P131 – First Semester IPLS

Why Physics 131: Algebra-Based Introductory Physics I?

The first reason is that P131 serves a large segment of the student population at UMass. Over the two semesters in an average year, more than 1000 students pass through the course. Perhaps more importantly, however, P131 and the subsequent P132 are the only two physics courses that many of these students will ever take and most students do not enter the course with a positive impression of the discipline of physics. Thus, these two courses must critically be well thought-out and effective. We think that the Team-Based-Learning (TBL) environment is the best way to both make the most of this limited time and to positively change our students’ attitudes towards physics.

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Further Information:

Who is in P131?

Student demographics in P131. The majority are life-science sophomores with kinesiology being the single largest group.
Student demographics from the Spring 2016 semester
  • Life-Science majors in their second and third years
  • Building and Construction Technology (BCT) is the largest non-life-science major
  • Most have completed at least one semester of general chemistry
  • Most (>65%) plan to attend graduate or professional school
  • Over half of the students do not identify as male
  • About half have had some high-school physics

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What are the goals for P131

The goals for P131 are divided into three categories: physics goals, skills goals, and team goals. These goals are defined as “five years from now, when you have forgotten everything, what do I want you to take away from this class?”

  • Physics Goals
    1. Physics is a list of principles and the fundamental ideas that relate them, NOT a list of equations
    2. These principles can be expressed in multiple different ways
    3. Appreciate the value of the problem solving method used by the discipline of physics
    4. Learn how to use fundamental principles to generalize from one specific situation to a class of similar ones
    5. Understand that the physics we study is connected to your everyday experience and the material in your other courses
  • Skills Goals
    1. Understanding measurement
    2. Become proficient with a set of mathematical tools to model the world and solve problems
    3. Learn how to learn technical subjects independently
  • Team Goals
    1. Appreciate that the “solitary genius” image of a scientist which is so pervasive in our
      culture no longer exists (if they ever did)
    2. Appreciate that the work done by a team is usually better than the product of even its
      strongest member

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How is P131 Structured?

As a four-credit course, P131 meets three times a week for 75min each session. However, our P131 course follows a flipped classroom model wherein students are responsible for developing a basic understanding independently before the material is discussed in class. Class time is then spent deepening understanding through application in problem solving and fully integrated lab activities in teams of five. All labs are conducted during the TBL meeting sessions in the TBL classroom. There is no additional lab period.

Following the work in Michaelsen[1], we have divided our course into five units:

  1. Mathematical Tools and Foundational Concepts – Including understanding mean and standard deviation, position/velocity/acceleration, and vector manipulations
  2. Forces – Includes Newton’s Three Laws of Motion as well a survey of different types of forces used in the course such as gravity, normal forces, tension, friction, etc.
  3. Force and – Combines the idea of force with an additional quantity resulting in a survey of impulse, torque, and work
  4. Energy – Develops a unified energy concept spanning the microscopic to the mesoscopic scales
  5. Entropy – Focused on developing a conceptual understanding of entropy in terms of microstates and macrostates.

Each unit, except the first, two to three weeks long. Each unit follows the same general structure shown. Specific details can be found in the course syllabus.

Outside of class preparation
Before first day of unit JITT clarification of key points from preparation in class
First day of unit Individual Quiz
Team Quiz
Approximately 7 days of application activities

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At the Beginning of the Semester – Team Construction

Students are organized into teams of five students. During the Fall 2015 semester, we experimented with teams of three. However, teams of this size had two major problems. First many teams of three did not have sufficient collective brain power to solve the problems of the level of difficulty for which we were striving. Teams of five, however, are sufficiently large that they have sufficient brain power to solve more challenging problems. The second issue with teams of three is that in a team of three the team is critically hindered by a member who is absent. In teams of five meanwhile, the absence of one team member still leaves the team with sufficient brain power to solve the problems and complete the labs successfully.

The teams are formed shortly after the semester begins and remain constant throughout the semester. Constant teams provides sufficient time for the teams to gel and really begin to function as a coherent team. Again following Michaelsen, we do not allow the students to form their own teams. Teams are constructed using the CATME software. Teams were constructed to be heterogeneous in multiple dimensions including gender, race, major, and physics experience. However, in order to limit the potentially negative effects of soloing, teams were constructed to ensure that women were not alone in their teams – a result more easily achieved in an algebra-based class dominated by life-science majors than in a course for say engineering or physics majors.

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Before a Unit Begins

Students are expected to complete work to ensure that they arrive on the first day of the unit with a basic understanding of the concepts. This allows class time to be spent on more difficult problems. In line with the course goal of helping students learn how to learn by reading, most of this preparation is in the form of readings. After the readings, students are expected to complete a homework assignment on MasteringPhysics. This homework assignment is designed as an opportunity for the students to receive formative feedback on their understanding of the readings and involve simple problems, similar to those that would be labeled with “one-dot” in a standard textbook such as Knight or Cutnell and Johnson.

