Middle school science teachers are currently facing a plethora of documents describing what and how science should be taught. In some cases, the new standards represent a fresh confirmation of for some teachers of what they have been doing for a long time. For others, they represent a significant departure from current curricula and will require fundamental changes in attitudes regarding what and how teachers teach and how students learn. In almost all cases, the successful transition to a student-centered active-engagement classroom will require teachers to have detailed knowledge about how their students think and the specific difficulties they encounter as they struggle to understand basic concepts. To obtain this detailed knowledge, a research group called the Laboratory for Research in Physics Education has been formed at the University of Maine. This group has been examining specific sections of the new science standards, developing new curricula based on the results of physics education research, collaborating with rural middle school teachers on the implementation of that curricula, and performing research in rural classrooms to assess the effectiveness of the materials and the methods. This paper will describe one such project on kinematics piloted at a rural middle school in Spring of 1996. We offer this project as a model for how university faculty, graduate students and K-12 teachers can work together towards the common goal of improving the teaching and learning of science.
A steel ball rolls across a metal track as four 6th
graders look on. One has her ear pressed against the table while
another is reading times off a stopwatch. The teacher intervenes and
asks, "Were you able to get the ball to move without speeding up or
slowing down?" One student yells that it is not possible, another
claims that as long as "the track is flat" the ball will stay the
same speed, still another claims to have heard the ball slowing down
reasoning, "the sound of the ball changed so the speed must also be
changing." Later in the week, J.W., a literacy specialist and faculty
member at a local university, conducts a drama in which he plays
radio talk show host to the entire class. "Hello from radio station
WORO. We are here to investigate whether or not uniform motion is
possible. Do you think uniform motion is possible or impossible?" He
holds an imaginary microphone towards a student. The student leans
forward and grabs the microphone saying "It is not possible!" Several
other students nod or yell out in agreement. J.W. grabs the
microphone back, "And why do you think it is not possible? What
evidence do you have?" The student pauses for a moment thinking about
the question. The microphone gets passed to another student who
claims that uniform motion is impossible because, "when the track was
flat, we saw that the ball was slowing down." The talk show host
again counters, "When you say that you SAW the ball slowing down,
what were you looking at? How do you know the ball was slowing?" The
student says, "It just was, I could see it!"
Finally after several interviews a representative from a group of all girls steps forward. J.W. has to coax the young woman to speak up so that the others can hear. "I think uniform motion is possible," she states. "And why do you think it is possible?" J.W. asks. She replies, "Because we measured it. We found that if we tilted the track a bit, the time it took the ball to go the first half of the track was the same as the second half. So the ball must not be speeding up or slowing down." A group of boys yell out that the girls are wrong. Some start yelling a mantra "not possible, not possible, not possible."
J.W. restores order and asks them to stand in a line across the room. He asks students who strongly believe that uniform motion is not possible to stand at one end of the line and for students who strongly believe that uniform motion is possible to stand at the other end. He instructs students who are unsure to place themselves somewhere along the line depending on how strongly they believe one opinion or the other. About half the class moves to the end indicating that they strongly believe uniform motion does not exist or cannot be created. A few stand in the middle and a single group of four girls position themselves at the other end of the line indicating their belief that uniform motion can be created. After a few more interviews, the class decides that in order to "prove" whether or not uniform motion can be created they need to gather more convincing evidence.
Even while the interviews are taking place, small groups of students begin to slip away from the line to grab a stopwatch and a meter stick. Before long, the entire class in engaged in measuring times and distances. Several groups of students are trying to figure out the relationship between the angle of the track and the different times they measure. Later when the "line-up" is repeated, most of the class agrees that uniform motion is possible and have recorded enough evidence to support their new belief.
Almost every high school and college introductory
physics class begins with kinematics, the study of motion. However,
recently released documents which describe new performance standards
for teaching science call for the teaching of kinematics to occur in
grades 5 through 8. (See, for example, National Science Education
Standards, 1996.) In high schools and universities, the traditional
approach to teaching kinematics is to provide students with the
standard definitions of kinematical concepts (e.g., displacement,
speed, velocity and acceleration), a few standard equations, and then
to ask students to use these equations to solve word problems. If a
laboratory component to the course exists, students are asked to make
measurements and compare those measurements with numbers they
obtained using equations. In many cases, calculated values do not
agree with the measurements and a teacher has to defend theory by
claiming that the equation would have worked if they had been more
careful when taking their measurements.
