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20 August 2012

Preseason camp (guh), and managing the quick students in lab

Katherine Leonard, of Henrico County, Virginia, writes in:

On Wednesday my AP Physics B students will be coming to school for a little AP Jumpstart.  Last year I focused on collecting data, linearizing graphs and extrapolating data.  I was wondering, if you could have your kids for 3 hours before the beginning of the school year what would you try to instill in them?  

Yuck.  I'm not into the whole "preseason camp" business for school.  Will you have your whole class there?  I heard from a teacher in New Jersey who has to run a whole week of preseason classes for AP, but his students don't *have* to show up.  Disaster.

Anyway, I can only suggest making it interesting and active.  You're competing with other AP classes for attention.  You might be fighting some resentfulness from your students at having to be there, but maybe not; they might be excited to see their friends, and if you can make physics somewhat fun, in contrast to sitting for three hours listening to an English or history teacher, they might have a good time.

In your situation I might do my first lab, the one with the cart on the incline, measuring the tension in a scale holding the cart on the incline as a function of the angle of the incline.  They get to use their cell phones to measure the incline angle (woo!).  They're collecting data actively, but you can establish the standards for data collection during a time when they aren't necessarily hoping to leave quickly to do other homework.  When they try to be "done" after collecting three data points, you can say with a smile, "What, you've got something else to do?  Come on, man, you're here until noon with all of us, take the time to do it right."

Then three hours should be enough time for everyone to make graphs, linearize the graphs, and take the slope of the best-fit line. 

Students who finish early in lab at first resent being told to stick around -- "But I'm finished, I should be able to leave.  Why should I stick around just because everyone else is slow?"  If you tell them they have to stay because of school rules, they get even more antsy, because they feel like they are being treated like elementary school children who must be supervised at all times.  The real reason no one can leave early from lab is because if they COULD leave early, they'd all race to finish rather than take the time to do it right.  By setting the rules such that there's little reward for speed, they all relax and have a good time.  Make it clear that no one leaves early because YOU say so, and because there's nothing more interesting or important right now than physics lab.

Nevertheless, you will have groups working at wildly different paces.  Obviously make sure that the students who work quickly work accurately as well.  Nitpick until data is complete, until graphs are perfect.  When a group is truly finished with the graphs, ask them to start working on the lab sheet to turn in.  Most of my class will start the lab sheet during lab; what they don't finish in lab is done for homework.  This way, students don't mind finishing early and being "stuck" in class, because they're doing work that otherwise would have to be done at home.  You only have to insist the first day over protests that no, you can't leave and do the lab sheet later, you have to do it right now.

And if someone finishes the lab sheet?  Have that first problem set available, so anyone who finishes early has something productive to work on.  Once again, you limit resentment at having to stay if students can see clearly that they're saving themselves time that would have been spent at home, anyway.

Katherine is in a tough spot with this "preseason" gig.  Me, I would be tempted to be done in less than three hours -- that's a long time to be working on any one subject, and it's still summertime, after all.  But at the same time I don't want to set a precedent that we leave early from classes, because once school starts I use every available second.  If you're not careful, then every lab during the year will start with "Ms. Leonard, are we gonna use the whole period today, because I really need to blah blah blah."  

Perhaps I'd be transparent at the beginning of the session.  "Folks, during the school year, we use every available minute.  But this is preseason... we're going to do a lab today, and we're going to leave at 11:30, not noon.  But everyone will be working on physics until 11:30.  If you finish one step in the laboratory process, tell me, and I'll get you started on the next step."

Good luck...


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