Physics-WID Project: Spring Update

Over the W17 semester, Nadim Boukhira and Jean-François Brière have been creating and refining physics lab activities that simulate authentic scientific inquiry.

The project began with interviews with student focus groups, and the gathering of input on how current Science students perceive “cookbook” approaches to lab assignments.  A majority of the students interviewed criticized the repetitiveness of lab formats, and emphasized the lack of opportunity given to students to conceive and carry out experiments of their own design.  In response to the question “Have your lab activities and assignments given you the opportunity to think and act like a real scientist?”, the majority responded with an unambiguous  “No.”

“I was very disappointed by the superficial effect that lab activities seemed to have on the students,” said Jean-François , ” but at the same time some encouragement came from the positive attitude that students showed when discussing a prototype lab activity in which students did have the chance to design their own experiment”.

A subsequent phase of research and reading led the team to identify contemporary articles and guidelines that could inform an alternate approach to lab design.  The 2014 AAPT report Recommendations for the Undergraduate Physics Laboratory Curriculum defines the broad learning outcomes necessary for a program based on authentic scientific practices.  UBC’s Learning Goals for First Year Physics Laboratory assembles a more detailed list of foundational lab practices.  The pedagogical approach of model-based inquiry (Zwikl et al 2013) suggests a lab design process less oriented to the production of right answers, and more inclined to 1) spurring student questions regarding the theoretical assumptions underpinning the experiment, and 2) heightening student awareness of measurement uncertainties.  Traditional “write-ups” of lab procedures and results can either advance or obstruct a process of genuine scientific thinking, depending on how the writing is contextualized; Moscovitz and Kellogg (2013) outline a framework for authentic writing practices in the physics laboratory curriculum.

As March turned into April, the development and testing of prototype versions of new labs began, with a heightened emphasis in two areas: provoking critical thinking about assumptions related to theoretical models, and raising awareness of measurement uncertainties.  Nadim prepared new labs for Astrophysics and for Waves and Optics.  For the latter, new introductory PowerPoints and videos were developed with the goal of ensuring that students came to the lab well prepared, with a clear understanding of objectives, equipment, and procedures.  Additionally, to emphasize authentic scientific practices in the communication of results, a revised reporting format was developed that asked students to pay more attention to narrative continuity.  They were also prompted to evaluate more critically the validity of their results, and to posit future refinements in measurements or changes in procedure –  in other words, the kinds of suggestions they might make if they were reporting to the director of a research laboratory.

Subsequent student focus group interviews suggested a higher level of engagement and learning in the revised labs.  A majority of students agreed that the revised lab activities created opportunities to think and act in the manner of real scientists.  Accordingly, “The project will continue its life in the fall with the modification of additional lab activities in Mechanics and Waves and Optics,” says Nadim. “In all cases, the goal will be to encourage students to foster their critical thinking skills and their abilities to assess and improve their lab results.”


WID Spring Institute 2017 – May 30 & May 31

WID will offer two different workshops this year for the Spring Institute:

Tuesday, May 30 (Room 3F.3 – 9am-12.30pm, light breakfast included)

More Learning, Less Grading: Feedback Strategies that Improve Thinking and Writing will examine alternatives to traditional approaches to evaluation in writing intensive disciplines.  Teachers care about improving student writing, but are sometimes perplexed at the mixed results they see, given all the time they invest in grading papers.  Are there alternatives?  This workshop will survey a variety of options, such as models-based feedback and specification or “contract” grading, and the support for them in the contemporary literature on effective assessment practices.  Participants will leave with ideas and resources they can use in planning for next year’s courses.  Enrollment is limited to 8 participants.  Facilitator: Ian MacKenzie.

Wednesday May 31 (Room 3F.38 – 10am-3pm, lunch included)

Creating Online Writing Communities with Social Media and Blogs

Have you considered adding a Facebook or WordPress dimension to your courses?  Have you stopped short because of the prospects of managing a social media profile that links you with students, or because of the learning curve involved in launching and running a course blog?  In the morning, Julian Nemeth (Humanities) and Jeff Gandell (English) will lead a discussion of the significant gains in engagement and learning that are available by way of these popular social media and blogging platforms.  By the end of the hands-on afternoon session, participants will have created a Facebook profile set up for educational purposes, or a WordPress blog organized effectively as a coursework learning environment.

Registration: Deadline Friday, May 26

To register for one or both workshops, just send a brief message to WID Director Ian MacKenzie.

Call for Participants: Faculty Writing Fellows F2017-W2018

The Call for Participants for the F2017-W2018 Faculty Writing Fellows is now open.  The deadline for applications is Tuesday, March 21, 2017.  Interested faculty should review the program objectives, application process and selection criteria.

For examples of the work of the Writing Fellows, browse the Teaching Portfolio page.   There are now 72 Writing Fellows in 26 different departments & programs – but we are always on the lookout for first-time participants.  If you are interested, or if you think someone from your program or department might be an appropriate candidate, let us know.  Contact Ian MacKenzie with any questions.