Eventually, many students learn to disassociate the theory from the real world. (Redish, Saul & Steinberg, 1996) Some of the better students learn to fudge their numbers so that their "experiments" agree with the theory. This process (called "dry labbing" when I took introductory physics) is usually rewarded with accolades from the teacher and better grades. Some of the students with the "messed up data" are destined to repeat their measurements until they give up, determined to never take another science class as long as they live. Others learn the trick of working backwards by starting with the theory and changing the data until it "works." Teachers, particularly college physics instructors, then complain bitterly when they find students unable to answer even the most basic conceptual questions. "Kids are not as smart as they used to be," "I can tell them the answers and they still can't get it right."
Is there an alternative to this method of teaching (as telling) and learning (as remembering)? How can students be led to derive understanding through observations? The other extreme, "open inquiry" in which students are allowed to investigate freely, has also been shown to be an ineffective method for helping students develop basic concepts (See, for example, Strike, 1975, Harris & Taylor, 1983 Although some teachers have given up on trying to teach basic concepts (even some of my own colleagues at the university claim that teaching for conceptual change is too difficult and not worth the effort), national, state and local educational reform movements are calling for, and in some cases creating laws that will require students to obtain a functional understanding of selected basic concepts before graduating from high school.
One program that has been successful at helping students build conceptual frameworks is called Physics by Inquiry . This research-based curriculum (McDermott, 1991), developed at the University of Washington, was created to help teachers develop an understanding of basics concepts in physical science. Not intended for younger students, these materials were designed with the intent of helping teachers make better use of existing science curricula (e.g., SCIS, ESS and SAPA). Some teachers, after completing a Physics by Inquiry course, attempt to use the same methods and approach when generating materials for their own classes. However, without the expertise in the subject area and the time necessary to develop and test new materials, these efforts are often met with frustration. These attempts to use Physics by Inquiry without modification for younger students has met with limited success and usually require constant intervention and teacher focused dialogs to work. Student centered and collaborative types of curricula pose a particular problem at the middle school level where the issues of student maturity, varied learning abilities, and age or gender specific social issues easily become the determining factors for what happens in the classroom.
Description of Project
During summer of 1995, a physics faculty member, a
college of education faculty member and several graduate students met
with a local middle school teacher to discuss the implications of
several newly released performance standards including the National
Science Standards, Benchmarks 2000, Maine Curriculum Framework, and
Maine Learning Results. These documents list specific tasks that
middle school students are expected to know and be able to do. We
perceived our challenge as twofold: (1) to determine if the new
standards are achievable given the constraints imposed by real world
classrooms; and (2) to figure out how universities can best support
teachers in their quest to meet these standards. When this middle
school teacher asked for help in designing new materials specifically
to address these new standards, we decided to make use of the
conceptual frameworks provided by Physics by Inquiry for our initial
starting point. More importantly, we hoped to use Physics by Inquiry
as a model for how to develop effective materials using on-going
Motivation for choosing kinematics
The choice of kinematics (the study of motion) as the
topic for our first project was partially motivated by the inclusion
of this topic in statewide academic standards recently adopted by the
state legislature to hold schools accountable for student
performance. These statewide standards require that middle school
students use "mathematics to describe the motion of objects including
speed, distance, time and acceleration." (Maine State Department of
Education, 1996) The National Science Standards further suggests that
middle school students understand that "motion can be measured and
represented on a graph." These guidelines imply that students should
have an understanding of what is meant by the term speed, be able to
find the speed of an object, and be able to represent the position of
an object at different times in both mathematical form using a data
table as well as in graphical form.
