Monday, September 7, 2015

Impact of Model Based Inquiry on Physics First


Author: Tim Burgess, Ph.D.
McGill-Toolen Catholic High School
June 11, 2013

     In the period from 2008-2012 McGill-Toolen Catholic High School changed from a high school science course sequence of Integrated Science (for freshman), Biology (for sophomores), Chemistry (for juniors) and then Physics (as a senior elective). Model-based inquiry (a system of activity and discourse that engages learners) was limited to a third of the students in the senior class that elected to take Physics prior to the change. The majority of freshman physics classes changed to using model-based inquiry starting in 2008. This research examined the impact of model-based inquiry on reasoning skills as measured by the ACT over a twelve year period prior to the change, during the change and after the change. The new science sequence had a majority of freshman in model-based inquiry physics class followed by Chemistry (sophomore), Biology (junior) and elective science the senior year.
      How science is learned appeared to impact ACT scores precisely when the first model-based inquiry freshman cohorts began taking the ACT in every section. The largest increase in ACT section scores in Science was more than seven times the size of the average change in year to year scores. The ACT Math section displayed a significant increase during the transition that were more than three times the average increase. The ACT Composite score increase was four times larger than the average year to year increase in score. Surprisingly a rise in English and Reading scores were also much larger than expected. This may be the result of an emphasis on verbal and written communication communication The observed increase started in 2011 and was maintained in 2012.
     Model-based inquiry, as expected, appeared to influence reasoning ability as measured by the Science and Math sections of the ACT three years after students took the class. Surprisingly the verbal and intellectual activity fostered by model-based inquiry may be yielding benefits in every academic area measured by the ACT.

Please note that the views expressed here by me do not  represent the views of McGill-Toolen Catholic High School, Archdiocese of Mobile or any  part of the Universal Catholic Church.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Can Freshman do the math needed?

Freshman studying standing waves on a string.
A colleague wrote:
I am interested in the idea of physics first as a possible sequencing change at our school.  We have a traditional model of classes and some are even thinking of eliminating physics as a requirement for our students.  Obviously, I have great concern with this as I truly believe students need to understand the physical world in which they live.  When the  idea of physics in the 9th grade was introduced previously, teachers (even one who occasionally teaches a physics course) commented that the students couldn’t handle the level of math required for the course even at a basic level.  I didn’t agree having taught physical science in the 8th grade for years but still there was great concern.  So, my question to you is how does the program differentiate itself regarding the requirement for certain math skills?  Any insight you could share would be helpful.

     The objection you describe is very common.  In fact we too, prior to implementation, were concerned about the impact of having freshman attempt to do Physics.  Some thought that if students learned Physics, they could become frustrated and disheartened because the math was too difficult.  Then the entire house of cards would come tumbling down.  Students having poor grades, poor performance and frustrating experiences would then avoid the AP sciences which is precisely what we were hoping to improve.   In addition,  if the science was not genuinely learned then performance in subsequent AP courses would decimate performance.  You can imagine our surprise when AP Science enrollment quadrupled and the number of student passing went up 350%!  We are not the only school to experience this.  There have been others too   In the cases below freshman learned as much physics as seniors AND developed better skills in math as measured by standardized tests:

Comparison of Seniors and Freshman 
in the same Physics Courses at the same Time
at McGill-Toolen 2008-2009

    An analogy may be helpful here.  Our football coaches here in Alabama think it is important that our students learn how to play football.  They start with the freshman.   The freshman have little or no on field skills, they are not yet 170 lbs , they can not run an 11 second 100 meter dash and they are not benching more than 100 pounds.  Still the coaches work with them. Train them and develop them.  Our school even has a "freshman team" that truly thinks they are playing football.   I have never heard the coaches here say  "No football till they are seniors because they can't do what is needed."   Amazingly the coaches here have gotten to the playoffs 16 of the last 17 years.  What if I proposed to them that all freshman be banned from football because they can not play real football?  The problem is being a successful coach demands that they start them as freshman.  I wish we were as concerned for our physics students learning physics as those coaches are about learning football.
     We also happen to have a very good basketball team (in case you do not like football).  Our coach has 2 freshman basketball teams even though none of the players can "dunk a basket".   Last year his varsity team has 4 players able to "dunk" a basket.  Does that mean the freshman are not playing basketball?  Does that mean the coach should not teach basketball to them?  Is it possible that a "dunk" is to basketball what "calculus" is to physics?  Is it true that if you are not dunking then there is no basketball?  
    OK.  I hope you get the point.

