Sunday, October 20, 2013

PBL in the Physics Classroom

This year The Frisch School is going PBL, so one of the things RealSchool is going to do is share how classes are adopting the model. Maren Scharf, a physics teacher at Frisch, has embraced the PBL methodology for her junior class.

A science course can obviously be very hands-on, as Mrs. Scharf was planning to make it, but committing to a PBL model meant incorporating additional elements as well. Here's a reminder of those elements:

The Driving Question and Need to Know

To arrive at a driving question she was satisfied with, Mrs. Scharf and I [Tikvah Wiener] searched the Internet for science PBL sites, particularly on the lookout for ones that taught the concepts Mrs. Scharf wanted to begin the school year with, speed and velocity. We found this site:

Teach21 Project-Based Learning.

We thought students would really connect with the driving question, which is:

How can forces influence motion to give athletes the winning advantage in a sport?

If you look at the Teach21 resource page, you'll also notice that the Project Design includes high-level and extensive content and skills that any physics teacher would be happy his/her students were mastering. One of the questions we constantly get asked by teachers is: how can I cover content while doing PBL? It's so important to understand that establishing content and skills -- which in PBL is called what students "need to know" -- is the first thing to do when creating a PBL unit. And once the content and skills have been mapped and a compelling driving question formulated, teachers then discover that the enticing question shows kids why the course content is something they "need to know."

Mrs. Scharf also liked that the driving question could be supported by sport science videos ESPN had made. What high school student isn't going to be engaged by course material that includes sports and ESPN videos?

Student Voice and Choice

Another element of PBL that Mrs. Scharf was immediately taken with was Student Voice and Choice. She saw it as a powerful way for her students to connect with science and see its importance and ubiquitousness in their lives. To start off the year, Mrs. Scharf reviews the Scientific Method with her students. This year, she asked them to make observations about a phenomenon that interested them. Students chose to observe the ways, for example, different ingredients and wand curves affected mascara. Because the science connected to something in their lives, the students' excitement level about the course rose. They said things like "This is really fun!" and "I'm looking forward to learning this year!"

Another way Mrs. Scharf gave her students voice and choice was in the mode of presentation they used to display their knowledge of the Scientific Method. Students made a Vine, a game, a Haiku Deck presentation, and more. Here's an example of a Haiku Deck presentation one group created:

Joyful Learning

The student responses reinforced the notion that in PBL learning ends up being joyful, and Mrs. Scharf really wanted to build on that. As a result, when she wanted students to graph information, she took them outside and had them graph with chalk on the sidewalks in front of the school. This became an especially relaxing activity after the kids had been cooped up taking the PSAT's one morning. You can see from the pictures that something that could have been ordinary or even tedious now became fun and exciting:

Student Voice and Choice in Science Literacy

Another aim Mrs. Scharf had in her course was to develop her students' science literacy skills. In the past, she's used the course textbook to get kids reading about science, but she admitted that even a science lover like her found the textbook boring. Instead, she decided that Friday would be Science Literacy Day and that her students could use one of three websites on which to explore and find an article they would then summarize in a Science Journal they'd keep. Over the course of the semester, once students became familiar with the activity, she'd have the students write their entries on a blog and therefore learn as well digital literacy skills. The Science Journals would also then have more authenticity as, on a blog, they'd be for public consumption.

Here's a site that we think is much more exciting for students to explore than a traditional textbook!

Science News for Students

And again, because students get to choose the articles they write about, they feel much more invested in their work.

To Recap

This post focused on a few key elements of PBL:

The Driving Question
The Need to Know: Content and Skills
Student Voice and Choice

And we also saw that employing PBL led to more joyful learning and greater levels of student engagement. In fact, all the Frisch teachers now using PBL report that their students are more engaged than they've ever been. We'll continue to report on Mrs. Scharf's as well as the other Frisch teachers' progress as they adopt Project-Based Learning in their classrooms.

Additional Resources

1) RealSchool has a PBL and IBL (inquiry-based learning) resource page on our blog. Check it out:

2) We always love edutopia, which you should explore to your heart's content (that may take awhile). To get you started, here's a post on Debunking Five PBL Myths.

3) The Buck Institute of Education is another site we're constantly visiting for PBL ideas, particularly for rubrics. You can check out some of those exceptional rubrics here.