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Class Practicums

Jon and HankWhat is a class practicum for physics?

The goal is to present a word problem without the words. The practicum is always a culminating activity and the problem posed to the class should contain as many concepts that have been covered in the most recent unit as possible. The practicum is started by the teacher setting out laboratory equipment that allows data to be measured and then posing a problem for the class to solve.  Students organize themselves and make the proper measurements and calculations in an attempt to find the answer to the question posed.  After all students agree that the proper solution has been attained, the apparatus is assembled and the experiment performed.  The students’ attention, hopes, fears, credibility, grade and the like are glued to the equipment.  If all goes well the reward to the students will be right from nature laws and their own savvy.  If the class prediction is correct, the students receive a pass, and if incorrect, all receive a fail.

How do I get the second edition of “Practicums for Physics Teachers”?

It’s easy! Just download Physics Practicums for Teachers, Edition 2 (.pdf).

How do students work?

Students can organize in any manner they wish to accomplish the task. Regardless of organization, students must take data, make calculations, reach consensus on the solution to the problem and make sure all class members understand.  The work, including all units, drawings, etc. must be placed on the blackboard and the prediction clearly stated.  This must be accomplished with a minimum of five minutes left in the hour to allow time for the following steps.  First, the instructor needs time to quiz a few students on their understanding.  This can include erasing part of the blackboard work and asking any student to replace it without notes or coaching.  Failure at this stage stops the practicum and results in the class failing the activity.  This is a key point and is needed to make sure all students are involved.  Students often will ask for help from class­mates when they are un­comfortable with part or all of the calculations.  Students will break into coaching groups to give the needed help so all are ready and able to answer the teacher’s questions.  This is the first moment of truth!

What does a physics class practicum problem look like?

Check out a sample of a class practicum on Centripetal Force — the first practicum we ever developed — by downloading the Centripetal Force Practicum (.pdf). This practicum is included in the full .pdf download, too.

What are the benefits of using physics class practicums?

The debate during a class practicum is authentic.  No student wishes to “own the solution”.  Students’ respect others rights to disagree and also learn to listen in order not to miss a bit of wisdom.  Everyone is a little humble because when “Mother Nature” does her thing there will be no one to argue with or to blame.

High ability students often take leadership roles and are looked to as a real asset in class, instead of a rival.  Often when a practicum is announced students “check with the talent” to make sure they will be present on the appointed day.  Asking these students to cancel doctor appointments etc. is not uncommon.  It’s hard for the class to depend on these students one day and dislike the same people the next day just because they get good marks.  However, students of great physics ability must learn to explain what they know so well, or all is still in danger of being lost.  This ability to articulate clearly is not always held by those who have great insight into physics, but is valued by the class.  Therefore, other students have opportunities to gain the respect and appreciation of their classmates by being good explainers or for coming up with the one good idea that allows the class to surge forward on a practicum problem.

Class tension always builds during the questioning session and when nature is asked if the student prediction is true.  When the results do match the class prediction, the students cheer and applaud.  Many students shake hands and congratulate each other. This generates a team spirit, not unlike what we observe in sports.  A team of students is a more powerful organization for learning physics than a class of students. 

How did our class practicum book get started?

If frustration can be the mother of invention, then that’s how Physics Practicums were born. Hank Ryan, then a new physics teacher at Minnesota’s Mounds View High School, simply hated chapter test reviews. The idea of a class practicum came to him whole one day, in a flash of inspiration. Well, anyway, that’s Hank’s story and he is sticking to it.

He worked out his first physics practicum on centripetal force and gave it a try in his class. Though it went over well and he was excited about it the idea got lost in the whirlwind of school life. The next year, when Hank got back to circular motion, he decided to use the practicum again. This time, he invited his colleague Jon Barber to come see the practicum chapter review session. Jon was impressed with the results. And being a natural organizer and motivator, he dug into the project with Hank. In fact, Jon and Hank working as a team soon had eight practicums worked out in their heads, though not much on paper.

In 1985 at a summer workshop for teachers held at the University of Minnesota, Hank presented the practicum concept to 40 physics teachers. The university liked the idea and made funds available for creating a written and somewhat illustrated version of the first eight practicums for the forty. That winter the University of Minnesota, through the efforts of Dr. Roger Jones, also made a video of Hank and his class doing a practicum. Hank claims to have perhaps the only remaining copy of the video—if he could only lay hands on it.

In any case, with the video under their belts, Jon began applying to any granting authority that might have funds available to help further develop the idea. After many rejections, he secured a grant from the American Institute of Physics (AIP) for a few thousand dollars to develop new practicums and publish a book on how to use them. The summer of 1990 saw Hank and Jon spending most every day in the physics lab at Mounds View High School reading physics books, playing around with equipment, writing and illustrating practicums both new and old. It was a great summer. The work was exciting, and Jon was so funny, Hank says he often returned home with sore tummy muscles from all the laughing.

In 1991, to fulfill a requirement of the grant, Hank and Jon went to Vancouver, British Columbia, to give a paper about their practicums at the summer meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT).  With 25 draft copies of their book, Practicums for Physics Teachers, in hand they ventured forth. “It was an early session in fact we were the first in the day. So, I hoped that maybe ten people would come to hear us,” Jon remembers.

Needing plenty of set-up time the two were up and working by 6:30 a.m.  At 7:30, some teachers began to arrive. Hank asked why they were coming so early. “We wanted to be sure to get a seat!” they responded. Hank and Jon were mystified, as the room could seat 120 people. But by 8:00, the house was packed, with people sitting on the stairs to boot. Hank and Jon were truly blown away by the response. Needless to say, they were a tad short on draft copies of their practicum book.

After the great reception in Vancouver, Jon and Hank gave workshops and sold books around the United States and Canada. They visited Boise, Idaho; Bangor, Maine; St. Louis, Missouri; Winnipeg, Canada; and beyond, as they spread the word about the value of these exercises. Physics teachers were thrilled and teachers from around the country, and as far away as Japan, sent the duo new practicums to be added to the publication.

If this is your first look at the concept, Hank and Jon hope you become a user and an advocate of the pedagogy. They have certainly seen positive results with their students. Jon and Hank would like to thank everyone who gave them encouragement along the way even if just by showing interest and a special thanks to those who made a contribution. They would also like to give a very special thanks to Michael Crofton for his work in editing the second edition. Both now retired, Hank and Jon have had a great journey with the practicum idea. To physics teachers and students everywhere, they say, “It’s been great fun, thanks for the memories, and good luck in developing your own physics practicums!”

Wait, how do I get the second edition of “Practicums for Physics Teachers” again?

It’s easy! It’s still easy! Just download Physics Practicums for Teachers, Edition 2 (.pdf).