Action Research on Underpinnings for Physics

by Jeffrey Hengesbach, Mountain Pointe High School, Tempe, Arizona
Invited talk at the Physics Education Research Conference at Guelph, Canada. 8-3-2000
(Supported by NSF grant PHY-9819461; David Hestenes, Principal Investigator)

Abstract (by David Hestenes): The Arizona Science and Technology Partnership (AzSTEP) is a
statewide program to cultivate physics teachers as leaders of science education reform in their
schools and school districts. AzSTEP organizes and supports Action Research Teams (ARTs) to
promote reform. Action research is conducted by inservice teachers to make specific improvements
in teaching practice. We discuss the plans and activities of one ART charged with examining the
science background (underpinnings) appropriate for students starting high school physics,
studying exemplary curricula for developing that background, and utilizing it in the design of a 9th
grade physical science course. The objective is to develop a workshop for physical science teachers
to help them improve their teaching and coordinate it with subsequent physics and chemistry
courses. Members of the ART will conduct the workshop and work closely with physical science
teachers in their schools.

Hear ye! Hear ye! Hear ye! This court is now in session.
If you are at all like me, I get nervous just seeing a police cruiser in my rear view mirror
(even when I’m not speeding). And I can’t imagine the feeling of actually being put on trial. Well,
in effect we, as members of the educational community, are being put on trial. Our society (and
the media that represent it) is the prosecution, we are the defendants, and the students we affect are
considered the victims in this courtroom drama.
As we enter the next age, not of information, but for usone of accountability, we are going
to be under close scrutiny by this prosecution. Questions of our responsibility and effectiveness
will be leveled, and we need to be prepared to make our defense. The frightening prospect for
some of us is that we are responsible for a lot within the educational community. Some of us are
responsible for more than students we see within our classrooms. Some of us are responsible for
the training of fellow teachers, both within our schools and districts, or at major universities or
within influential educational organizations. Professionals within this room make decisions that
can affect the entire structure of science education, worldwide. Whatever your situation, we all
face formidable challenges. Let us take a look at the most recent data which concern our
profession. As a scientist looking at this data, three points come to mind.
First: The perception of physics as an elitist subject must be changed. In this, our
technological society, students need to be exposed to physics. In many cases, at the high school
level it is the first opportunity a student has to truly participate as a member of the scientific
community. Unfortunately, for many it may be the only opportunity. Therefore, how we teach
must be adapted to accommodate a wider audience, with more diverse backgrounds and learning
Second: Teacher education must be improved. In many cases good people are leaving the
profession in frustration, not because they don’t care, but because they were not prepared well
and/or they had little support once they started. Pre-service teacher education, though helpful, is
still woefully inadequate. It cannot fully prepare teachers for what they face in their first years of
full time teaching. Less than a semester of student teaching in another’s classroom is nota
complete or realistic teaching experience. An engineer friend of mine hired by Caterpillar
Corporation out of college, spent a full year in an apprenticeship program, learning his trade. In
education a new teacher rarely receives more than a teacher edition of the textbook by way of
training support. And you can forget upgrade and advanced training.
Third: There must be an effective training vehicle to assist post-bac professionals newly
entering the teaching profession. With the staggering number of teachers needed in the next 10
years, more will need to be recruited from other professions to meet demand. As poor and
inadequate as pre-service teacher education is, the post-bac preparation process is even worse.

Post-bac training often consists of only a few weeks of active teaching. A few weeks?! If there
was a demand for more surgeons, and an intern had been a pediatrician, should that person be
required to spend less time practicing in surgery? The parallel is clear: if an engineer is to become a
teacher, should their training be abridged? Maybe they know the content, but their practice is
critical too.
What does the future hold? With an increasing demand for science teachers, if the pay
were to become comparable and teachers actually got paid what they’re worth, there would be an
influx of science related professionals coming into the teaching field, and we’d need to properly
equip them to be successful.
Now aside from the “getting paid what we are worth” comment (on which I can offer no
meaningful suggestion), I do have some constructive information relating to the other
The good news is that “traditional physics instruction,” which works well for some
students, is being supplemented with other styles of teaching. There are excellent physics
education programs out there: C3P, CPU, Modeling Instruction, Physics by Inquiry and others, to
name a few. These programs provide a means to reach a wider range of students. I have had the
opportunity to be involved in many of these programs and my students have benefited from my
exposure to them.
Which leads me to the second point, teacher education. I doubt if I would still be teaching
today had it not been for good fortune in my undergraduate experience. I was lucky to take what
was then a pilot “Modeling Physics” workshop as my undergraduate “Methods” course in 1992. I
could not have been better prepared as I entered the teaching profession. The essence of the
Modeling Program was (and is briefly) a method to engage students in understanding the physical
world by constructing and using scientific models to describe, explain, predict, and control
physical phenomena. This method was a radical departure from how I myself had been taught,
(primarily lecture style) but after the summer workshop, I came away with a richer understanding
of physics content in addition to a solid grasp of effective teaching strategies. Additionally, I had
developed professional relationships with colleagues who provided me with support and friendship
through those first years and some until this day. In subsequent summers, I gained further
insights as I first participated in, and eventually led, second semester Modeling Workshops. It is
primarily my thoughts and observations pertaining to these workshops and specifically their action
research component which I hope to share with you now.
My experience suggests that the second semester Modeling Workshop format is unique,
and that it may provide a key to the teacher education and post-bac training problems. The
alternative “style” of this workshop challenges teachers who have previous Modeling experience to
polish and strengthen their teaching skills, and also engage in an action research process.
I have provided a handout, the first 2 pages of which is a sample schedule from a second
semester Modeling Workshop held at Arizona State University in June 2000. You will note that
while the first few days were devoted to a review of what teachers had learned in the Introduction
to Modeling Workshop, which focused on mechanics, the bulk of the second semester workshop
schedule is devoted to action research.
Typically, action research teams (ARTs) of six to eight teachers are formed, based on
interest and ability, around a range of second semester subject areas. The goal of the action
research is to put the teachers in the position, not necessarily as curriculum designers, but more as
curriculum evaluators. The teachers begin the process of first reviewing, then organizing, and
finally adapting the materials. The participants critically analyze and adapt existing curriculum from
a topic-centered to a model-centered approach.
In the summer of 1998 a group of Arizona modelers attending a second semester Modeling
Workshop at Arizona State University expressed interest in investigating a problem. They had
observed that their students lacked many prerequisite skills necessary to be successful in their
physics classes. The lacking skills are described by Arnold Arons in his book A Guide to
Introductory Physics Teaching
(which is a recommended resource for the first Modeling
Workshop). Arons’ chapter on underpinnings became a rallying point for these teachers. They
referenced it in conjunction with other research-based curricula and curriculum resources,