     Another point I think can be made to encourage Physics for freshman.  Math and science is not a "chicken or egg" phenomenon.  The development of quantitative skills may be enhanced and nurtured by using the quantitative skills they are learning concurrently in the math class AND the science class   The skills may vary based on the level of the student (our Honors students are often in Geometry as freshman while most are in Algebra).  So we do Physics that uses the skills we know have already been learned or are being learned.  One topic I do expose freshman to is a "right triangle lab" at the start of the year in which I lay the groundwork for the "sine of the angle" we will use in a refraction lab later in the year.  The result of our efforts was a rise in ACT Math section scores every single year since the initial implementation of the "Physics First" sequence even though the Math department has had no special initiative during that same time.  The students entering our school are the same socioeconomic level as the students previous and our enrollment is stable.  Is it possible that the students who say to me "Dr. Burgess   I finally get what linear equations are for.  I always thought that stuff you learned in Math was never used anywhere but in math but now I see it in Physics just about everyday!"
     The impact of "Physics First" on ACT Math scores we have had (but there are others with similar results):

      I taught seniors Physics for over 20 years.  In the last 8 years I have taught Honors and Regular Physics to freshman.  During one of the transition years I taught seniors and freshman the exact same class of Physics.  Surprisingly the scores on the tests (and 1st semester exam) were about the same  UNTIL March.  Then the senior performance dropped off markedly.  It was almost as if the seniors had "checked out" as they learned 30% less than the freshman during the last quarter as measured by end of unit tests.   I write and reported my findings at:
Comparison of Seniors and Freshman 
in the same Physics Courses at the same Time
     The seniors at my school missed 2 weeks of class at the end of the year so I realize that they did not have the opportunity to learn as much Physics as the freshman but I only compared unit tests.
      The number of passing and number of 5's in the AP B and AP C courses has tripled from the five years prior to "Physics First" when a PhD in Physics was the teacher.

     I will say that teaching freshman is harder for me.  They are immature, loud and do not know the rules of how to get along with demanding teacher as my top level seniors do.  You also have many more "black hawk helicopter" parents trying to protect the future valedictorian status of their talented children.  When I taught seniors the parents had grounded the helicopters (or at least disarmed them) AND the school year did not go to the bitter end.  Now I have to teach Physics to freshman for 2 more weeks than I do my seniors in my AP Physics.  Our seniors get out of class 2 weeks earlier in order to practice for the graduation ceremony among many other important things to do.   My senior teaching colleagues get to kick back and put things away and clean up their rooms while I am still working with these freshman on the photo-electric effect apparatus with touchy knobs and sensitive ammeters.   When I decided to teach freshman physics that was the very very down side...almost a deal breaker.    Who wants to do all this extra work?  
     Your senior level Physics teacher will be needed to be fully on board to make this go.  If that teacher is not on board then get ready to run for the lifeboat.  Even the Titanic went down and it was unsinkable.  A disgruntled senior level Physics teacher is an iceberg that will do all the damage below the surface where it will be unseen (except for those unable to escape).  The ship will slowly start to list and support will evaporate.
     There is much more data on the impact of "Physics First" at:

In all the material above it is important to remember that the views expressed by me here, on any website or in any publication do not  represent the views of  
McGill-Toolen Catholic High School, 
Archdiocese of Mobile or any  part of the Universal Catholic Church.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Physics for All

The points below were in the website supporting Physics First and providing information to the community starting the February prior to initiation of the program.


Physics for All?

