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17 May 2010

Recruiting techniques for next year

The AP exam has been over for a few days.  AP students are either working on USAYPT research projects, or are doing busywork that I'd otherwise have to do -- printing out old AP exam solutions, organizing and labeling my cabinets, cleaning my office, creating the wall of 5s, and so on.  General physics students work at their own pace on a circuits lab; next week, after our final test, they will solder together an AM radio kit.  We're all coasting into the end of the year.  That's not to say that learning isn't happening.  It's just that we've worked our butts off since September, and now it's time to relax the daily regimen of quizzes and problem sets and take in a different, more laid back style of physics.

Not coincidentally, this is the time of year when students are asked to choose their classes for next year.  I think I've done a good job at Woodberry of encouraging more than just the smartest few to take AP physics.  That said, I know there are still folks out there who would enjoy the course, but who are scared.

I have to remember that, even though I've been at the same school for ten years, even though it's well established here that physics is fun and rewarding, it's still a BIG step for a guy without 800 SATs to sign up for AP physics.  My students are advised by a wide variety of folks, including parents and other teachers, whose 1970s-era experience is that physics is a too-hard subject reserved for übernerds.  How do I break down this misconception?

This year in particular I'm at an advantage because I coached sophomore-level football in 2008.  The sophomores on my team are now the rising seniors signing up for my class -- and a LOT of them are signing up.  I noticed a similar effect in 2005 when I had coached sophomore-level baseball for a few years.  Involvement outside the science department broke down some preconceptions, and established my credentials as NOT a complete übernerd.

All that said, the biggest intimidation factor keeping the enrollment numbers down in upper level physics is the perceived mathematical nature of physics.  Bad physics teaching -- to which the parents and advisors of many students were subjected -- can make physics into a playground for the mathematical showoff.  Overly mathematical physics teaching can not only make the majority of a class unsuccessful at physics, it can develop true hatred of the subject.

So, what do I do when a student asks about taking AP physics B?

I do ask what math course he's taking.  If the answer is honors *anything*, whether honors algebra II or AP calculus BC, I tell him he's ready for AP physics.  If his math is not on an honors track, I explain the scope of the two nightly problems:  how students are required to communicate in detail the steps toward the solution, and to take up a full page per problem in making that communication. 

Then, for either the honors or not-honors math student, I ask the following questions.

1.  Can you solve this system of equations for x and y?
          3x - y = 5
          2x + y = 3

2.  Can you find the length of the side labeled x in this triangle?

Most of the students I talk to nearly laugh... they say "of course I can," or simply, "yes."  I don't make them actually solve; I just want them to tell me that they CAN find a solution. 

I then explain that they have just seen the deepest math that they will see all year in AP physics.  It's amazing how students who had approached me trepidatiously walk away from our discussion with confident body language. 

Convincing even one rising senior that he can, in fact, handle the AP physics course can have deep resonance within the class.  That one senior will encourage his friends to sign up, or at least to talk to me, so I can have the same conversation.  The end result is a well-subscribed AP course, and, hopefully, a significant number of students passing the exam next year... when the recruiting process starts all over again.


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