Challenge Through Inquiry in Physics

“I have always been drawn to the idea of challenge for students.” Physics teacher Moses Rifkin has known for a long time how to assign difficult test questions. At the same time, he has increasingly come to feel that different challenges are needed to support all high school physics students in learning. Rifkin has begun to develop experiential learning challenges built around student inquiry.

Over a span of two years, Rifkin has noted which topics could be taught in an inquiry manner. This year, he dramatically reorganized the physics curriculum, inverting conventional unit structure. Instead of learning a concept and then applying it to a project, students first explore through observation, identify what they need to know, and then learn the relevant concepts. Students exhibit greater motivation to learn physics concepts that are situated within an applied context rather than the dry, hypothetical scenarios typical of textbook learning.

Early this fall, physics students completed three inquiry learning projects. In the first, students were challenged to design virtual robots that could stand up and move about, using the simulator SodaPlay. Students quickly learn that staying upright and walking involve complex, constantly changing forces! Through trial, error, and reflection, students develop creativity, thoughtfulness, and resiliency.

In the second project, students were asked to think about the traffic signal in front of the school. “Where can you be when the light turns yellow and stop in time? Where can you be when the light turns yellow and make it through before it turns red?” Through experimentation, student groups worked to identify the relevant variables and equations, calculated responses to the questions, and then created a presentation to explain it all.

The third project flipped the classic “egg drop” activity. Students were presented with only the basic parameters of the egg drop: “you will be raised 25 feet up in a crane lift. I will walk by below, unaware. You will determine when to drop an egg in order to hit me squarely in the head.” Students worked to identify helpful physics principles and apply them to answer the question, and (only) then did they attempt to drop the egg and hit their target!

Students had the option to present their work on a poster or through a video. One student has connected the study of physics to his passion for filmmaking and animation, producing professional quality videos for his groups’ projects.

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What is next for U Prep physics? Rifkin comments that these projects are more “open-roaded” than open-ended. Students learn how to apply conceptual study to real-world situations, but in reality these problems have a limited number of possible solutions. Rifkin would like to explore how to support students in to ask thoughtful questions and then design inquiry methods to study them, while still mastering foundational physics principles. This could make these projects truly open-ended, with a variety of possible outcomes.

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