1. Most modern technology involves physics.  Any technology involving electricity, magnetism, force, pressure, heat, light, energy, sound, optics involves physics principles. The foundational knowledge required for chemistry in creating products like fertilizers, drugs, plastics, and chemicals involves physics at the most basic level.  Manufacturing is then dominated by physics-based technology.  Medical and Biological advancements and services often involve the use of Physics based principles like sound, electromagnetic resonance, optics, electrostatics, radiation or nanotechnologies (among many others principles). 
2. An understanding of physics leads to a better understanding other science disciplines.  Like technology, virtually all branches of science contain at least some physics. Physics has been called the most basic science and in many cases is required in order to understand concepts in other sciences. Physics sharpens skill at performing experiments, as does Biology and Chemistry. However, it differs in that most commonly used sensors are based on a principle of physics. This includes simple pressure and temperature measuring devices all the way to complex devices like mass spectrometers (used in chemical analysis), MRI imaging machines, and electron microscopes. Physics is the basis for all types of analytical and measuring systems.
3.  Physics classes help polish the skills needed to score well on the SAT and ACT.  Physics classes provide practice in both algebra and geometry. These are the types of mathematics most likely to occur on the SAT. However, physics is not just a math class. To work physics problems, students must be able to read and comprehend short paragraphs then develop problem solving strategies from them. Physics helps develop both math and verbal skills.
4.  College recruiters recognize the value of physics classes. College recruiters tend to be favorably impressed by transcripts containing challenging classes like physics. They know it is relatively easy to attain a high GPA by taking a light course load. Some technically oriented college programs will deny entrance to students who have not taken high school physics.
5.  College success for virtually all science, computing, engineering, and premedical majors depends in part on passing physics.  College physics is required or all of these majors. Engineering is largely applied physics. Pre-medicine majors typically must take the same number of physics as biology classes! About 25% of the science knowledge required for the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) is based on physics. Studies (ref 2,4) indicate that a high quality high school physics course helps significantly reduce the failure rate in college-level physics. Students themselves typically indicate that high school physics is a significant factor in their ability to handle college-level physics material.
6.  Physics classes hone thinking skills.   Physics is a whole brain subject requiring students to use both right and left brain regions for translating complex verbal information into pictures and finally into mathematical models in order to solve problems. In addition to the subject's content knowledge, physics requires students to develop higher level thinking--a useful skill in any endeavor.
7.  The job market for people with skills in physics is strong.  Engineers are applied physicists and comprise the second largest profession in America (second only to teaching) with about 1.4 million members. By comparison, there are about 600 thousand medical doctors and only around 100 thousand biologists. However, even medical doctors and most biologists have to take college-level physics courses. Knowledge of physics is a prerequisite for many forms of employment. You can verisy with your own research at:
8.  A knowledge of physics is helpful for understanding the arts.  Physics is the science of sound and is needed for understanding how musical instruments work. Physics is also the science of light and is key to understanding visual artwork including paintings, photograph, stage lighting, filmmaking, etc. Even literary works have been influenced by physics. William Faulkner, for example, used the symbolism of time dilation in The Sound and the Fury. Many commonly used expressions in everyday language come from physics, including quantum leap, free fall, light years, black holes, resonance, and being on the same wave length.     Does Art Influence Physicists? Yes! Einstein played the violin. Richard Feynman (winner 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics) played the bongo drums, composed music, and had a one-man art show. Russian physicist Leon Theremin invented one of the first electronic instruments, the Theremin. Inspired by it Dr. Robert Moog (PhD in engineering physics) revolutionized electronic music by inventing the Moog synthesizer. Leonardo da Vinci, developed a wave theory of light based on visual observations as an artist. The physics term quark and boojaum came from the literary works of James Joyce and Carroll respectively (ref 12).
9.  To understand physics is to better understand politics, history, and culture.  The supply and use of energy is a high-profile 21st century issue. However, it's always been a defining issue--even in primitive cultures. The bow and arrow, for example, profoundly altered the effectiveness of hunting and warfare by giving people a device that stored energy then released it suddenly as a deadly projectile . Changes in energy use and supply produced the industrial revolution in the 1800s and ushered in all kinds of inventions from reliable internal combustion engines to practical electrical devices. The most significant historic event of the 20th Century, WWII, began for the United States, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese using battle tactics shaped by an understanding of projectile motion physics and ended with a nuclear bomb blast enabled by physicists.
10.  Physics offers a deep and unique perspective that can help mankind solve a variety of urgent problems.   The production & efficient use of energy, better materials, improved technology, medical imaging and treatment, protection of our planet and the exploration of our universe are all empowered by an understanding of basic physics principles.  Physics can also empower or enhance intellectual awareness and insight in many other disciplines including politics, philosophy, theology, economics and ethics.  There is quite simply no other area of study quite like Physics! 

In all the material above it is important to remember that the views expressed by me here, on any website or in any publication do not  represent the views of  
McGill-Toolen Catholic High School, 
Archdiocese of Mobile or any  part of the Universal Catholic Church.

Physics First Time Line

The timeline below was provided at the time the supporting website was launched.  It detailed the efforts to implement Physics First at McGill-Toolen Catholic High School.
McGill-Toolen Catholic High School
Physics First Time Line

