Themes from AAPTsm15

The summer meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers [AAPT], along with the subsequent Physics Education Research [PER] Conference, has just concluded. It’s given me a lot to think about. Here are a few themes that have emerged for me:

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1. The need to address the affective dimension of learning, and the thinking skills, while trusting that the content will follow. The PER group at Maine had great success doing this with their middle-school physical science teacher support programme, MainePSP.

Ainissa Ramirez related the importance of students seeing role models among their teachers. Deepika Menon’s talk about self-efficacy among teacher trainees pointed out that self-belief follows from both competence and social factors. Tammie Visintainer’s work with children in a summer school emphasized the importance of belonging for children, with some feeling “shut down” or “invisible” when their contributions to the group were not recognized or valued.


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2. The social atmosphere of the classroom, especially the relationships between the teacher and the students, was another important thread. Scot Hovan’s fascinating dissection of discourse inspired me to want to re-examine the speech patterns in my own classroom.

Henry Suarez’s rapid-fire talk suggested that student epistemic agency increased when teachers asked fewer converging and curricular questions, avoided reifying student responses, and encouraged student discussion about a more-“puzzling” curriculum. May Lee’s talk/poster about student positioning in group work emphasized the importance of establishing and maintaining a healthy social dynamic.

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A slide from Scot Hovans talk. Click the image to see more.

3. Students’ intuitive responses, p-prims, and cultural predispositions cannot be altered by instruction. The aim is to give students the tools to effectively make correct judgements when they engage in “wait, let me think about that” thoughts. These ideas come from Eugenia Ektina’s keynote at the Physics Teacher Camp.

Multiple representations are a good way to do this. So are peer instruction and differentiated/individualized learning. Stephen Collins gave a great talk reminding us how difficult this can be without effective systems in place.


Natasha Holmes at PERC

4. The role of uncertainties and measurement was a cornerstone of the PER conference, and Natasha Holmes’ talks (plenary and workshop, as well as her poster) emphasized the difficulty of teaching critical thinking skills and lab skills. Duane Deardorff pointed out that we need to do a better job adopting the ISO Guide to Uncertainties and Measurement, in order to achieve standardization across the disciplines and even between labs and schools.

In my workshop group, I was provoked to wonder if we can teach students to expect that measures of physical quantities should have uncertainties attached. We also tried to conceive of an experiment that would compel students to need uncertainties. The roll-a-ball-off-a-ramp-and-place-the-cup practical (with successive prizes for a selection of smaller target cups) is a first step, but doesn’t motivate the use of uncertainties powerfully enough.

Ruth Howes tells a story.

Ruth Howes tells a story.

5. Physics has a rich cultural heritage, which should be mined to help our students understand the discipline. Ruth Howes gave an amazing 10-minute talk about Marietta Blau and Alice Hall Armstrong, for example.

However, I feel uncomfortable at times with the privilege afforded to white men in the discipline, and the ignorance most afford it. I missed Melissa Dancy’s talk suggesting that the deficit model (summer science camp for girls to make them love science!) is treating the symptom, while a cultural paradigm shift needs to happen in the discipline.

Ainissa Ramirez reminded us that women and minorities are often presumed incompetent. I heard (more) stories about departmental fights between crabby old men. And, poignantly, there was a couple who brought their young daughter along to the PER conference, a reminder that women in physics face parenthood questions that their male peers do not. Seminars, office hours, and labs have been established as zones where families are unwelcome — another legacy of male domination.

Students face cultural battles too, and usually much less visibly (I am pursuing this question).


Ainissa Ramirez: “Everything on this list is something someone said I couldnt do”

6. The importance of community, and community-building, among physics educators. We are often isolated, we have a difficult task, and there is no easy solution. The best teachers we can be are teachers who constantly seek to improve, and communities are essential for that.


Kelly O’Shea and Andy Rundquist emphasized this aspect in their talks about scientific learning communities. The Physics Teacher Camp and the Modeling course I pursued earlier in the summer were great examples of this (and so are the Global Physics Department and #iteachphysics). I think next year I will try to do something to encourage folks to use twitter, gDocs, or whatever other tool is available in order to enrich the conference(s) and make more connections.

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