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Modeling Instruction in High School Physics
James Hathaway and Shayna Nardi, with David Hestenes and Jane Jackson

Since physics is the foundation of all modern science and the source of most modern technological achievements, it is vitally important that it be taught effectively at all educational levels. Unfortunately, for many high school students, getting through physics class is a test of their ability to memorize facts, plug numbers into equations, and resist the temptation to snooze. But a teaching program developed in Arizona State University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy is awakening student interest and achievement by making physics a dynamic subject. The program, called Modeling Instruction in High School Physics, earned the U. S. Department of Education’s highest honor for its success in reforming the way high school physics is taught. In 2001 the U.S. Department of Education’s Expert Panel on Mathematics and Science Education designated the Modeling Program as one of two exemplary science education programs, out of 27 programs submitted to the agency. In 2000, the Modeling Program was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education’s Expert Panel on Educational Technology for its outstanding integration of technology into the classroom.

The Modeling Method of High School Physics Instruction has been under development at ASU for two decades under the leadership of David Hestenes, Research Professor of Physics. The program cultivates physics teachers as school experts on the use of technology in science teaching and encourages teacher-to-teacher training in science teaching methods, thereby providing schools and school districts with a valuable resource for broader reform.

With funding from the National Science Foundation and other sources, 200 leading high school physics teachers nationwide have learned Modeling Instruction, as well as half of the 230 physics teachers in Arizona.

The Modeling Method proved successful with students who have not traditionally done well in physics, while also enhancing the performance of all students. Experienced Arizona modelers report increased enrollments in physics classes, parental satisfaction, and enhanced achievement in college courses across the curriculum. Research papers, feedback from teachers on implementation in their schools, and extensive instructional materials can be downloaded. Also available at the Web site are a list of workshop sites and contact information on 200 teachers in 44 states who can lead Modeling Workshops in their region.

Modeling Instruction engages students with simple scenarios, such as the movement of a falling object, to learn to model the physical world. Instead of relying on lectures and textbooks, the Modeling Program emphasizes active student exploration of these models in an interactive learning community.

“The teaching method is based on models—that’s the heart of it,” says Jane Jackson, Co-Director of the program and former physics professor. “Unlike the traditional approach, in which students wade through an endless stream of seemingly unrelated topics, the Modeling Method organizes the course around a small number of scientific models, thus making the course coherent.”

Another focus of the program is to teach students how to think and work for themselves. “It moves the emphasis from the teacher to the student,” says Larry Dukerich, Dobson High School teacher, Co-Principal Investigator of the program and leader of teacher workshops. “I came to realize that teaching by telling is ineffective. I became involved in the program because I was dissatisfied with my teaching practices and was looking for a way to get students more actively engaged.”

Classroom activities start with a demonstration by the teacher--of the swinging of a pendulum, for example--followed by a group brainstorming session in which the students identify factors that might influence the pendulum’s motion. The students then work in small groups to develop models describing the motion and to evaluate their models by comparing them with data collected in experiments that they design. Students are required to present and justify their conclusions in oral and written form. Computers are used throughout the process as scientific tools, with groups of three students working at one computer workstation that includes a lab interface and sensors/probes.

“The greatest promise of computers is to augment and extend human powers to think,” says Dr. Hestenes. “In Modeling Instruction, students learn to optimize the use of new tools, especially technological tools. Such skills help students become proficient and critical consumers of educational technology and prepare them for entering a technology-infused work place.”

“Although infusion of technology into the classroom is a key component of this program, it is secondary to pedagogical reform,” notes Dr. Jackson. “The project goals are fully aligned with the National Science Education Standards. The Modeling Method corrects many weaknesses of the traditional lecture-demonstration method, including fragmentation of knowledge, student passivity, and persistence of naive beliefs about the physical world.”

Dr. Hestenes stresses that instruction centered around models provides “a conceptual structure with models as units of coherently organized knowledge. It is a framework that students can use to organize information about the physical world in many different situations.” In this respect, the Modeling Method differs substantially from more typical “fact collecting” approaches to science teaching.

Hands-on student exploration of phenomena is also an integral feature of modeling because it makes what they’ve learned in the classroom more meaningful. “Instead of just presenting lectures, we involve students in activities that stimulate them to build the structure themselves, so that this becomes incorporated in the structure of their own thinking,” says Dr. Hestenes.

Dr. Hestenes particularly emphasizes the value of student presentations, not only in understanding physics but also in lifelong learning. “We teach students to articulate what they’ve learned in a coherent way…. The aim of the program is to enable people to articulate their own views clearly and defend them with argument and evidence. In the process, they learn to interpret other people’s claims and evaluate those claims.” Dr. Jackson adds, “The bottom line is, we need a populace that can think. Modeling Instruction teaches students to think clearly and scientifically.”

The Modeling Method has a proven track record of improving student learning. Data on some 20,000 students show that those who have been through the Modeling program typically learn twice as much as other students. Dr. Hestenes attributes much of the program’s success to the fact that it explicitly addresses common student misconceptions about physical processes.

“Most students come into physics class with naive beliefs that they must overcome before they can truly understand the principles of physics. Standard physics instruction does not deal with students’ views, so the students systematically misunderstand what is going on in class. Modeling Instruction addresses this problem expressly with the change in perspective that is necessary for understanding,” Dr. Hestenes explains.

The Modeling program is implemented by training physics teachers during intensive summer workshops. Teachers who complete two three-week workshops are equipped to train other teachers in the Modeling Method. Workshops are held each summer at universities nationwide and at Arizona State University. Modeling Workshops at ASU are the cornerstone of ASU’s new graduate program for teachers of the physical sciences. A Modeling Workshop for middle school mathematics and science teachers is offered also.

The Modeling Instruction Program has stimulated formation of the Arizona Science and Technology Education Partnership (AzSTEP), a university-high school partnership to drive sustained reform of science teaching with technology. AzSTEP is an activity of ASU’s Center for Research on Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology (CRESMET). Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona are partners with ASU in AzSTEP.

* This article is adapted by Modeling Instruction staff from articles by James Hathaway, Media Relations Manager, and Shayna Nardi, former State Press student reporter, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona.

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