Date(s)Activity relating to Science Sequence
Physics is used from the initial “Big Bang”with high temperatures, density and relativistic speeds (based on standard model & background radiation readings.)
Chemistry useful at estimated time of the formation of the atom (mostly Hydrogen based on simulations using the standard model of early universe).
Biology useful from estimated time of simple single cell organisms called prokaryotes (from earliest fossil evidence).
1893Committee of Ten states optimal instructional order of sciences in United States Secondary schools to be Biology, Chemistry and then Physics
1896McGill-Institute founded by Felix McGill with initial site at Chandler residence on Government Street.
1903Photoelectric Effect paper by Einstein lays groundwork for physics explaining chemistry, electron ejection energies and spectral analysis.
1906American Societies for Experimental Biology formed to advance the sciences of bio-chemistry and molecular biology using experimental method.
1928Bishop Toolen High School (for girls) formed by Bishop Thomas J. Toolen
1973McGill-Toolen Catholic High School formed by merger McGill & Toolen
1975-1982“Inquiry Physical Science” (IPS) program for MT freshman) appeared associated with achievement as indicated (by Mr. Bill Lee, former principal)
1984Physics before Chemistry article proposing high school science sequence change (The Physics Teacher, Haber-Schaim)
4/4/06Exploration 1:  “Physics First” mentioned in meeting with Principal (M.Haas) and President (Fr.Shields) who agreed change could go through appropriate channels.
11/18/06New Building:  Architect describes science building plan with one physics lab.  One more room for physics requested based on current curriculum.
 9/18/2007Research Request:  President Bry Shields requests investigation of “Engineering the Future” based in the Boston Museum of Science.
10/10/07Research Trip:  Science Co-Chair observes classes in Boston Public Schools using “Engineering the Future Materials” & meets with project presenters.
12/13/2007Exploration 2:  MT President, Principal, Teacher, Science Co-Chair & Curriculum Supervisor discuss feasibility of science curriculum change at MT to “Physics First.”
12/13-15/2007Exposure:  Email to staff specifically describes new sequence of Physics First. Personal discussion.  Websites and research notations provided.
1/2/2007Formal Research Presentation I: Presentation of research to science staff and counselors. “Physics First” curriculum (PFC) with emphasis on experience (at local schools), research (in journals) and on a school implementing PFC similar to MT (Clayton High, MO).  Open Discussion
1/8/2007Formal Presentation II:  Presentation of research to science staff after school (some chose to attend differentiated learning session.)  Presentation focused on research from journals and opponent views of  “Physics First Sequence”.  Open Discussion
Final Presentation & Staff Vote: Formal presentation of research to science staff, administrative staff (Chair of Mathematics) and counselors. Counselor Ellen Falzini presented expected student routing through the curriculum proposed.  Open Discussion provided & Vote by Science Staff Only:                                              
Physics Freshman Level Course?                         Yes:12    No:0
Year to Start?                                           07-08:4    08-09:8    09-10:0
Committee Implementation?                                Yes:10     No:1
Implementation Timing:                              Immediate:8    Phased:3
Sequence (All levels=Ph-Ch-Bio)                        Full:10    Partial:1
1/25/2007Presentation to Theology Chair:Described sequence to Theology Chair (PA)  Sequence fits with Biology parallel to Moral Theology (gr 11).
1/31/2007Research New Sequence Burn In:Science teacher provides analysis of subject by level enrollment over for the 4-year implementation period . 
2/9/2007Selection II: Principal directs Co-Chairs to plan assignment changes & training given inverted sequence projections.  
2/10/2007Architect Liason: Informed of new sequence (with expected student load changes.)  Physics labs increased to 3 of 8 rooms in new building (was 1 of 8).
2/16/2007Central Office curriculum supervisor advised about timeline, state course of study, projected plans for new sequence mailed and emailed
3/1/2007Teachers Recruited: Teachers volunteer as freshman physics teachers committed to summer training in 2007-8  + implementation duties.
5/16/2007Final Training Budgets planned with curricular supervisor  for summer training over a 3 weeks in Physics content and methodology.  Teachers provided expenses (to be reimbursed.)
5/18/2007Training commitments:  One teacher agrees to 3 weeks of modeling training.  One staff member elects to complete Masters Degree (BS) 3rd staff member declines to go based on payment reimbursement arrangements.
6/7-7/1/2007Teacher Trained: Teacher trained in content and pedagogy appropriate to high school freshman for a minimum of 3 weeks during the summer of 2007 (ASU)
8-12/2007Curriculum & Textbook Selection:Physics First Teachers discuss textbooks. Highest rating goes to “Physics: A First Course” published by CPO Science
10/22/2007Publicity Charge:  Science staff wants information regarding “Physics First” getting to parents and community. Articles, brochure & website
11/27/2007Brochure: “McGill-Toolen Physics First” brochure designed over three week period by input of staff & final version approved by Fr. Shields.  Sent of for printing by Development office.
1/10/2008Central Office Requests: Principal contact by central office informed that approval still pending: (1) state course alignment (2) national standards alignment  (3) more detailed curriculum description (4) detailed text ratings (5) course description
1/11/2008Response to Central Office: Science Co-Chair mails out (1) state course alignment with new course in tabular format (2) national standards alignment with new course in tabular format (3) detailed curriculum description provided using modeling units from kinematics through modern physics  (4) detailed information by staff &category of textbook ratings for all texts considered (5) exact course description provided
1/15/2008Science Department Meeting:  Science staff members strongly confirm (without dissent) 2008-9 first year implementation of science sequence change 
1/24/2008Central Office Approval: Principal phoned by central office staff and informed that approval was granted for the new sequence & course
*”McGill-Toolen Physics First”brochures mailed to feeder school and leadership,
*“the Link” (Winter 2008) newsletter with Physics First sequence description mailed out to all parents, staff, coaches & supporters.
*“Course Description” of freshman physics course released to guidance for new course description booklet & upcoming registration
2/16/2008Training commitment in Modeling One staff member to ASU in June (DM) 6/16-7/3/08. Second staff member to Briarwood Academy in Birmingham (DB) 6/16-7/2/08.  All do week modeling  at MT 7/7-11/08
3/16/2008Physics First Website put on line at:
8/16/2008Freshman class begins new science course sequence: All students take Physics as freshman, Chemistry as sophomores, Biology as juniors and an elective science as seniors

