Two Years of Innovation


Otto H. Muller, Division of Physical Sciences

Katherine D. Wiesendanger, Division of Education

 Alfred University, Alfred,  NY   14802


During the 1998-99 academic year, the New York State Education Department revised its requirements for elementary education majors.  Coursework was to be required which covered an assortment of subjects, some of which were Physics, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, Environmental Science and Geography.  Alfred University responded by creating a course called The Physical World, which attempts to provide a background in these subjects while at the same time meeting other New York State Education Department standards for incorporating technology in the classroom, encouraging group work, and collaborating across the various barriers typically dividing curricula.  Offered for the first time during Spring Semester 2000, then substantially modified and offered again this year, we believe this course has succeeded in accomplishing its goals, but we have learned a great deal in the process.  This talk addresses some of the results obtained, the errors made, and the lessons learned.

We begin by inviting course participants to invent questions which they  think might be asked by the youth of today.  These questions may be about almost anything scientific and are couched in terms which course participants believe emulate the vocabulary and approach of a typical fourth grade student.  (Considerable efforts to enlist contributions from actual fourth grade students in real classrooms were only marginally successful during the first year, and were abandoned during the second year). The class is divided into five or six groups of five or six people, and each group selects a question from the list.  Three weeks later each group gives a presentation.  Here they teach the rest of the class what they have discovered to be the answer to the question they selected.  Creativity is encouraged, a web-page summarizing their results and supplying an annotated list of links to useful sites is required, and the class is given an opportunity to assess each presentation.  Then new questions are selected and the process repeated, so that five presentations are made by each group (thirty presentations or so, altogether) over the course of a semester.

Class time, outside of the group work, is devoted largely to building the structure which science provides to connect the diverse regions of inquiry explored by the various groups.  A group presentation on "Why are flames different colors?" in which Quantum Mechanics is mentioned, provides an opening for a lengthier discussion of the theory several days later, which can include historic perspectives, philosophical issues, and some indication of where the development of Quantum Mechanics has taken Physics.  An almanac, the only required textbook, provides a base, with much of the science described or defined briefly, but succinctly.  The intent is to show how things interconnect, how each field relies on, and provides additional insights for, the other fields of science.

For the Geography component of the course, the countries of the world are divided up among seven geographic regions, and every two weeks there is a quiz covering one region.  Outline versions of the maps are available on our class web site, the almanac has plenty of maps, and the web is loaded with sites providing tips, help, and drill.  Therefore, little class time, other than that devoted to administering the quizzes, is invested here.

Similarly, little time is devoted to web page design.  Templates are available, and the use of simple text programs is encouraged.  Help is generously provided, one-on-one, for anyone working with such programs.  Help is not available as part of this class to those who prefer more elaborate, WYSIWYG, or Microsoft Word  based, programs.  Sparse code, but well thought out content, are held up as goals; animated fonts, elaborate designs, java applets, etc., are considered unnecessary distractions.

A principal goal of this course is to let its participants realize that science is accessible to us all.  When initially confronted by a question which appears technical or scientific, some future elementary education majors recoil, thinking that they do not have the background, skills, or cognitive development necessary to understand the answer, much less find it for themselves.  After being involved in finding the answers to five such questions, however, and learning how much help is out there, on the web, in the library, etc., they develop a confidence which is pretty remarkable.

Most of the changes which we  made as this course entered its second year involved the formation of the groups.  The first year had participants remain in the same group for the entire semester.  Advantages included the development of a "group pride" which manifested itself in some wonderful competition between the better groups.  In addition these groups tried each time to better their own previous performances.  Also there was certainly convenience in terms of knowing the other group members, their strengths, weaknesses, and, perhaps surprisingly, their schedules.  An assessment vehicle was used in which each group member could estimate the contributions made by all the others in the group, and often this worked well.  Some groups insisted on evaluating themselves only as a team, however, and all group members would give each other identical effort points.  This did not contribute to the success of these groups, and they were the weakest performers.  Inter-personal issues within groups grew in importance as the semester progressed.  The second time through the course the groups were rearranged after each presentation.  Assignments were made to individuals in each group, and no one ended up with the same assignment twice.  Furthermore, with only a few exceptions, no one ended up working with anyone else more than once.  This arrangement proved far more successful.  Effort assessments are consistent, with over-achievers and slackers being seen as such by each and every group they work with.

To motivate performance, course participants have been told that three records of each presentation will be kept on the web, available to parents, teachers, friends, employers, colleagues, etc., for five years:  1. The group's web page, 2. An index page, with the assignments listed for each member of the group and photos taken during the presentation, 3. The instructor's critique of the presentation.  This internet exposure seems to be important.  Some of last year's students have mentioned returning to their pages to show them off.  The general public finds these pages with internet search engines: material initially found in a page created by last year's class led to a brief advisory on quicksand safety in the April, 2001, issue of Guideposts magazine.  Several course participants have taken advantage of our policy permitting unlimited revisions to correct spelling and grammatical errors on their pages, long after they were posted to the web.

Science should not be intimidating.  Nor should the web.  By encouraging students to try it out, by letting them ask their own questions and then find the answers, and by  requiring them to get up and tell others about how they succeeded in their quest,  this course has done a great deal to eliminate the science fear factor in those who have participated in it.