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A Course for Elementary Education Majors Keith Sturgess, Ph.D.Mary Cosgrove Assistant Professor of PhysicsAssistant Professor of Biology The College of Saint RoseThe College of Saint Rose Albany, New YorkAlbany, New York. Problem Based Learning in the Physical Sciences.

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Problem Based Learning in the Physical Sciences

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A Course for Elementary Education Majors

Keith Sturgess, Ph.D.Mary CosgroveAssistant Professor of PhysicsAssistant Professor of BiologyThe College of Saint RoseThe College of Saint Rose Albany, New YorkAlbany, New York

Problem Based Learning in the Physical Sciences

About the College of Saint Rose

  • Located in downtown Albany NY

  • Four Schools

    • Education

    • Science and Math

    • Arts and Humanities

    • Business

  • Approximately 4000 full time students

    • Undergraduate and Masters-level

    • 1100 Childhood and Special Education Majors

    • 450 Science Majors (no physics major)

  • All Childhood Education majors are required to take a two semester lab-based science sequence

    • Science 100 – Physics and Chemistry team taught by 2 faculty members

    • Science 200 – Earth Science and Biology (also team taught)

  • Each course consists of

    • Two 75 minute inquiry-based classroom experiences per week

    • One 150 minute guided inquiry based laboratory per week

    • One 60 minute problem-based workshop per week


  • Course Theme: The high price of Gasoline

  • Objectives:

    • Present generally the same course content, but in the context of the course theme

    • Robustly connect science and civic engagement by teaching “through” complex, contested, current, and unresolved public issues “to” basic science.

    • Invite students to put scientific knowledge and scientific method to immediate use on matters of immediate interest to students.

Course Design

* The last 2 objective come from SENCER Ideals

  • We began the course by having the students make a list of “what they knew” and “what they wanted to know” about the high price of Gasoline. Some questions were:

    • What is gasoline?

    • Where does it come from?

    • How does a car engine work?

    • What about hybrid and electric cars?

  • Those lists drove the syllabus for the course.

Course Syllabus Development

Sample Lecture Content

  • How does gas make a car move?

    • Physics: thermodynamics, forces, kinematics

    • Chemistry: atoms, elements, compounds, combustion reaction

  • Where does gas come from?

    • Geology/Biology, organic chemistry

  • Hybrid and Electric Cars

    • How they work, electricity, circuits, generators

    • Which leads to electrical generation by: wind, coal, solar, nuclear

    • Chemistry: Batteries, acid-base, pH

Example Laboratory Experiences

  • Chemical properties of gasoline

  • Making mousetrap powered cars

  • Fractional distillation

  • Energy content of different hydrocarbons

  • Making an electric generator and motor

  • Wind Power

  • Solar Power

Problem Based Workshops

  • The workshops are problem solving sessions in which the students meet in small groups guided by peer leaders.

  • The problems are designed by the course instructors and are based on challenging real scientific problems.

  • Guided by peer leaders, the students propose and develop solutions as a group.

  • The workshops provide the students with a deeper understanding of the scientific topics being studied and a better understanding that science is a process by which knowledge is gained.

  • Examples

    • Determine the height above the 1st floor of the 4th floor railing in the science center.

    • Is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker extinct?

    • Create a periodic table for the planet Xeron

Peer Leaders

  • Who they are:

    • The peer leaders are students that have either successfully completed SCI100/200 or are majoring/concentrating in a science field.

  • What’s in it for them:

    • The peer leaders gain valuable pedagogical experience and reinforce their own knowledge.

    • Paid a small stipend

  • Training

    • An intensive day-long class on techniques for engaging students in small group discussions

    • Weekly meeting with faculty to discuss upcoming workshops

    • Weekly peer-leader only meeting to prepare lesson plans for upcoming workshops

Service Learning

  • Service learning is method of learning that provides a service to the community using an authentic application of the course concepts.

  • Students reflect upon and evaluate their experiences and incorporate the new knowledge into their course work.

  • Service Learning is fundamental to the SCI100/200 program. Students have an opportunity to use the science they have learned in the classroom for the benefit of the community. SCI100/200 students have volunteered in

    • local schools,

    • environmental centers,

    • museums, and

    • discovery centers.

  • They have worked with children and adolescents with autism and developmental disabilities.

  • All of these experiences are positive, real, meaningful, and offer opportunities to solve problems in a real-world setting.

Some Initial Outcomes

  • We administered an attitudinal survey at the end of the course (we used the SALG and added our own questions)

  • There was no survey of attitudes prior to the course, other than our first day discussions with the students about science. So data is anecdotal at this time.

  • The scale used is 0 – 5 with zero be strongly disagree and 5 being strongly agree

Use of Computer Data Acquisition systems (Pasco) to do experiments for students in real-time to confront their misconceptions.

Interactive Lecture Demonstrations (ILD)

  • Example: Newton’s 3rd Law. Students typically apply Newton’s 3rd law correctly for a head-on collision between 2 equal mass vehicles, but almost always predict that the smaller car will experience a greater force than the larger car in an unequal mass head-on collision.

  • After using the Newton’s 3rd Law ILD (Interactive Lecture Demonstrations, Active Learning in Introductory Physics, Sokoloff and Thornton) my elementary educations majors performed BETTER than my calculus-based physics students (who did not receive the ILD) on and FCI question concerning Newton’s 3rd Law.

The Value of Interactive Lecture Demonstrations

Comparing performance on a force concept inventory (FCI) question with and without ILDs

In the following figure, Student A has a mass of 75 kg and student B has a mass of 57 kg. They sit in identical office chairs facing each other. Student A places his bare feet on the knees of student B as shown. Student A then suddenly pushes outward with both his feet, causing both chairs to move.

During the push, and while the two students are still touching one another,

1. Neither student exerts a force on the other.

2. Student A exerts a force on B, but student B does not exert any force on A.

3. Each student exerts a force on the other, but student B exerts a larger force.

4. Each student exerts a force on the other, but student A exerts a larger force.

5. Each student exerts the same amount of force on the other.

Correct Answer

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