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The Demo Course: SETUP

HankJonJackBarrelSmallStrengthening Elementary Teachers’
Understanding of Physics

In a 1994 survey of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro-area elementary and middle school teachers documented a widespread local need for physics in-service opportunities.  Conducted in May and June, this survey showed that 56% of those responding had never taken a college course in physics.  In stark contrast only 7 % reported having never taken a college biology course.  It’s not surprising that the 569 respondents report they feel best prepared in the life sciences and least prepared in the physical sciences.

The creators of this class (Jack Netland, Jon Barber and Hank Ryan) have been doing physics demonstration performances for the past twenty-seven years.  We have worked on the University of Minnesota campus doing shows for the area high school students and their teachers, we have gone on the road over three states and even ended up on television here (Newton’s Apple) and in Germany on a program called Knoff Hoff and two engagements at Disneyworld.  The actual performances have been designed around a theme, are informational, exciting, humorous and do not contain any mathematical equations.  We strongly believe that enjoyment of viewing natural physics events is of greater importance than the conceptual learning that results.  Just as the appreciation of music is of foremost importance for students attending a concert and the occasion is not necessarily used to try to teach music theory.

Having said all this, one of the things we have come to understand is that no matter how much we work on our demonstration shows, no matter how delighted our audiences, or where we might work, the people who have gained the most are the performers.  We became more excited about physics, learned new physics, gained confidence in our ability to do the demonstrations, added greatly to our classroom repertoire of physics stories and had the most fun.  We believe that the performing of demonstration programs in physics can be a vehicle to: (A) improve attitudes about physics, (B) expand understanding of physics phenomena, and (C) improve comfort with teaching physics concepts.

Members of the Physics Force have developed a class whose acronym is SETUP which stands for “Strengthening Elementary Teachers’ Understanding of Physics”. This class has been taught at the University of Minnesota, Southwest State College and for many years at Bethel University, all in Minnesota. Jack, Jon and Hank also wrote a demonstration manual (published by Bethel University Press) which students use to learn from during the course and to keep for use in their elementary classes.

The manual consists of a series of seventyfive physics demonstrations that are used to help students understand the underlying concepts (click here to see an example). Each student must perform all the demonstrations and explain them to the satisfaction of the instructors to earn credit for the course.  In addition each student presents a short demonstration show to the class and instructors. The class affords the student the ability to:

  1. Become familiar with doing the demonstrations.
  2. Learn how to use the demonstration equipment.
  3. Articulate the concepts involved.

Thus the students are continuously being evaluated on their understanding of the concepts as they are learning them. For further information about this course please contact Jack Netland.

The broad topics of the class include the following:

 Sound and Waves

Types of Waves

Wave Motion – Medium Motion

Standing Waves

Doppler Effect


Heat and Thermodynamics

Change of Temperature-Gas Laws

Heat transfer

Change of State

Air Pressure

Terminal Velocity

Bernoulli’s Principle


Mass and Inertia

Force and Friction

Center of Mass

Circular Motion

Collisions and Momentum


Electricity   (static and current)

 Charging by Contact

Charging by Induction

Static Electric Generators

Current Electricity

Electricity and Magnetism


Within each topic are several (as many as eight) demonstrations that are used to teach and reinforce each concept. As mentioned in the material above, a main objective is to improve the attitude of students toward the subject of physics, and close behind is an increase in understanding of physics concepts.

An attitudinal evaluation instrument (developed by a graduate student in measurement at the University of Minnesota) was administered to students at Bethel University in 2007 before the class was taken and again after the class was completed. Each question was designed to determine how comfortable students felt about using physics demonstrations and/or projects in their classrooms.

Average before class         Average after class completion:

8.33                                               21.9   (click here to see individual student scores)

The numbers were based on 23 questions, each question having a value from +2 to -2, which would allow a maximum score of +46 or a minimum of -46. All students with one exception scored higher after the class than they had scored before taking the course producing nearly and three fold improvement (to see the survey instrument click here).