Recently, in various papers, grant proposals, and the like that I’ve been drafting, I’ve found myself writing something along the lines of “These are several qualities that we ought to be incorporating into our physics instruction, but aren’t… um, except for ISLE and Modeling Instruction, which are taking big steps in those directions.” I decided that if I have to keep saying that, perhaps I ought to learn more about them, and maybe even incorporate (elements of?) one or both into my own teaching.
So, here I am at the AAPT meeting in Philly, having attended this afternoon a four-hour workshop on Modeling Physics for University Physics conducted by Eric Brewe of FIU and his current/former graduate students Jared Durden and Vashti Sawtelle. (Frustratingly, the ISLE workshop conflicted with it.) It was a high-energy affair, devoted entirely to group activities (casting us attendees in the role of students in a Modeling Physics course), and the four hours flew by quickly. At least for me; Eric admitted that he was a bit wiped out after arriving at 2:00 AM this morning, and then running two workshops today. Adrenaline is amazing stuff.
I won’t try to summarize here the Modeling Instruction for University (MI-U) approach to instruction; if you’re interested, go read about it on FIU’s page about it. Instead, I’ll dump a few of my thoughts and reactions as a way of processing my experiences, in no particular order.
- I’ve been wondering how MI-U differs from other strongly inquiry-based approaches like ISLE. Eric’s answer: Since learning science (genuinely) means learning to play the modeling game, all approaches that teach science well are really teaching the same thing, more or less. What distinguishes MI-U is that it puts an explicit focus on the core models and the modeling process, whereas approaches like ISLE do it more implicitly. (He admitted that ISLE has a more comprehensive view of experimentalism, which MI-U can learn from. His colleague at FIU, the always-incisive David Brookes, teaches with ISLE. What a department!)
- MI-U organizes content around basic “models” rather than “topics” or “principles” or etc. I suspect this has two benefits with respect to framing students’ thinking about phyit makes clear the distinction between the model and the thing modeled, and it ties the object of learning (the model) directly to the action (“modeling”). Neither “topic” nor “principle” have verb counterparts.
- “Discourse management” strategies are an essential component of the MI-U approach, which is one of the reasons it’s disseminated through workshops rather than published curricular materials. I’d venture to suggest that the biggest differences between MI-U and other inquiry approaches such as ISLE lie in its classroom interaction modalities and in how learning is framed, and not so much in the specifics of the learning activities and content. (Though I could be wrong, having little familiarity with the actual details of either ISLE or MI-U curricula.)
- MI-U is very much not a “discovery learning” approach, but instead is a “guided inquiry” approach. A critical component of the method is having the instructor(s) “seed” key ideas to various groups, ideally with the faintest of guiding questions or other nudges. In fact, a significant component of the written instructor support materials indicate the ideas to be seeded during each activity, with suggestions for ways to do so.
- FIU teaches six sections of MI-U intro physics, capped at 30 students each. Enrollment is by lottery (getting something like 400 applicants). The rest take non-MI-U sections. Each MI-U section meets for three two-hour classes per week, in a mixed lab/discussion setting. And this is going to be a potential deal-breaker for many of us who might aspire to implementing MI-U: I currently teach my university’s one and only intro physics section, which had 60 students for Physics I. I supervise the two lab sections, but have undergraduate TAs (LAs) to do the actual teaching of those. Splitting that into two 30-student sections (barely manageable by one lone instructor, according to Brewe et al.) that meet six hours per week would quadruple my contact time for that course. Definitely. Not. Sustainable. (Even assuming I could get the schedule time and appropriate classroom.)
- I don’t think Eric or anyone else knows yet how one might apply the MI-U approach to higher-level physics courses, which are typically more theory-driven, more mathematical, less accessible to student intuition, and less directly connected to observable phenomena. FIU uses it for Physics II, including electromagnetism, though that curriculum is not yet ready for distribution. I’m interested to see how they handle non-intuitive topics like magnetic fields.
- Each class keeps a common “consensus board” (perhaps a big, central flip-chart) to serve as a record of things the class as a whole agrees upon that they’ve learned, or something like that. I’m a bit fuzzy on exactly what this board is and how it works, but I think we were told that it acts as a record of what students are responsible for knowing. This is one tool for giving the students ownership of their learning. This piece could be critical, and I need to understand it better.
- I like the way that scientific behaviors and norms are developed both explicitly and implicitly. For example, the instructor(s) develop an expectation for students to compare their whiteboards to other groups’ boards during whole-class “board meetings”, challenging other groups as necessary — which sounds a lot like peer review to me.
- I very much like the idea of using open-ended “Tell me everything you can about this situation” modeling/analysis challenges rather than traditional highly-specified physics “problems” for homework and exams. I think I should be able to build more of this into my teaching, even if I can’t work the entire MI-U approach in (right away, anyway).
That’s enough processing for now.