Week One: Introduction

Students meet physics. Physics meet students. You’re gonna get along just fine…

I started the first class by handing out laminated cards (yup, I even laminated them). Each student got a unique card that fit into a group of four. The trick? Some cards seem like they could be involved with other groups. (Keep in mind this activity is borrowed from Frank Noschese.) I gave no instructions except on the board in big letters, “9 GROUPS OF 4. GO!” Unfortunately, most classes were larger than 36 (holy cow that’s a lot of kids).

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After running around confused at first. I can see people asking the right questions. Anyone else have a Car? Any Presidents? And so on. Near the end, most the groups have formed just fine. Sometimes there’ll be a group of 5 and I tell them only 4 to a group!

The groups are:
PLUTO, MICKEY, DONALD, GOOFY (Disney characters)
VENUS, MARS, SATURN, EARTH (Planets)
FORD, HONDA, DODGE, CHEVY (Cars)
LINCOLN, WASHINGTON, JEFFERSON, ADAMS (Presidents)
FLORIDA, CALIFORNIA, INDIANA, IOWA (States)
MERCURY, IRON, NEON, COBALT (Elements)
BLACK, PINTO, KIDNEY, LIMA (Beans)
ARMY, NAVY, AIR FORCE, COAST GUARD (Military)
RED, GREEN, BLUE, WHITE (Colors)

I just love all the different ways some of these could have fitted in the others. Saturn can be a car. So can Mercury and Neon. Ford could have been a president. Washington could have been a state. One student pointed out that Green could be a color. Everyone wanted Pluto to be a planet, even though they all knew it no longer was!

Afterwords, I spend only a few minutes talking about how there can be more than one “right” answer. We mentioned how everyone’s input is needed to see a big picture. I don’t want to be too philosophical on the first day (because when I get rolling…).

Now that they are in groups, I get moving to the big challenge of the day. The Marshmallow Challenge is quite well known at this point.   I skimped out on the materials a little. I gave them 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, and a mallow. The groups have 18 minutes (strict) to build the tallest (base to mallow), freestanding (no touching when time is up) structure possible. Students are quick to try and tear down the rules and find loopholes. As an added/implied rule, I let them know they had to keep the marshmallow intact. Tricksy little studentses. *gollum voice*

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It was great to be bouncing around watching them talk and dive into the problem. I could learn so much about the type of learner and student each of them were. Some groups made a very average tower with more than half the time left. The rest of them were building higher and higher all the time. I was impressed with how well they understood structure, angles, and forces. There was excitement and engagement across the room. One of my favorite pictures, was the last one where there tower practically exploded with seconds left. In a last ditch effort to better than 0 in., the group pad a tiny 1/2 in. tower. Never give up!

I also let students take pictures and tweet them out with our class hashtag. I also told one class with about 5 minutes to go their grade would be their tower height in centimeters as a percentage. I almost made a girl cry!

After time was up, I measured all the towers. Then we followed up with a discussion about what this project really represents. I made a modified slideshow of the one offered on the Marshmallow Challenge website. If you haven’t seen the TEDtalk as well, it’s a great discussion for class.

I wish I had timed the first day better. It will take some time to get used to 85 min. class periods. I had to spend the last part of class covering the class syllabus. Fortunately for the students, I get sidetracked easily and this quickly became story time. Hoping to harness this power of story time focus, for future learning!

The next couple of days I spent reviewing significant figures and unit conversion. I quickly found out review meant teach for the first time. (Especially when you have a class of 40 ranging from freshman in Algebra to seniors in Calculus.) This was silly on my part. I find both of these important to know and use, but not even close to things like Scientific Process and Creative Problem Solving. Next year, I plan to teach sig figs and unit conversion as it shows up in real every day problems. My hope is to improve it next week and then move on to real physics!

I survived the first week. The students didn’t chew me up and spit me out. In fact a couple smiled and I even had some say, “Thanks,” as they left for the weekend. I think I’m going to make it…

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