A month later, I am finally finishing my last entry from AAPTSM18.
Tuesday, July 31
One of my biggest challenges is labs. I know from bad, boring labs, because I was subjected to them my entire lab-based science education. I always hated labs. I’m still working on getting past this and on to recognizing their potential value in a high school context. I know it’s there. I had just gotten into a good lab groove at my previous school with the conceptual physics, and moving to a new school made all of that useless without access to the same lab equipment. AP Physics was still not going so well in the lab department, and now honors and AP are not doing so well in the lab department.
I know confirmation labs have no value (F=ma. Now show it’s true) for either conceptual understanding or developing lab skills. I’ve tried a thousand things it feels like, and there are a few things that work well I do have in my toolbox, but there are 994 things that just don’t work or lead to student complaints or are a waste of time. I feel like my time is so, so, so, so precious (I see students for 40 minutes a day with one double block each week) that wasting time on bad labs is unacceptable. Then again, the students get resentful if that 80 minute block isn’t used to do labs, so I have to balance all these things and it is hard and I am bad at it. My biggest goal this year is to get better at it, even if I probably won’t end up good at it after one year.
The conversations on Sunday were an excellent start, and it’s re-focused my thoughts on “what is the point of this lab” over “find a conservation of energy lab” which I was literally doing in June when I started poking around my various lab manuals. So, time to throw that list out! I’m super good at throwing out past work!
My next step was to go to the session on labs. It’s almost like this conference is specifically designed for people like me who need help with certain areas of their practice. The two talks that were especially helpful were about transforming lab work into practice with scientific reasoning and having students do some exploration into systems they have not specifically studied yet but with a focus on analyzing them rather than learning the content. I have quite a few emails to send to people to get materials.
One short session that really struck me as fun was a situation where students are given materials with parameters unknown to the instructor, so when the students find those parameters there is no known right answer (like spring constant). Comments can only be made on the reasonableness of the analysis. And then students use that to find something else (like mass of an object). That sounds a heck of a lot closer to the way real science labs work, but is within the boundaries of being able to support students through the process while building in some ambiguity and possible need for iteration so they are confident about that intermediate value. That style does not lend itself to every lab, but it is a way to add some flavor to the ones where it does.
One really interesting finding was that it takes about 8 weeks before there is much shift in student thinking at all surrounding these abilities. This tells me those first eight weeks are KEY to supporting them through that process and letting them wrestle with the new skills without requiring that they master the new ideas immediately. It sounds so obvious when I write it out. Give students time to learn. NOT REVOLUTIONARY. But so many classes I have taken and taught are designed around chunks of material far less than 8 weeks including one lab a week where they are supposed to be perfect at it immediately in order to get a high grade, but if they do improve those early first grades still pull their overall scores down. I’ve got a lot more thinking to do around this 8 week window thing and how to incorporate it into assessment and figure out whether it applies to more than lab skills.
The afternoon plenary session was by David Cash, who has spent his career working on combining science and policy. He’s worked for a lot of politicians and administrations over the years in service to science, which cannot have been an easy job at every juncture. The best quote from his talk about how to help people use science in real life was, “Science happens in a political, policy-based, social context. Ignore this at your peril.” I was so happy to hear this finally articulated. EVERYTHING is political. The personal is political. Where you spend your money is political. The movies you choose to see and radio shows you listen to is a political choice. The food you eat is political. Everything is political, and it all happens in a policy-based, social context, especially and explicitly science. Science is not removed from the human condition. It is intimately and inextricably interwoven.
He told a story of ruining a simulation of a satellite launch by creating and bringing in a “memo” with “new information” that said it wasn’t a data-gathering satellite, but military surveillance, and that completely changed the tone of the whole thing and made the scientists running it FURIOUS. I was entranced imagining how that would go. Those are incredibly important conversations. War has been one of the greatest advancers of science and technology. It cannot be separated from politics and people’s lives.
How do you make it relevant to people’s lives? He suggested three criteria: salience, credibility, and legitimacy. When a group of scientists goes into a community and does a study and proudly presents the results to the residents only to be brushed off? One or more of those pieces is missing. It’s either not relevant to their needs, they don’t trust these people or their results, or there’s something fishy about the whole process. There can be other obstacles between science and the public, obviously, but this is talking about communicating science to communities in efforts to help or change them somehow. Turns out, not every community wants to change just because some dude with a pamphlet tells them to! Imagine that!
I found this plenary very personally enjoyable as well as insightful in terms of science communication and how to be a part of a community rather than sweep in like an unwanted savior and tell them how wrong they are.
After the plenary, I went to a session on using primary documents from history as part of learning science. I was utterly exhausted, so I just kind of sat and absorbed it without taking any notes, so at this point a month later, I have absolutely no idea what happened in that session. Good note to self about how awful my memory is and how much even a few words can help me remember quite a bit. During this session, I saw a tweet from someone who was at the conference alone on her birthday and was looking for people to have supper with. I enthusiastically offered to join, because leaving people alone at a conference with thousands of people ON THEIR BIRTHDAY is 100% unacceptable to me.
It ended up being five of us, and it was a delightful time. We went to a pub and talked physics and teaching the whole time. It really helped re-energize me and felt good to make some new connections while having excellent conversation. Easily one of the best personal moments of the conference.
Now we’re all Twitter friends! Hi, Helen, Alex, Steve, and Paul!