The author is ScIU guest writer Corrine Deegan, a graduate student in IU’s Department of Physics.
What do you remember the most from your pre-college physics lessons? Perhaps you learned something about how every action has an equal and opposite reaction, or perhaps you were lucky enough to be shocked by a Van der Graaf generator. Upon discovering that I study physics, most people generally have one of two key responses: they either recount some typically negative story from their high school physics class or insist that anyone who studies physics must be brilliant. For better or worse, these reactions are generally constant across age groups.
While these reactions are generally not positive, it is nearly impossible to blame the students when the traditional teaching methods leave much to be desired. Introductory physics courses are often taught following the same unfortunate series of events: first, we are made to memorize the right equation and then we are confused when the problem is not identical to a homework problem whose solution is already known. In addition, courses at the introductory level must cover the less glamorous fundamentals of the discipline, which admittedly can be somewhat of a bore to anyone expecting the levitating magnets or lasers seen in the media. To improve the perception that physics is boring and/or impossible, we need to connect the basics of the subject to current research and familiar technology. And professors like Dr. Babak Seradjeh are doing just that.
Dr. Seradjeh has been working at Indiana University Bloomington since the Fall of 2011 and has been the recipient of several teaching awards. His interest in the philosophies of teaching and learning is fierce: he states, “[I] have come to believe that the best way to learn is to create that knowledge afresh in our minds.” His viewpoint states that in order for students to create knowledge, they must be capable of independent inquiry. With such thinking, Dr. Seradjeh has created the Forefront of Research Educational Modules, or FoREM, here at IU.
FoREM is a program designed to bring modern physics research and technology into the high school physics classroom using inquiry-based activities. Thus far, two workshops have been held in order to develop modules (activities with the purpose of learning via guided discovery). Dr. Seradjeh, in conjunction with local high school teachers, IU education researchers and graduate students like myself have been involved in the process of curating these modules. Although it is in the early stages, the future of this project is very promising. (Find out more here).
For example, one of the activities that we have developed involves GPS technology. This activity teaches students what pieces of information are needed in order to locate something. If we start in one dimensional space (i.e. on a number line), we need two pieces of information to locate something (i.e., where we are currently and where we are going). Extrapolating into three dimension, we need at least 4 pieces of information: this three-dimensional space and the four pieces of information it requires is the basis of GPS. We can also teach students to use time and velocity information derived from the crosstalk between a GPS and satellites, as well as kinematic equations based in classical physics teachings to locate objects. By examining error in this activity, teachers can also introduce why relativity is necessary to incorporate in real GPS systems.
FoREM has the ability to make drastic improvements to the high school physics curriculum and physics education in general. The obvious change is making more of the content in the classroom relevant and interesting to the students. Perhaps the biggest change FoREM is attempting to implement is to fundamentally change the ways students learn material. Through activity-based learning, students are required to discover things on his or her own and they develop critical thinking and problem solving skills.
Not all scientists are Einsteins—in fact most scientists are mere individuals who have dedicated themselves to creating new knowledge in a field of study. The pursuit of knowledge in the sciences requires a drive, and most importantly, the ability to think critically about a difficult problem. With teachers present only to provide guidance, FoReM will help students realize that they, too, are capable of scientific discovery.