the 1998-99 academic year, the New York State Education Department revised
requirements for elementary education majors.
Coursework was to be required which covered an assortment of
some of which were Physics, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, Environmental Science
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
York State Education Department standards for incorporating technology in
classroom, encouraging group work, and collaborating across the various
typically dividing curricula.
for the first time during Spring Semester 2000, then substantially modified
offered again this year, we believe this course has succeeded in
its goals, but we have learned a great deal in the process.
This talk addresses some of the results obtained, the errors made,
the lessons learned.
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
course participants believe emulate the vocabulary and approach of a typical
fourth grade student.
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
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
answer to the question they selected.
is encouraged, a web-page summarizing their results and supplying an
list of links to useful sites is required, and the class is given an
to assess each presentation.
new questions are selected and the process repeated, so that five
are made by each group (thirty presentations or so, altogether) over the
of a semester.
time, outside of the group work, is devoted largely to building the
which science provides to connect the diverse regions of inquiry explored by
various groups. A group
presentation on "Why are flames different colors?" in which
Mechanics is mentioned, provides an opening for a lengthier discussion of
theory several days later, which can include historic perspectives,
philosophical issues, and some indication of where the development of
Mechanics has taken Physics. An
almanac, the only required textbook, provides a base, with much of the
described or defined briefly, but succinctly.
The intent is to show how things interconnect, how each field relies
and provides additional insights for, the other fields of science.
the Geography component of the course, the countries of the world are
among seven geographic regions, and every two weeks there is a quiz covering
region. Outline versions of the
maps are available on our class web site, the almanac has plenty of maps,
the web is loaded with sites providing tips, help, and drill.
Therefore, little class time, other than that devoted to
the quizzes, is invested here.
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
principal goal of this course is to let its participants realize that
accessible to us all. When
initially confronted by a question which appears technical or scientific,
future elementary education majors recoil, thinking that they do not have
background, skills, or cognitive development necessary to understand the
much less find it for themselves.
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.
of the changes which we made as
this course entered its second year involved the formation of the
The first year had participants remain in the same group for the
semester. Advantages included
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
the contributions made by all the others in the group, and often this worked
well. Some groups insisted on evaluating themselves only as a
however, and all group members would give each other identical effort
This did not contribute to the success of these groups, and they were
issues within groups grew in importance as the semester progressed.
The second time through the course the groups were rearranged after
presentation. Assignments were
to individuals in each group, and no one ended up with the same assignment
twice. Furthermore, with only a
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
seen as such by each and every group they work with.
motivate performance, course participants have been told that three records
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
show them off. The general
finds these pages with internet search engines: material initially found in
page created by last year's class led to a brief advisory on quicksand
the April, 2001, issue of Guideposts magazine.
Several course participants have taken advantage of our policy
unlimited revisions to correct spelling and grammatical errors on their
long after they were posted to the web.
should not be intimidating. Nor
should the web. By encouraging
students to try it out, by letting them ask their own questions and then
the answers, and by requiring
to get up and tell others about how they succeeded in their quest, this course has done a great deal to eliminate the
fear factor in those who have participated in it.