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How do I engineer this experience?

February 16, 2014

I’d like to do a better job of noticing small, day-to-day successes in my classes. I look at strengths and weaknesses on a unit by unit or topic by topic level but there are so many tiny minute to minute things that also contribute to the success of a lesson. One example comes from our first lab on waves.

The first lab is very qualitative and starts with students making various waves on Slinkies. The Slinkies are long, so we have groups spread through the classroom and the hallways outside. As I was wandering from group to group, I noticed one group in which a student was vigorously shaking the end of the Slinky while the other end lay on the ground about 4 feet in front of him and about 3 feet from his partner. After a moment, I realized that the student was trying to get the free end of the Slinky to slide towards his partner so no one would have to get up to grab the free end.

I watched for a few seconds and when the student started to give up I commented that the student should know why that won’t work. The student paused for a moment and then excitedly said, “Oh yeah, I should do a longitudinal wave!” and started shaking the Slinky longitudinally. I waited a few more seconds and then asked, “What’s the defining characteristic of a wave?” This was a question on that week’s reading quiz that every student had answered prior to class. The student thought and his partner replied, “Waves transport energy not matter.” To which the student nodded, “Oh, so it will never work.”

Success! A dry-sounding definition becomes meaningful and physical for these students.

What is sticking with me and bothering me is how this experience came about. The students were “goofing around” and I just happened to be walking by when it happened. If I hadn’t been walking by just then and hadn’t made a comment, I doubt the students would have pondered why their plan didn’t work. If I had written this question into the lab activity, I doubt the students would have internalized the concept in the same way. Can I engineer this moment to happen again in the future or is this just a ‘right place at the right time’ sort of thing?

In an attempt to extend the experience to the rest of the class, I described the scenario in a Hw problem and asked students if they should a) make a transverse wave, b) make a longitudinal wave, or c) give up and have someone get up to grab the free end. About half the class chose c) citing that waves transport energy not matter and about half the class chose b) saying that they just need a longitudinal wave with a 3 foot amplitude. In either case, I am doubtful that the question led to an ah-ha moment for anyone.

Other than a healthy respect for “goofing off” in lab, is there something more productive I can take away from this experience?

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