including CPU, C3P, Physics by Inquiry, and others, as they applied their expertise to the
problem. I would like to share with you the process of development that has occurred in the area
of underpinnings or Models of Physical Science as an exemplar of this workshop structure.
You’ll notice that the work started in the summer of 1998 and continued in the summer of
1999 with groups at both Arizona State University and UC-Davis. (Included here is a copy of the
ASU Summer 2000 schedule, though they were all similar.)This process was continued again
during the spring of 2000 with 12 Arizona participants who had been in the 1999 ART at ASU.
The group met throughout the spring semester on weekends and then finished with one full week
of work after the school year ended. Here teachers earned ASU graduate credit for the learning and
developmental process they experienced. At this point the scope of the materials had expanded to
encompass more than the underpinning topics from Arons’ chapters. It had grown to also include
models of forces, motion and energy and growth systems. The MARS materials developed by Dr.
Kalyani Raghavan at the University of Pittsburgh and Camp and Clement’s Preconceptions in
greatly influenced these groups.
At each step in the development process the ARTs took the previous work, clarified it and
refined it more fully. At each step they were forced to critically evaluate the effectiveness of the
material in terms of its structure and coherence. This is a process that, quite frankly, high school
teachers are not initially comfortable with. Most have not taken the time or had the inclination to
ask the question, “Why do I do what I do in the classroom?”In my opinion, being challenged to
answer that question is one of the strong points of the action research process. High school
teachers are the practitioners of the teaching craft. They are by nature pragmatists, and their
insights into the utility of materials are considerable. When groups of them are given the
appropriate resources and some guidance, they are capable of achieving impressive results.
The second page of the handout (not included here; contact for a
copy) includes examples of the concept maps and unit overviews of the first two units in the
Models of Physical Science materials. You will notice the heavy emphasis on the “underpinnings”
of geometric and ratio reasoning as well as continued reliance on graphical representations. It is
model-centered and focuses on lab activities. At this time it has been field tested by at least eight
Arizona teachers for 9th grade students with positive results. Here are the materials that the
teachers in these ARTs have combined their efforts to generate over the past three summers.
It is a product that they are confident in and thus are in the process of making available to
the freshman teachers within their districts. The long-range vision includes shifting many of these
materials to the 7th and 8th grade classes. For now, some of the physics teachers are organizing
district level workshops to train the freshman teachers in the use of this material. It is not
considered a stand-alone curriculum but more like resource materials for a teacher who has the
basic skills to implement it.
Please understand that the materials that were developed were not the most important result
of the workshop for the participants. Far from it! In the process of developing those materials the
teachers were forced to evaluate their own teaching practices, while being exposed to some of the
best scholarly research available on the subject. They also had an opportunity to further network
with one another as a means to build a learning community of teachers.
If you look ahead to the last few days of the workshop agenda, you will notice that it is
sectioned off in blocks of time dedicated to group presentations. It is during this time that another
positive aspect of this action research workshop format occurs. Here teachers take on, in a
controlled fashion, the role of workshop leaders, as they present to the other teams the results of
their efforts. During the 1999 summer workshop at UC-Davis, teams worked on, then made
presentations over, models of waves and sound, light, e & m (or fields) and underpinnings. Each
of these groups had spent eight full days in the action research process. During that time they
organized themselves to prepare and present a one and a half day mini-workshop with the purpose
of familiarizing the other participants with their materials.
For some, this is the first opportunity they have had to be a leader among their peers. This
is a different and potentially scary endeavor. Teachers do not necessarily make the best students.
Most teachers, while comfortable in front of their students, rarely have the opportunity to interact
in that capacity with their peers. During these presentations, groups make decisions on managing

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