us that "in our desire to utilize the latest pedagogical approaches, we may overlook some of the simpler techniques that have become almost second nature to many experienced teachers." One of the most underutilized methods of improving teaching effectiveness is faculty-peer evaluation. In the "old dogs" project, the seven experienced (tenured) teachers from different disciplines agreed to attend one week's worth of classes in their colleagues' courses to evaluate and criticize each other in a systematic and "no holds barred" manner. Apparently the participants judged the project to be very successful.

An interesting report on the International Conference on Undergraduate Physics Education (ICUPE), held at College Park, Md., July 31-August 3, 1997, appears in the April 1997 issue of the International Newsletter on Physics Education. The conference, attended by approximately 280 physicists from 28 countries, was organized around three themes: The undergraduate physics major as a passport to the workplace; Physics in the service of science and engineering students; and the preparation of school teachers.

While the numbers vary from nation to nation, it is generally true that only a small fraction of the students who take the calculus-level introductory physics course go on to major in physics and only a small fraction of the students who major in physics go on to earn a PhD in physics (in the United States, the numbers are 1 of 33 and 1 of 7, respectively). The report reminds us that the needs of the majority of students who enter the workplace with their physics baccalaureate are often not explicitly considered in either course or curricular design.

Representatives from many countries reported dropping enrollments in physics, coinciding with a changing social environment to which physics must adapt. A change in attitude about what a physicist is and what a physicist does is needed. Pedagogical changes are also called for. Research into the learning process points out the effectiveness of active teaching/learning, which anticipate the work environment that most physics majors will enter upon graduation. Proceedings of the ICUPE will be published.

"Computers in Education: A Brief History" by Andrew Molnar, former Applications of Advanced Technologies Director at NSF, appears in the June 1997 issue of Technological Horizons in Education. Although computers appeared on the scene more than 50 years ago, the era of computers in education is little more than 35 years old, dating from the PLATO project at the University of Illinois in 1959. In 1963, John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz (Dartmouth) transformed the role of computers in education from primarily a research activity to an academic one by developing an easy-to-use language called BASIC. In the late 1960s, NSF supported the development of 30 regional computing networks which included 300 institutions of higher education and some secondary schools. The economy, science, technology, and education are highly interrelated, the author concludes. Competitiveness depends not only on the discovery of new innovations but the speed at which that knowledge is transmitted through our educational systems

Another article in the June issue of THE looks to the future. Alfred Bork writes about "The Future of Computers and Learning." A major problem today is the increasing tendency to confuse information with learning, the author cautions. This is particularly a problem with the use of the World Wide Web in learning. It is information, not problem solving and creativity, that is most easily tested. A strong push with technology in education is toward more and more equipment. The author, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of developing highly interactive technology. The conversation between and the computer must be in English or another natural language; the widespread use of pointing has led to less interactive software than we had 20 years ago. Furthermore, the computer must maintain information about each student over long periods of time, even when students move around from country to country. Materials to be used by millions (or billions) of students can be inexpensive even though development costs are high (he suggests a cost of $25,000 per hour of learning material).

Students are turning from the sciences to the arts because they want to achieve personal fulfilment rather than develop a career according to sociologists at the Social Research Institute in Denmark. A survey of students 16-18 years of age found that only 15% of science students strongly subscribed to the idea that science has cultural value while 34% subscribed to a literary cultural ideal, according to a note in the August 1997 issue of Physics World.

Software teaching packages that include simulations are discussed in "Simulations for students" in the July issue of Physics World. Among the products discussed are Albert (Germany and UK), CUPLE (USA), CUPS (USA and UK), PEARLS (USA) and StoMP (UK). Although some people worry that with the introduction of computer-based teaching materials, "external forces may be conspiring to produce an education system with limited human contact," the authors are convinced that these forces will not prevail.

The Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, planned for Needham, Mass. By the year 2001, will have a new education philosophy based on the research and curriculum promoted by NSF, according to an article in the August 1997 issue of Institute, a news supplement to IEEE Spectrum. "The U.S. loses 40 percent of freshman admits by the end of their sophomore year, not because they can't handle the material but because they experience little or no engineering project work and become discouraged," according to NSF Acting Deputy Director and IEEE President-Elect Joseph Bordogna. Olin Foundation President Lawrence Milas agrees. "Engineers general get trained in too narrow a specialty," he said. The Olin Foundation has designated $200 million to build the new engineering college.

According to new plans for restructuring of ministries, Japan will create a single Ministry for Culture, Education, Science and Technology, according to an article in Nature, 28 August 1997. The new ministry merges the present Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture with the Science and Technology Agency (STA). Some observers fear that because the education ministry's preoccupation with school education, integrating the STA into the ministry of education could overshadow science and technology. Others see the merger making science and technology policy in Japan more efficient and effective.

Congressional Science Fellowships

APS and AIP are currently accepting applications for their 1998-1999 Congressional Science Fellowship programs.

Fellows serve one year on the staff of a senator, representative or congressional committee. They are afforded an opportunity to learn the legislative process and explore science policy issues from the lawmakers' perspective. Applicants should have a PhD or equivalent in physics or a closely related field plus a strong interest in science and technology policy. They must be U.S. citizens and be members of APS or another AIP member society. A stipend of $46,000 is offered, in addition to allowances for relocation, in-service travel, and health insurance premiums. Applications should be sent to APS/AIP Congressional Science Fellowship Programs, 529 14th Street NW, Suite 1050, Washington, DC 20045 before January 15, 1998.

Database of Local Physics Alliances
Jane Jackson at Arizona State University has a database of 250 contact people for 150 or so local physics alliances in the United States that she is willing to share. She may be contacted via email and by her telephone number is 602-965-8438.

Project RISE Website
Project RISE now has a website. Project RISE (Resources for Involving Scientists in Education), a project of the National Research Council, was described in articles by Bruce Alberts and Jan Tuomi in the Fall 1994 FEd Newsletter.

New APS Fellows
Three people nominated by the FEd were elected to APS Fellowship: Ralph Baierlein, Charles Holbrow, and James Stith. Our heartiest congratulations to these new fellows! Members who have nominations for APS Fellowship should send them to Beverly Hartline, chair of the FEd fellowship committee.

Bowen Named New Editor
Sam Bowen, Professor of Physics at Chicago State University, will edit the summer issue of the FEd newsletter. During his eight years at the Argonne National Laboratory, Sam was involved with the "New Explorers" video series created by Bill Kurtis as well as teacher enhancement programs for pre-college teachers and programs for graduate students. We welcome Sam to the FEd editorial staff!

Physics Bowl Scholarships
In an effort to expanding participation in the Physics Bowl, Metrologic will provide 10 $1000 scholarships to top scoring students plus 15 $1000 certificates for Metrologic equipment to top scoring schools. Information about the Physics Bowl can be obtained by calling Amy Swan at (800) 667-8400.

Is It Entertaining?
Thomas D. Rossing

In a special report on "How to influence press coverage" (U.S.News & World Report, February 19, 1996), former White House press correspondent Michael Deaver offers this advice: "The best advice you can give to somebody when they're dealing with the media is don't think about these people as journalists, because they aren't. They're in the entertainment business, and that's how you can get their attention. They want stuff that sells, that beefs up the bottom line-circulation and profits. Playing to that is how you can get yourself into print or on television or on the radio."

If that's true, I now understand why we're so unsuccessful in getting science news into the media. It isn't enough to make our news releases understandable to the layperson; they must also be entertaining. The trick is to do this without distortion. That's a real challenge!

This note is reprinted from The Physics Teacher, April 1996

Other Web Resources

After this issue of the newsletter came out, I've received some additional info on web resources for physics education. I'm collecting those here. If you wish to submit a link, I'll be happy to list additional items.

Just email to me.

Ken Lyons, webmaster

From Inga Karliner: has some more information on using the web, and on new college physics approaches.