A front page article in yesterday's Health & Science section of the Philadelphia Inquirer describes an exciting new way to teach physics to prospective physics teachers.
Her method? Rollerblades.
And medicine balls, pulleys, springs, lightbulbs, magnets, mirrors - whatever it takes to prepare her students to teach a subject that, in some classrooms, fails to gain much momentum."Whatever it takes" does not include lectures or other forms of direct instruction:
Just be sure not to use that word teach. Or worse, lecture.And her students, in turn, also avoid such unpalatable methods when they "teach" physics to others:
"My students, they don't lecture," says Etkina. "They engage students in observation."The ultimate goal, indeed, is for students to think like scientists:
Etkina's goal is not to have her students, or her students' students, memorize Newton's laws of motion. Rather, she wants them to learn to think like physicists, to learn the practice of science.The Inquirer cites examples from Etkina's website:
...where at last count there were 242 short videos that illustrate the phenomena of physics. But here's the key: The site does not explain why a ball bounces a certain way, or how an electrical circuit is completed. Instead, it provides questions and tools that direct students how to figure it out, under the guidance of a teacher.The evidence that Etkina's methods are effective? First and foremost, there's the fact that Rutgers is one of the top producers of physics teachers in the country:
For example, you can measure exactly what happens when Etkina, wearing her Rollerblades, pushes off from a heavier colleague who is also wearing in-line skates. They are stationed in front of a long blackboard that has chalk marks at regular intervals. The student can play the video one frame at a time and, by scrutinizing how fast each person rolls, calculate just what is happening.
Other videos display fluids spurting from leaky bottles, pennies sliding on spinning disks, and laser beams reflecting off mirrors, to name a few.
"These videos aren't teaching science," says former student Chris D'Amato, now teaching in Mount Olive High School in Morris County, N.J. "These videos are an opportunity for students to actually do science."
The New Brunswick, N.J., campus is regularly among the nation's top producers, graduating six to eight physics teachers a year...and that "Almost all of them stick with the profession."
Second, "others are starting to take notice":
The journal Science recognized Etkina last month for a physics video website that she developed with former student David Brookes, an assistant professor of physics at Florida International University.Third, other education experts like Etkina's methods:
Her Rutgers program recently became the first to be endorsed by the Physics Teacher Education Coalition - a network of more than 175 institutions striving to improve physics education.
"It's really a model program," says Monica Plisch, assistant director of education for the American Physical Society.Finally, there are Etkina's own impressions--namely, of what worked and what didn't work during her 13 years teaching high school physics in Moscow:
Whenever she ran into her former students after graduation, she noticed something that now forms the core of her philosophy.Confirmation bias aside, it's unclear whether Etkina has checked in with her current, American-trained physics students to see how much physics they remember. But we do know this:
"I could see they only remembered things they did on their own, not the things I told them," Etkina says.
Many come back to Rutgers for optional, twice-monthly support sessions long after they've graduated.The notion that you can improve science instruction by encouraging students to think like scientists is as old as the notion that traditional science involved mindless memorization of things like Newton's laws, and those who subscribe to this notion pay no attention to what cognitive scientists Dan Willingham say about the underlying fallacy of equating the minds of novices with those of experts.