Research in cognitive science has shown that, in order to teach effectively, teachers and the materials they use must take into account a student's prior knowledge and beliefs (Mestre & Touger, 1989). Thus, for instruction to be effective, curriculum development must be guided by research into how students think and reason in specific content areas. Extensive research, much of which was completed during the initial development of Physics by Inquiry, already exists in the area of kinematics . These researchers identified numerous reasoning and conceptual difficulties that most college level students experience when learning kinematics and found that many of these difficulties were not typically addressed by standard instruction. Our research goal was to extend this knowledge of student learning to middle school students, to identify additional difficulties unique to this population, and to design instructional strategies to address these difficulties.
Description of overall strategy
Research and teaching experience has led us to identify
four general principles we have found useful for guiding curriculum
Many curriculum development projects fail as a result of
not matching the materials with the needs and the abilities of both
the students and the teachers (Shymansky, Kyle, & Alport, 1983).
This is especially true when research, curriculum development and
instruction are viewed as separate tasks and undertaken independently
of one another. Our intent, during the pilot project, was to combine
these three important components.
Our primary method of research was descriptive and qualitative. Although written pre and post tests were administered, the most useful data came from careful observations of students working in the classroom. Thus, as students worked through the exercises in small groups, faculty members, graduate students and preservice teachers engaged small groups of students in discussions about what they were learning and listened carefully to what they were saying to each other and writing in their journals. Although some of these insights helped us to assess and modify the materials, even more important were the insights we gained about how 6th graders perceive motion and the specific difficulties they encounter when trying to understand the concept of speed.
Description of the population
The middle school chosen for the study is located in a
small town in Central Maine with a population of about 10,000.
Although rural by national standards, the presence of a nearby
university results in a population that is, by many measures, less
typical than the majority of small schools in other parts of the
state. For example, students from this school typically do better
than average on general academic assessment tests as compared to
students in other Maine schools.
For this study, we focused on three 6th grade science classes (N=67). Each class consisted of between 20 and 24 students with an almost equal mix of male and female students and met daily for 42 minutes. The entire unit was completed in about 15 class periods over the course of 3 weeks.
Description of the curriculum
The curriculum that resulted from this collaboration
made use of a directed-inquiry approach where students make careful
observations which provide a basis for constructing physical concepts
and developing the reasoning skills necessary to apply them to other
situations. During each exercise students make and discuss
predictions, provide written and verbal explanations for their
predictions and then observe the phenomena directly. After each
exercise, students are required to discuss what they observe with
each other and are given time to resolve discrepancies through
additional exercises and experiments. Throughout the unit, students
are required to keep a written log of their work including the
predictions and explanations of each of the other members of their
Role of the instructor
In a traditional science class teachers usually see
their role as a source of information through lecturing
or by providing answers to questions. In the directed inquiry
approach, the teacher tries to use Socratic-style questioning to
guide students through the reasoning necessary to develop a
particular concept or idea. To be successful in helping students in
this way, it is imperative that the instructor have a firm
understanding of the underlying conceptual framework of each exercise
as well as detailed knowledge about the alternative conceptions
likely to be elicited from the students. It is only with this
knowledge that teachers are best able to ask students the right types
of questions to help them confront and ultimately resolve
inconsistencies in their own thinking. Giving out direct answers to
questions that could have been arrived at through observations and
reasoning does little to help a student develop important critical
thinking skills. (Anderson and Roth, 1989)
The definition of speed>
Our first objective was for students to develop a functional understanding of speed through direct observation. Previous research has found that most students experience a great deal of difficulty differentiating between a quantity and a change in that quantity. We also know, from related research and teaching experience, that students have a difficult time understanding ratios and using proportinal reasoning. (Arons, 1983)
The study of motion provides a very useful context in
which to address these conceptual and reasoning difficulties. Thus,
many of the exercises were designed to help students develop a
physical interpretation for the ratio of two quantities. A brief
explanation regarding the purpose of several key exercises from the
first phase of the project are listed below.
Make a ball move without speeding up or slowing down using only their five senses (no timers or rulers).
Differentiate between the concept of "speeding up" and the concept of "moving fast."
Develop and apply a quantitative criteria for knowing if something is moving with uniform motion
Recognize that the time it takes for an object to travel equal distances is an indication of whether or not the motion is uniform.