Physics First Slide Show

The slide show (linked below) was used to present Physics First to the department, staff and school board members.  The was refined and modified to meet the needs of the audience and usually reduced to 10-14 of the most pertinent slides most relevant to the interests of the audience.

Common Questions

     The "Common Questions" below were on the school website and on the back pages of our "Physics First Pamphlet".  It answered what the staff thought would be common questions about the new "Physics First" sequence".  Our focus was to make sure that no parents or staff would be surprised by the new sequence. 


Common Questions

EPerSpL4      MTSNotC     
What will be the sequence of science courses for the high school?  
     Physics is taken the freshman year.  Chemistry is engaged the sophomore year.  Biology is required of all students the junior year.  Senior choose an elective science the senior year.
What is meant by a coherent sequence of the sciences?  
A coherent sequence is the order in which the science learned builds on earlier understandings.  A coherent science sequence would first establish a fundamental understanding of energy and then gradually arrive at the advanced processes (involving energy) found in biology.   Physics provides an understanding of energy.  Energy is involved in all chemical reactions.  Chemical reactions are the basis of all biological functions.  
Will this limit the number of science courses a student may take?  
     No. The new curriculum will allow students to take an elective science at the the senior level.  Advanced Placement Sciences (including Biology, Chemistry, and Physics), Organic Chemistry, Advanced Physics, Marine Science, Anatomy, Physiology and other courses will be available the senior year based on student interest.  Some students may elect to take senior level electives in the junior year in addition to the junior level biology course.

Why is the change occurring now?  
     The Science Department recognized an opportunity to change the sequence in light of the success of the capital fund drive to provide state of the art science facilities.  The new science building was designed to facilitate the new science sequence and the projected changes in student course selections.
How will students be placed at different levels each course in the sequence?   
     The McGill-Toolen guidance and science departments will work to place students where they will be challenged and successful.  The school will offer honors, college prep, and general studies level classes at all levels of science in the school.

Will the students be prepared for the math required for the freshman Physics course?  
     The math requirements will be carefully matched to the skills of the student in the classroom.  One advantage of this sequence is an increased opportunity for mathematical reasoning skills that help enhance student math skills and abilities (based research over a number of years) .

What textbook will be used?    
     “Physics: A First Course” textbook published by CPO Science (2005).  Note:  "CPO Science" is the new name for the company formally known as "Cambridge Physics Outlet".

Who will be teaching this course?   
     Teachers of science (presently on staff) who have volunteered and have received special training will be teaching this new freshman level physics course.  The training includes the development of teacher skills in both the appropriate content and the most effective instructional strategies useful in freshman physics classes.
How does this affect current students at McGill-Toolen Catholic High School?   
     Current students will continue with the current curriculum:  Biology for the sophomores, Chemistry for the juniors and then Physics, Anatomy and Physiology, Marine Science or the AP courses for seniors.   
If you have more questions please feel free to contact the Science Department Chair:
       Dr. Tim Burgess at 251 432 0784 ext. 2868 
          or via e-mail: 

In all the material above it is important to remember that the views expressed by me here, on any website or in any publication do not  represent the views of  
McGill-Toolen Catholic High School, 
Archdiocese of Mobile or any  part of the Universal Catholic Church.