A Photo Finish for the School Year
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.
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.
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: http://www.aapt.org/programs/contests/photocontest.cfm
Physics teacher gathering: http://www.physicsatthebeach.com
Laura Henriques is a professor of science education at CSU Long Beach and president-elect of CSTA.
Katie Beck (email@example.com) 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.
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