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Fast Food Physics

August 9, 2011

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.

Are you feeding your students fast food physics?

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!

A group is determing how to describe the motion of a cart.

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.

  1. This is great, Steve. I worked in fast food for years through high school and college so I’m trying to come up with analogies for all kinds of things. Here’s a few:
    – In the old days, it was hard to get a “special” burger: hard to do differentiated instruction
    – There’s only one way to do everything (cleaning, making a burger, washing your hands, etc): sometimes I show students only one way to solve something. Here I really like the modeling curriculum’s focus on multiple representations
    – You have 3 minutes from a time a car orders to getting their food and only 30 seconds at the window (these are goals that are rewarded with things like free meals): Standards-based grading has shown me how giving students some time to learn things (and re-assess) is a good thing.

    Thanks for the shout-out as well. My most recent blog post about my course is

    -Andy (@arundquist)

    • Thanks for chiming in, Andy! Regarding fast food restaurants, the processes (like the ones you mention) become institutionalized over time—some nationwide. Changing them is in response for the need to trim costs for the benefit of the corporation, not necessarily for the healthful benefit of the consumers.

      I think the analogies will break down if we keep going down the rabbit hole, but it’s been a fun exercise to draw comparisons!

      Only 30 seconds for delivery . . . wow. Have you ever tried giving a wait time of 30 seconds after asking a question? Now that’s fun!

  2. paul lulai permalink

    Piggybacking off of Andy’s post: multiple reps are important (very). So are multiple routes to numerical solution. More than one way to skin a cat or solve a prob.
    No fast food metaphor… Hoping nobody can find a way to link skinning a cat to fast food.

    • I agree with your statement. I find it interesting that some individuals continue to seek a silver bullet for effective instruction. My hypothesis: there’s no single right way for effective instruction, and there are innumerable single ways for ineffective instruction. This may be going deeper than what the fast food analogy has to offer. . .

  3. Eric permalink

    Some students will only eat the happy meal for the prize in the box. (letter grade)

  4. Sorry about your meal, Steve, but what a great analogy! And you probably wouldn’t have come to this realization if you had had a decent dining experience. Guess it was meant to be…

    So why do people eat fast foods? I suspect some reasons are it’s what they can afford in terms of both money and time. Working 2 jobs. Family of 5. Health problems.

    Similarly, I imagine some teachers lack resources, have overcrowded schedules and classes, have students with a wide spectrum of abilities, and lack experience teaching physics. Add the pressures of performing on standardized tests, and it’s no wonder they eat fast food; it’s all that’s on the menu.

    I agree moving away from fast-food teaching will take courage. I promise this year I’m going to try to do much of what you suggest to serve a more healthy cuisine.

    But in case I get overwhelmed,… , …can I get an order of fries with that?

    • Fries . . . comin’ right up!

      I think you have a point, Brian, about what one can afford based on available resources (preparation/expertise, time and finances). The film Food, Inc. brings this home with footage of a lower income family almost becoming dependent on fast food. The question is: are today’s physics students becoming dependent on fast food physics?

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