Create an operational definition for uniform motion which includes a procedure for creating the motion and a test that can be used to decide if a motion is uniform or not.
Recognize, that for uniform motion, two ratios remain constant: the distance an object travels in one unit of time and the time it takes for an object to travel one unit of distance.
Invent a word to represent "the time it takes for an object to travel one unit of distance."
Recognize that "the distance an object travels in one unit of time," when moving with uniform motion, is called the "speed" of an object.
Dramatization and "Real-world" applications
Researchers have shown that knowing the individual steps
and sub-processes necessary to understand a concept is not sufficient
for understanding the entire complex process in a real world context
(Resnick & Resnick, 1992). To engage students intellectually and
emotionally in the content, students must be given an opportunity to
become a part of what they are studying. This can be achieved either
through dramatization and role playing (Wilhelm & Edmiston, 1997)
or through applying what they have learned in a real world
After experiencing a classroom dramatization (the radio talk show discussion described at the beginning of this paper) students were asked to apply their understanding of speed to determine the speed of a police car as it drove past the school. A second police car used a radar gun and recorded the speed of the car.
The method of finding the speed of the police car was left completely up to each group of students. These groups had to agree on what measurements they would need to make and how they would make those measurements. Knowing that their answers would be compared to that of the radar gun as well as to the other groups provided an atmosphere of anticipation and excitement. Reporters from the local TV stations arrived at the scene and several students were interviewed. When the time came to compare the results, the students were delighted to find out that their measurements were, in general, more accurate than the radar gun. Students also felt proud when they were able to correct a reporter who incorrectly stated on the broadcast that speed was "time divided by distance."
Graphical representations of motion
For the next phase of the project, we decided to
introduce graphical representations of motion. In order to develop
the necessary concepts, we recognized that students would need to
differentiate between displacement as compared to position, and clock
reading as compared with time interval. Graphical representations of
motion require knowledge of these two additional concepts; where the
object is located (called position) and the time when the object was
at that position (a "time instant" or clock reading). Recognizing
that many college students in introductory physics classes experience
difficulty differentiating between these quantities even after
instruction, we were pessimistic with regards to how far we could, or
should, go with these 6th graders. Because the National Science
Standards suggests that the graphing of motion should be introduced
as early as the 5th grade, we decided to press on. Thus we created
additional exercises to introduce the idea of a position versus time
graph. A brief explanation of the key exercises in this section are
Locate the position of a penny on top of a desk without using a ruler and then with a ruler.
Introduce the idea that the number on the ruler next to the location of the penny can be used to locate the penny and that we call that number the "position" of the penny.
Use highway mile markers to help students differentiate between the idea of displacement (how far an object goes) and the idea of position (where an object is located).
Use timers and stop watches to help students differentiate between the idea of a time interval (how long an event takes) and the idea of a clock reading (an instant in time).
Record positions and clock readings during the motion of a soccer ball (an exercise involving the entire class).
Use their operational definitions of uniform motion to determine the motion of the ball (uniform or non uniform) as well as the speed of the ball.
Represent this motion using both a data table and as a graph of position versus time (clock reading).
For the students in the 6th grade class, a grid with the
appropriate scales already marked were given to the students. In a
later version, used with 8th graders, we tried giving the students a
grid without a marked scale. We found that many of these 8th graders
experienced a great deal of difficulty in marking the scales. The
most common error was that students tended to use the data from the
table to label each increment on the grid, even though this data was
not taken in equal time intervals.
Video Motion Project
For the final exercise in the unit, groups of students
were required to choose a motion they were interested in and then to
use a video camera to record and then analyze that motion. Examples
from the student projects include a galloping horse, a roller blader,
hamster rolling inside a ball, hockey puck, baseball player running
the bases and a dummy thrown from the roof of a building. Several
groups of students created video dramas with songs or skits about
"speed" or "motion." All of the video projects were essential in
helping the students make connections between the concepts and real
world phenomena. The projects also gave us a window into the mind of
each student; how they thought about motion and how well they
understood the concept of speed.
