September 2015 – Vol. 28 No. 1

A Photo Finish for the School Year

Posted: Friday, June 1st, 2012

by Laura Henriques and Katie Beck

CSTs and AP exams are over.  Students and teachers can all breathe a sigh of relief. With those pressures off, many teachers have a little more time for multi-day projects and experiments which all-too-often get squeezed out of the curriculum in our rush to make it to exam day. Many high school physics teachers have end-of-year projects which require students to be creative, have fun and apply concepts. Some of the more popular projects shared at a recent gathering of high school physics teachers included cardboard boat building, two liter bottle rockets, mousetrap cars, Rube Goldberg contraptions and catapults. There are variations to all of these activities but to be educationally valuable, students need to be able to explain the physics behind the project.

Surface Tension by Anna Christiansen Cable

The physics picture project described here is one that has been used in high school and university physics classes, but it could easily be used in other content areas. Adapted from the American Association of Physics Teachers Photo Contest, this project requires students to take a group of pictures to illustrate physics concepts. Virtually everyone has access to a digital camera these days (camera phones work fine for this assignment), so access to technology has not been a barrier, even in lower SES schools. Details on the project are provided below, but the goal of the assignment is to get students to photograph and explain how physics is seen in the natural (or posed!) world. Students need to explain the physics behind each picture and each of their pictures must demonstrate a different physical phenomenon. For example, they cannot provide pictures of a child on a slide and a child on a swing-set and explain both with conservation of energy principles.

Students have been excited about the project and the work they submit is really quite good. Pictures and their explanations must fit on a single page. Many of these are framed and posted in the classroom. Alumni love coming back and seeing their photos.  Current students are intrigued by the pictures and they read about the physics phenomena all year long. We have used this assignment as part of the final exam grade. It really is a culminating exercise, requiring students to retrieve and apply physics concepts from across the school year. It could easily be used throughout the school year as a portion of unit, quarter or semester grades. The goal is to require students to see and explain physics concepts at work in the real world. Group sizes can vary. We have had students work individually or in groups of 2-5. At the high school level groups have been used almost exclusively.

Assignment details: Take 10 (or some set number) of pictures which illustrate physics concepts. Your picture set must have a theme. For example, children at play (swing sets, slides, playing with slinkies) or a day at the beach (waves, rafts floating on the water, polarized sunglasses). Each picture must show a different physics concept and the physics concept highlighted in the photo must be explained in writing.

Variations on the assignment have included the teacher randomly selecting concepts or the instructor providing images which the students must describe. Our favorite version, though, is requiring teams to come up with a theme for their photo set and take their own pictures. It has been fun to see how clever and creative they are.

Purple Rain by Jason Daniel Connell, demonstrating vector motion.

We have found that doing a few sample pictures in class has been helpful. We show a picture and ask students to describe the physics behind it. Typically the class comes up with more than one physics concept that the image illustrates. For example, the kid on a swing-set mentioned above as an example of conservation of energy could also be an example of periodic motion. Instead of talking about the transfer of potential energy to kinetic energy the students could write about the period of the swing and the irrelevance of the mass of the child swinging as length is the only variable that matters. This is especially helpful for kids as they begin thinking about their project and helping them see that the pictures they take could be described using a different physics lens.

Try it out! You don’t have to start with a theme-based photo set of 10 images. Start out small with you providing a couple of pictures and see what they come up with. Then next year expand the project and have the students take the pictures. Another way to get started, and help the kids get comfortable with the idea, is to do photo analysis in class and include a picture or two on tests or quizzes which students must explain. This really helps students see physics as more than just a set of formulas.  Have fun and say cheese!

For more information, click on the links in the article or paste these urls directly into your browser window.

AAPT physics contest:

Physics teacher gathering:

Laura Henriques is a professor of science education at CSU Long Beach and president-elect of CSTA.

Katie Beck ( is a physics teacher at Bolsa Grande High School in Garden Grove, CA and a member of CSTA. She has served as the PhysTEC Teacher-In-Residence at CSULB for the 2011-2012 school year.

Written by Laura Henriques

Laura Henriques

Laura Henriques is a professor of science education at CSU Long Beach and past-president of CSTA.

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More Than 1,400 Science Educators Prepare to Convene in Sacramento

Posted: Thursday, September 17th, 2015

by Deb Farkas

As we get ready to go full steam ahead with implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards and eagerly await the new California Science Framework, there is no better place to be in early October than here in Sacramento, where you will find workshops, speakers, field experiences, short courses and more to inspire and re-energize your teaching. If you are not one of the more than 1,000 teachers to have registered, I invite you to do so today.

Don’t miss opening speaker, Ainissa Ramirez. Author, engineer and science evangelist, Dr. Ramirez will encourage us to ignite the spark of curiosity in all of our students and get them excited about science. Former astronaut José Hernández will close our conference with an account of his journey from migrant farm worker to engineer to mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Discovery, and his work inspiring children to “reach for the stars.” We are also pleased to offer you a variety of highly regarded focus speakers in science and education. Learn about a strength-based approach to early science education, bringing deep sea data to the classroom, ZomBees, engaging students in engineering, and literacy, non-verbal communication patterns and social justice in the science classroom. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Trying NGSS with Paper Clips and Gummy Worms

Posted: Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

by Joanne Michael

By now, most teachers have heard of NGSS, know that it is not going away, and have realized they will be teaching this new set of standards within the next few years. While some are excited at the possibility of new happenings, others are terrified at the prospect of having to change curriculum that they have spent years fine-tuning and tweaking. A few districts are implementing NGSS early, working out the kinks and creating guides for the rest of the state, but what about the teachers that want to venture out and try the new curriculum without the support of the entire district? It seems daunting, but there are some ways to ease into the NGSS world. Learn More…

Written by Joanne Michael

Joanne Michael is the K-5 science specialist at Meadows Elementary in Manhattan Beach, CA, and CSTA’s intermediate grades 3-5) Director.

High School Teachers – We Need Your Help!

Posted: Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

CSTA and its partners are trying to get a sense of what high school science looks like across the state. We are interested in knowing how many years of science your district requires for graduation, what the typical course taking patterns are, and a sense of the high school science teaching workforce. If you are in a position to answer these questions please take the survey. If you can’t provide that information we ask that you share this link with your district science leader or other appropriate administrator. It should not take very long to complete (less than 5 minutes) and the information will help CSTA and our partners as we plan NGSS activities and support. Thank you for filling out the survey yourself or for directing it to the appropriate person.

Take Survey

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

CSTA Honors Rising Stars, Advocates, and Distinguished Contributors to Science Education in 2015

Posted: Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2015 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Legislator of the Year, Future Science Teacher, Honorary Memberships, and the new Bertrand Advocacy Award. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2015 California Science Education Conference on October 2 – 4 in Sacramento. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them! Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Northern Happenings for September–Region 1

Posted: Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

September already – allow me to add my welcome back wish to the others you are hearing across all 29 counties that make up CSTA Region 1!


CSTA Regions Map

It has certainly been a busy summer with California Science Project events across the region, and lots of activity at Math Science Partnership Grant projects as well. As you come back to class this fall, consider your summer learning, and think about how you might share it at a future CSTA conference! This year you will no doubt be trying out what you learned in your classes. By next spring you will know what you could share with colleagues at the 2016 Science Educators Conference to be held in Palm Springs. It seems a long time from now, but if you have the idea in mind as you teach your students, you can be on the lookout for what would be wonderful to share with other K-12 teachers in California. Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.