Days 1-5: Tumble Buggies

After a year away, I am back in the classroom this year, teaching Physics and AP Physics 1. This past week was our first week back. Between having been away for a year and the continuing dangers of COVID-19, I have been very nervous about going back to the classroom, but this week reminded me why I decided to come back. It felt so good to be in a classroom with a bunch of teenagers doing physics together.

This year, I convinced the other physics teacher we should skip a short “intro to physics” unit and we dove straight in to the buggy lab, so both my courses looked pretty similar. On the first day, students were just given the vague direction to make some kind of graph or chart on a whiteboard that modeled the motion of the buggy, then we talked about what was making it easy or hard to compare results across groups. Throughout the activity, I emphasized that the choices students made were correct and valid in the context of the activity, but I needed to do more as a facilitator to prepare them to compare across groups.

A blue tumble buggy and a red tumble buggy sitting next to a measuring tape

We then did a second round of buggy data collection with more structure. I also had students do a linear regression for their data and “translate” the resulting equation into physics by adding units and substituting variables that matched their experiment. Interestingly, for all of the rhetoric about learning loss and concern about the gaps students will have this year, this is the smoothest the “translation” has ever gone for me. Even better, my students were thinking about what their regression line actually meant without any prompting from me. I had several groups call me over concerned because they had already figured out on their own that their intercept should match their buggy’s starting position, but the two values were different by 5-10 cm, which meant I got to have some great conversations about uncertainty much earlier than usual. I also had a student who was struggling with adding units to her slope. As I was asking her questions to try to better understand what she was having trouble with, her face suddenly changed and she said “Oh! The units mean the slope is how many centimeters the buggy travels every second!” and I realized she wasn’t struggling with the mechanics of placing the unit in her equation, she was struggling because she knew a number with a unit needs to mean something, which is a fantastic reason to be struggling.

My classes have been quieter and more still than usual, even in the first week, but I’m guessing they are also feeling nervous and overwhelmed about being in a full classroom again. But given the sensemaking they are doing without any direct pushes from me, I think my classes this year are going to be pretty great as long as we all stay healthy.

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