Fast Food Physics
On my 7-hour drive home from the 2011 AAPT/PERC summer meetings in Omaha, Nebraska, I decided to get a quick meal on the road. Without divulging the name of the franchise, let me just generally express my dissatisfaction:
It was one of the worst fast food meals I’ve experienced in recent memory.
The service was okay and the employees’ efforts were well intended. In fact, for all intensive purposes they were performing their jobs as effectively as possible. However, I simply could not stomach completing the meal or the soft drink. It just wasn’t settling well. And deep down, I knew it wasn’t wholesome or healthful. I lost my appetite and that got me thinking.
What if our efforts as physics educators are like those of the fast food business?
The phrase “Fast Food Physics” came to mind and the metaphors began rolling one after another.
- Have you ever just given out the answer to a question in class to save time? That’s the salt on your fast food physics fries. It’s an immediate “taste good” sensation without long-term benefits.
- Have you created a review outline and led an evening session just prior to an exam to “help” students study? That could be seen as an entire fast food meal to get one through the day. While it may well help students get by on the upcoming exam, deeper understanding comes from self-study rather than top down delivery.
- Have you employed occasional bouts of interactive engagement in class only to return to lecture as usual? That’s the equivalent of sporadically substituting a typical value/combo meal for a salad or veggie wrap. As refreshing and novel as it may be, a one-time dose is not by itself an effective agent of change.
- Have you completely restructured your curriculum and instructional strategies to fully engage the classroom? If so, wow! That’s analogous to an entire shift to “slow food”—a fairly recent movement you should look into if unaware. Why? Because it is a long-term solution to healthful living and sustainability. This is not unlike fully committing to instructional modes that are student-centered rather than teacher-centered.
- Have you thought of your own fast food physics metaphor yet? Chime in by leaving a comment!
So as the semester’s start nears, I am thrust into the same series of issues I face each fall. Namely, how do I get away from this newly termed fast food physics amidst the constraints of class size, lack of a recitation hour, student math preparation, pre-med student expectations, lack of LA’s/TA’s/GA’s, high course load and institutional norms?
For starters, I’ll be using an online homework system that can provide instant problem solving feedback (a partial solution to slow turnaround issues I face without a grader). I am also going to cut fifty 9” x 12” whiteboards this weekend and fully stock my classroom with dry erase markers. As for labs, my new semester resolution is to eliminate the exercises where students are simply following a set of instructions to verify a constant. Instead, students will be working to answer questions my PTRA colleagues opened my eyes to this summer during the NWOSU ToPPS Science Institute (see also Brian Lamore’s blog and my other posts). I am also very interested in exploring facets of Standards Based Grading (follow him @arundquist to get a taste, or if you’re brave enough take a look at his mechanics course). Other items of interest are using screencasting/YouTube clips for “flipped classroom” activities and modified implementation of peer instruction. For my comfort level and available resources, these will take some more thought before rushing in full throttle.
Moral of the story: there are numerous agents for moving away from fast food physics out there. Employing them takes a willingness to break from the mold and the courage to set aside the convenience of readymade/rehearsed teacher-centered deliveries.