Our readings are a combination of sections from the OpenStax College Physics textbook, the University of Maryland NEXUS Project Wikibook, and other resources. If no appropriate text sources can be found, we make a short video on the topic and post it to the course YouTube page. We are currently in the works using the Creative Commons license nature of these resources to combine these different texts into a single custom UMass-Amherst edition of the OpenStax textbook for roll-out in the Fall 2017 semester. To encourage student to actually complete the readings, as opposed to jumping straight to the problems we use Perusall, a new technology developed by Prof. Mazur. Perusall makes the act of reading a more active and social experience by requiring students to engage with the text through graded annotations.

See the Resource optimization project section for more information on the efforts to improve our free resources.

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On the First Day of a Unit

On the first day of a unit, students arrive and complete a Readiness Assessment Test (RAT). This is an approximately 10 multiple-choice question quiz to see if students have successfully understood the reading and homework. Spring 2017 RAT 3 is an example RAT for Unit 3 – Forces and. Students take this RAT individually. Once everyone on a team is complete, then they take the same RAT as a team on a IF-AT card. This experience provides valuable immediate feedback for students. While they are taking the team portion, students write down what they thought was most difficult on scraps of paper and place them in cups on each table. These comments, as well as the grades on the team portions, are used for some just-in-time lecture on the most difficult topics.

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On Subsequent Days of a Unit

After the RAT day, typical course days of a given unit are used for deepening understanding through a variety of activities discussed below. Of these activities, only laboratory activities are turned in for a grade; everything else is purely formative practice. These are the days where the TBL room really shines. Students work in teams on the whiteboards in the room with immediate feedback from graduate TAs trained through our GTA Training Seminar and undergraduate physics majors in the PHYS 390T program. The number of assistants results in a student:faculty ratio of about 20:1, so students get very immediate feedback on what they are doing.

Solving Multiple-Choice Conceptual Questions

These activities engage students in a think-pair-share technique to solve challenging conceptual questions. An example problem is shown below. Students are instructed to think about the problem on their own first, followed by a round of voting using the ABCD card shown which is based upon the work of Ed Prather at the Center for Astronomy Education. Voting is semi-anonymous (in the TBL room students can see across, but not the entire room) and simultaneous. If there is a spread of decisions, students confer with their team to come to a consensus and then re-vote.

ABCD Voting Card Example Question

A card with A, B, C, and D in different quadrants with different contrasts to allow visibility
Our card is black-and-white so students can more easily print new ones.

An F(t) graph of sin(x)*exp(-x**2). Students are asked which motion could generate this graph: A) A person jumping off a plate and landing B) A person doing a squat C) A person standing up from a squat D) A person going on tip-toe and then doing a squat.
Correct answer: A person standing up from a squat
Solving complex problems such as would be found in a typical end-of-chapter homework set.

For P131, all homework is preparatory; this course does not have required end-of-unit problems. Instead, students develop problem solving skills in class working at the whiteboards in their teams where students can receive immediate feedback from instructors. The whiteboards seem to be critical to developing this skill. There seems to be a different dynamic at the whiteboard. Also, more students can participate on a problem at a board than on a piece of paper. Finally, the whiteboards allow instructors to quickly see which teams are in need of help. In terms of surface characteristics of the problem solving such as structure, students quickly move from novice to more expert problem solvers as can be seen below.

First Newton’s 2nd Law Problem The Fourth Problem: One Week Later

An example of early work
In this problem a ball is suspended from two cables: one horizontally and one at an angle. Note the disorganized work which focuses on surface features

This problem is about a person in an elevator. Notice the much more organized work beginning from first principles.

In P131, the laboratory is completely integrated with the other classroom sessions. Thus, a typical laboratory may be broken up by mini-lectures and other, related, problems and are not restricted to a single class period. The purpose of the labs is to provide a context to develop understanding of specific concepts. We currently have the following laboratories:

  1. Measuring the height of the W.E.B. du Bois Library: Focuses on the nature of measurement and statistical vs. systematic uncertainties.
  2. Drop vs. Launch Simulation: In this lab, students simulate the motion of a ball acting under constant force in a spreadsheet and need to combine real data, simulated results, and theoretical calculations to achieve a result.
  3. Empirical Forces: In this lab, students explore the limitations of the empirical laws for static and kinetic friction.
  4. Jumping on a Force Plate: This lab explores F(t) graphs using a tool that many of our students will use – the force plate. The results are analyzed to understand the complexities of human motion. This lab is currently being revamped.
  5. Fire syringe on a Force Plate: This lab explores the transformation of energy from macroscopic work to the microscopic chemical energy of combustion of cotton. This lab is being developed for first implementation in Fall 2017.
  6. Monte Hall Problem: Students actually play the Monte Hall problem and with both the “stay” and “switch” strategies and learn about statistics
  7. Free Expansion: Coins are used to model the positions of gas molecules in a room to explore the ideas of macrostate and microstate.
Other Activities

A map of different physics concepts with forces at the center to explicitly focus on the connections between ideas. In addition to these activities, students create concept maps like the one shown to explicitly focus on the connections between ideas. Students also will be asked to define physics terms in their own words using the XKCD Simplewriter.

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[1] Larry K. Michaelsen, Arletta Bauman Knight, and L. Dee Fink, Eds., Team Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2004.
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