Friday, November 27, 2020

Pathways for Physics

In my classes I have artists, athletes, coders, writers, robotics engineers, theater players, musicians, graphic designers, video producers, gamers, movie buffs, history buffs, and fiction authors. In the past, for reasons that had more to do with me and less with them, I didn’t let them use those interests as much as I could have to explore physics, knowing full well that if they did they would get so much more meaning out of the experience.

The purpose of this post is to share what I am trying with my introductory physics classes to allow for pursuit of physics understanding through student interest channels. It is a work in progress, a pilot of a program I have the feeling will become the main outlet for student exploration in my classes, if it works. I’ll share my initial design of it as well as my reasoning and what I am giving my students. I’ll write an update post about how it’s going and reflections on the first round.

The purpose of Pathways is to give students a chance to make more meaning in their experience, allowing them to explore pathways of interest in their project-based learning. Rather than have all students working on the same project, like mousetrap cars or spaghetti bridges, students develop their projects based on interests and/or strengths. With regular feedback from the teacher and peers they make sure their projects are closely tied to the skill growth goals for class and the class topics. 

One pathway for learning

In evaluating all of the aspects of science which I try to incorporate in my classes I identified these, and I call them Pathways.

  • Art

  • Engineering

  • Computer Science

  • Educational production

  • Pop culture analysis

  • History

  • Writing

These are some of the relevant Pathways for exploring physics which I try to include in the experience for my students. They are the connected options for exploration that seem to fall outside of necessary and fundamental to physics learning. Analytical problem-solving and inquiry are fundamental and essential so I don’t consider them optional Pathways. It is always a struggle to find a balance that includes them all in crafting a learning experience. Different pathways get prioritized different years depending on many factors, but often time those decisions are made by me.

In writing down the pathways I had a thought -- what if students chose which Pathways they use to explore physics with projects, instead of me trying to juggle all of them? I could just make it my job to make sure what they did was relevant and challenging. 

I then had the realization that it might make more sense to have them choose multiple pathways, developing projects where they intersect or overlap. Staring at a single pathway of infinite applications might not make identifying project ideas much easier, but finding areas where multiple pathways intersect might. It might also allow them to make connections between pathways we otherwise might not have the opportunity to.

Multiple pathways for learning

The idea is to give them a bit more guidance than, “Hey what kind of project do you want to do? Figure it out. If you can’t, I have some ideas.” I want them to start in some areas in which they already have interest. That interest could be based in things they are currently pursuing in other classes, extracurricular activities, hobbies, or simply something they want to explore more.

Here is some small paragraphs I quickly wrote up about how each pathway is tied to physics. They are by no means comprehensive or even that good, but I wanted something there to explain a bit. They could be easily improved and modified for use in other subjects.

Art and science are closely tied together, especially in physics where physicists often see beauty in symmetries. Expressing and understanding of physics concepts and connections through art can be done with theater, music, drawing, painting, sculpture, animation, graphic design and other forms of media, accompanied by thorough explanation of the meaning and physics behind your creations.

Engineering is problem-solving with applied science, often with physics. The engineering design process is a fun dynamic way to solve problems with science -- designing, prototyping, testing, and iterating (redesign).

Computer science is the future of everything. It is hard to find a current field of scientific research that does not involve heavy use of simulations and computational code. Coding can be a fun way to craft creative solutions to problems and simulate natural phenomena. You can code simulations, games and even art.

Educational production -- Explaining a concept is one of the most effective methods of actually solidifying your understanding of it. With technology this can take on fun creative forms like videos with effects and podcasts with quality editing.

Pop culture analysis -- Exploring the physics of things around us is a natural and fun thing to do. You can analyze the physics in video games, movies, shows, memes, and sports, often using video analysis tools.

History -- Physical science has a rich history of discovery filled with intrigue, confusion and excitement. It can be fun to explore timelines, milestones, the effects of discovery on society, historical context, and even recreate important discovery labs. 

Writing -- Science journalism is quite important to society as we strive to keep people informed and battle disinformation and pseudoscience. This requires reviewing research and technical writing and reporting skills. Writing for science understanding can also include writing realistic science fiction.

I shared the following with students to give them some guidance as to the appropriate process for designing their pathways project. The topics from the two different classes are the columns on the right.

Pathways for Physics


Once you have established your pathways you need to develop a project that incorporates elements of each pathway as well as the physics skills and concepts we are exploring in class. Your project should become a creative outlet to explore, develop and demonstrate your understanding of physics fundamentals, connecting what you are learning to the real world in ways which match your interests. It is also an opportunity to further hone skills, both the skills we all work on in class, as well as some more specialized area(s) of interest of yours.

The biggest reason for going the route of pathways projects is to give you an opportunity to make meaning in your education. The more freedom you have to craft your path through learning with your own creative design, the more chance you will remember and understand what we are learning long term.


Part of your project can be collaborative, but the real idea is to give you an opportunity to explore your own interests.

The Process

Physics Honors topics

Light/Sound/Waves topics

  • Choose pathways of interest (two or more)

  • Brainstorm ideas 

  • Choose a project idea and rationalize it for pathways, course topic(s), and class skills

  • Specify an outcome

  • Develop a method of measuring your level of success

  • Lay out your steps to success

  • Document the process along the way with regular reflection

  • Publish and share your result

  • Acceleration

  • Projectiles and free fall

  • Forces and Newton’s Laws

  • Momentum

  • Inertia

  • Energy

  • Collision

  • Pendulums

  • Simple harmonic oscillators

  • Friction

  • Air resistance

  • Tension

  • Block and tackle (pulleys and masses)

  • Circular motion and rotation

  • Wave interference

  • Wave reflection

  • String wave speed and tension

  • Periodicity

  • Speed of sound

  • Echoes

  • Pitch and frequency

  • Resonance and standing waves

  • Musical instruments

  • Light speed

  • EM spectrum

  • Light rays and optics

We discussed an example I put together. The example project is based on an actual tangent exploration I went on recently with ping pong ball drag force and Python code. I took it further imagining I was a student and had time to intersect my idea with a couple other pathways. They get a project planning template to help guide them through through the process.

Much of the rest is up to them, but there will be a constant stream of feedback from me to guide them in areas of relevancy and technical challenges.

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. The adventure is about to begin. It was introduced to students before Thanksgiving break, and there was already many ideas and excitement popping out before I even expected them. I’ll let you know how it goes. Feel free to borrow what I have, just don’t publish as your own.

-Scott @BrunnerPhysics

No comments:

Post a Comment