Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Sea Perch is a Fun, Hands-On Approach to Teaching Science

This Physics Today article highlights a project called Sea Perch, a hands-on approach to getting schoolchildren interested in science and technology.

For 10 weeks, Anderson will be showing the 10 students who stay after school for a couple of hours how to assemble their ROVs from kits consisting of such everyday items as PVC pipe and electrical tape. When the students are finished, they'll get to take the electrically powered vehicles to a test tank at the US Naval Academy, where they'll maneuver them by remote control. Throughout the process, the students will learn about buoyancy, displacement, and other physics principles through simple, well-crafted experiments. They also learn how to operate an electric drill and a soldering iron. Best of all, they're having fun doing it.

This is similar to my philosophy on the revamping of the undergraduate intro physics labs. Don't give some rudimentary exercise for them to do. Give them a TASK in which they have to build something or figure out something to accomplish that task. Along the way, they will need to learn certain techniques, or learn certain reason why something should be done in a certain way, just like the kids on this program:

As the children await their turn with the drill, they tested Archimedes' principle by fashioning crude model ships out of aluminum foil. Their goal was to see how many marbles they could load into the makeshift hull before it sank from the weight. By maximizing the length and width of their boats, they learned, they could increase the marble count. They recorded observations in laboratory logbooks. Asked by Anderson to explain how repeated trials are necessary in science, one savvy student explained the importance of changing a single variable at a time.

Reviewing what they had learned that day, Charlie Youngman observed, "the more weight, the more water it displaces," while Matt Rinaldi explained that if a vessel has "solid walls," it's less likely to sink. For R. J. Neal, the biggest lesson was "safety first; always use goggles when drilling."

If these are the lessons that the students learned from the program, then I would say that in my eyes, it has accomplished what many undergraduate intro physics labs have failed to accomplish or reinforce into the students. The ability to know the relationship between what we manipulate and what the corresponding outcome is one of the most important aspect of science, and certainly, experimental science. The students in this program obviously are getting that without even having to be taught of it. Why can't we do the same thing with the undergraduate intro physics labs?


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