Assessment and Analysis
As a pilot project, our primary assessment tool was
descriptive information obtained through individual discussions with
students and observations of groups of students as they worked
through the materials. In addition, we examined student portfolios
containing records of each student's performance on specific tasks
and independent projects.
Although many of the difficulties identified by other researchers were also prevalent among these students, a few new unexpected insights were gained. For example, we found that many 6th graders believed that the word "speed" was defined as a time interval, rather than as a ratio of distance traveled to the time necessary to travel than distance. On one pretest, one student wrote that "speed is how fast you can get something done" and another said "[speed is] how long it takes to get somewhere." Even following instruction, one group of students created a video motion project around how fast they could make five baskets using a basketball.
Another idea that came up repeatedly was that for many students speed is defined as miles per hour. Most students were not comfortable calling a quantity "speed" unless it was given in these units. For example, when given how far something traveled in meters and how long it took in seconds, most students would focus on converting to miles per hour when asked to find how fast the object was moving. Even though we agree that it is important to connect the ideas learned in a science class to situations familiar to the students (e.g., the concept of speed and "speed limits" and "speedometers"), teachers also need to be aware that students will often form incorrect generalizations from a given specific example.
In addition to the descriptive studies, we administered written tests. A pre-test was given to the 6th graders before instruction and a motion diagnostic test was administered as a post-test to the 6th graders as well as to 7th and 8th grade students at a different school. Students from the 8th grade class took the test after they had studied kinematics, including motion graphs. Results from the 7th grade class that had not studied motion provided us with additional baseline data from which to compare the conceptual gain of the 6th graders. In some cases, we were able to compare the performance of these 6th graders with that of introductory college students on identical questions.
The motion diagnostic test (MDT) contains three parts. (A complete copy of the test can be obtained by writing the author.) All questions were open response and, in each part, students were asked to provide a written explanation for their answer. It is our belief that in the formative stages of curriculum development and teacher preparation, descriptive and qualitative data are the most useful tools for learning how students think and learn. Thus, instead of perfoming a detailed numerical analysis of the written tests, we looked for general trends and attempted to identify common difficulties that students enountered before and after instruction.
In part one, students are given a displacement and a time interval in a familiar context (a car driving down a highway) and asked to find how far the car goes in 1 minute, how long does it take the car to go one mile and to find the speed of the car. [See figure 1] Almost all students (6th, 7th and 8th graders) failed to recognize that the distance the car travels in one minute is called the speed of the car. Instead, when asked to find the speed of the car, most students attempted to give their answer in units of miles per hour. However, many students had difficulty with converting from miles per minute to miles per hour. For example, for some students the word "per" implied the multiplication of two quantities, rather than the ratio of two quantities. A higher percentage of 8th graders obtained the correct answer on all three questions. However, many of the 6th graders showed a correct analysis but encountered difficulties with the arithmetic. [see figure 2].
On part two of the test, students are given a table showing the times when a car passes several different mile markers. They are asked to create a graph of the motion, decide if the motion was uniform or non-uniform, find the speed of the car, interpolate between two points on the graph and then extrapolate by making a prediction of when the car would pass a mile marker not shown in the table. As shown in Figure 3, the 6th grade class did significantly better than the 8th graders on all sections of part two of the test. [See Figure 3]. For the students who had not been through the kinematics unit, the most common difficulties could be traced to an inability to differentiate between position and displacement, and a clock reading and a time interval. Rather than find the distance traveled for a certain time interval, these students would incorrectly divide the position by the clock reading. Another common source of error was to include the origin of the graph as a data point, even though the origin was not at (0,0) and this data point was not included in the table. For one group of 8th graders that was tested, students drew a bar graph instead of a line graph. This source of error could be traced to a recent mathematics class in which these students were asked to construct bar graphs in a different context.
Part three of the test involved a situation containing a uniform and a non-uniform motion; a ball rolling down an inclined track and then across a level track. [See Figure 4] Non-uniform motion, which involves the concept of acceleration was not specifically addressed in the 6th grade class and students had difficulty extending the reasoning they had developed on this section of the test. It should be noted that this same question has been given to introductory college students, with similar results.
