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05 June 2009

Sporcle!

Regular followers of Jacobs Physics know that I am not ever in favor of “wasting” time in class. Every class session begins with a short quiz, all the better to avoid five minutes of getting settled. I teach all the way to the end of the period. If I have five minutes left at the end, I don’t give time to start the homework, I don’t shoot the breeze with the class, and I don’t let the class go early; usually I’ll pull out a “check your neighbor” question, or I’ll preview tomorrow’s quiz, or I’ll give a Socratic hint for the night’s homework assignment. Maybe I’ll even begin the next day’s lecture.

I’m very strict about these time usage guidelines at the beginning of the year. But in the spring, especially as the end of the year approaches, I become ever more relaxed. The students – and I – have earned a break sometimes. In fact, in general physics, the final assignment is for students to solder together an AM radio from a kit, and to do so at their own pace. I’ve found this project to be an excellent way to keep the attention of the seniors in their last week of school.

Sometimes in the last couple of class days there’s just no way to avoid wasting time. I was in this situation this year when I had three juniors left to teach because the rest of my class consisted of seniors on their culminating experience. We finished the lab cleanup and organization. We had 20 minutes left in class. What did we do?


I took my cue from colleague Jacob Sargent’s bag of tricks: I called up sporcle.com on the projector. Not familiar with Sporcle? It consists of a large number of “quizzes” which are sort of an online version of that old game Scattergories. For example, sporcle will show a map of the United States and ask you to list the capitals. As you type in “Lincoln,” the location of Lincoln, Nebraska will light up on the map. But hurry… the timer is counting down. When the timer expires, or when you give up, you see the answers you missed. Then you can click for a histogram of past performances. Generally, between 10,000 and 100,000 people have taken each quiz. You can see which state capital was most frequently identified, and which was most frequently missed; you can see where your score ranks.

Of course, sporcle has much more than just state capitals. I did pretty well on the “countries of Africa,” but not so well with “flags of the world.” Beyond geography, they have Literature (list the Shakespeare plays, name the 50 different words in “Green Eggs and Ham”), Sports (list the Stanley Cup winners since 1950, who was on the roster of the 2004 Red Sox), and all sorts of random or arcane topics (name things beginning and ending with “d,” name the Western Roman Emperors from 300-470 AD).

Now, Sporcle could easily be used for physics purposes. They have a wonderful “Can you name the S.I. units?” quiz, which I recommend for you and your class. Users can author quizzes; next year, a class assignment will be to write a quiz with “relevant equations for the AP physics B exam.”

But my class wasn’t too interested in the science category (where the “anatomy of the heart” quiz might have helped their performance on the biology final). They preferred the VH1 top 100 songs of the 1980s: we saw a list of 100 songs, and we had to name the artist. Oh, boy, did everyone get into that. It was a fun and relaxing way to end an intense year.

GCJ

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