Although not included in the K-8 parts of the National Science Standards, the Maine Learning Results specifically states that the concept of acceleration should be taught to middle school students. Yet to obtain a operational understanding of acceleration, the idea of a limit (imagining very small quantities that are not zero) is necessary. This concept is particularly difficult, even for college students (Trowbridge, 1979). This leaves open the question of how best to teach the concept of acceleration to young students.
During the summer of 1996, the middle school teacher involved in the study presented this work at a meeting organized by the New Standards Project. The primary objective of New Standards Project is to develop curriculum assessment tools so that materials being used in different states can be judged by how well they address the overall objectives and specific performance standards given in the AAAS Benchmarks 2000 report. The kinematics unit was determined to meet and exceed the standards for middle school science and was chosen, out of a total of twelve curricula, as one of two projects to be presented at the national meeting for the New Standards Project later that summer. One key aspect of the unit noted by the evaluators was the inclusion of numerous different representations of the content: oral, written, numerical, graphical, pictorial, and video.
The results from the diagnostics tests are, in general,
quite positive. In fact, we found that the quality and depth of the
discussions between students in the 6th grade were not unlike those
of college students working on similar materials. Many of the 6th
grade students showed that they were capable of reasoning formally;
they considered limiting cases, asked "what if" type questions,
referred directly to observations and numerical data to support
inferences, and applied their understanding in new and unfamiliar
contexts. (One sixth grade girl answered every single question on the
diagnostic test correctly- which would put her in the top 10 % of the
engineering students in a recent college physics course!) It is
striking that even on more quantitative types of questions, 6th
graders using the cooperative-inquiry method performed as well as,
and in some cases, better than 8th graders, even though the older
students had completed a more traditional unit on kinematics with a
focus on solving quantitative problems. There is also some evidence
to suggest that even young students who have trouble understanding
fractions, may benefit from exercises that demand the physical
interpretation of a ratio in a specific context. Thus, if properly
implemented, certain types of inquiry methods can lead to the
development of basic concepts and fundamental skills.
Leading a group of students to successfully derive fundametal concepts through direct observation requires that the teacher have a deep understanding of the underlying conceptual framework of the discipline. A single teacher without the support of a research group would undoubtedly have a more difficult time keeping their students on task and helping them to focus on the key issues. Further research is necessary to identify the specific classroom management techniques required for this approach to be successful and to find better ways to support teachers who are not comfortable with the subject matter. One method of teacher support we are currently examining is use of electronic media, both e-mail and the World Wide Web, to help disseminate this work and provide on-line professional development opportunities for teachers in the more rural parts of the state. A distinct advantage of using materials that are based on Physics by Inquiry is that content-specific professional development materials already exist.
A broader implication of this study is that to successfully implement the new standards will require states to provide teachers with additional resources in the form of both instructional assistants and materials, time for professional development and curriculum planning, and classrooms that are not overcrowded. There is no magic formula or short cut to success. Genuine learning requires careful planning, well thought out exercises, and a master teacher who possesses a keen sense of the subject matter, an infectious desire to learn, and expertise in classroom management. The positive outlook is that given proper resources, young students can meet and exceed performance standards on tasks that have been traditionally taught to older students.
Many individuals deserve recognition for their work on this
project including Chris Chilelli, Edward Prather, Lisa Morrill and
Stephanie Wheaton as well as several good-natured substitute
teachers. Deserving special recognition is Stephen Kaback, a graduate
student who worked endless hours revising materials and observing
students in the classroom and Jeffrey Wilhelm who first introduced me
to Chris Chilelli and helped us to design the more creative
components of the curriculum.
A cart is released from rest, then speeds up as it moves down an incline, and then moves with constant speed on a level segment of track. The clock reading when the cart is released at point D is 1.1 s. The cart passes point C at 2.1 s and point A at 3.1 s.
The length of the incline section of track is 50 cm and the length of the level section of track is 100 cm.
tA = 3.1 s
tC = 2.1 s
tD = 1.1 s
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