Remote version of Physics 132 in response to COVID-19

TL;DR: My syllabus addendum for the second half of the semester can be found at this link. For comparison and reference, the original syllabus is at this link. (I hate it when people bury the information you really need behind a bunch of stuff. Recipe websites, I am looking at you! I don’t want your entire life story.)

March 9-13: what a week before spring break! At the beginning of the week, things were very much up in the air. By Wednesday morning the other four colleges in the 5-College Consortium (Amherst, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke, and Smith) had all closed for the semester, with UMass still undecided. Then, mid-day on Wednesday, we found out (via the Boston Globe!) that UMass would be doing remote learning for essentially all undergraduate courses for the two weeks after spring break until April 3. By Friday, it was announced that all courses (including graduate courses) were to go remote until the end of the semester and all faculty were to avoid campus as much as possible.

How to teach a two sections of a team-based learning class with a total enrollment of 458 remotely? Moreover, what about those students who may not have internet off campus, are in time-zones with 11 hour time differences, or now have new additional responsibilities? One of the things you quickly learn about teaching large courses: minimizing special cases is key. You simply cannot deal with each student individually. There are simply not enough hours in the week. You must find systems that work for most people giving you the bandwidth to deal with the individual students who most need your attention.

In my class, the material that can be placed into short videos already has: those videos form my prep homework. Replacing class with a series of video lectures and online homework would rob my students of yet one more community they have; I know for a fact that some of the teams in my course have become quite close. I cannot rob them of that right now.

So how to do this while at the same time acknowledging that many of my students are working under less-than-ideal circumstances? A combination of synchronous and asynchronous delivery modes. There are a few small carrots to attending the synchronous modes, but no punishments for not being able to attend them. This encourages students to attend the synchronous modes if they can, but allows for other options for those who cannot. Finally, I thought a “syllabus” was important, I want to be as clear to my students as I can to try to put their minds at ease.

We will see how this goes.

Pretending to be a biologist for a day!

This past Saturday, Brokk Toggerson participated in the ASBMB Northeast Catalyst Conversations for 2020 at UMass Amherst as a panelist talking about OER. In particular, about the gradual transition from OpenStax to, a stack of pdfs, to the custom books we have now developed. The biggest hurdle to many faculty is, as it was for us, the online homework systems. Our experience with EdFinity seemed well received.

In addition to being on a panel, it was interesting to see some work from the biology DBER community as well. Some interesting ideas over lunch with Sarah G. Prescott, an Associate Professor from UNH Manchester, resulted in some ideas about how to better implement Twitter in the classroom. This was tried in 132 a few years ago, without much success. The students found the assignments to be “busy work” and there were significant technical challenges getting everyone setup. However, the motivation for the assignments, encouraging students to find applications of physics in their everyday lives or fields of study is still important. Prof Prescott’s main ideas were:

  • Make each assignment relevant or don’t do it (obvious but always good advice!)
  • Make the first few assignments simply about engaging with academic Twitter. This will make the entire activity more relevant to them as they can see how this can benefit them.
  • Have screen captures etc. about how to get setup, including how to make a dummy account.
  • Make students turn-in a screen shot. Again, a video on how to do this may be needed, but these are much easier to grade than us finding students’ posts on Twitter!
  • Grade using a mastery model: they must include everything or no points. This is easy to grade and scales well. A few drops ensures that this does not negatively impact anyone’s grade.
  • Finally make the the technical use of Twitter part of the assignments: threads, hashtags, etc.

Definitely something to think about going forward. Always fun to see how other disciplines do things!

Taking the plunge with a new book format and a new homework system for Physics 132

This semester, I have decided to finally take the plunge for migrating the Physics 132 textbook from the pdf generated by the OpenStax CNX platform to a much-easier-to-edit format of Pressbooks and simultaneously moving the online preparatory homework from Pearson’s MasteringPhysics (to which I will not link, search for it if you are interested) to Edfinity. This is quite a journey and a lot of work, but I think it will pay off.

The new book can be seen at It is being built as we go for the current semester, but have a look!

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A new direction for the Physics 132 labs

During the Spring 2019 semester, in addition to several changes in the lecture portion of the course, Paul Bourgeois, David Nguyen, and I continued to make changes to the laboratory portion of Physics 132. Motivated by this article from Physics Today, we decided to make our labs much more focused on teaching fundamental data analysis skills as opposed to physics concepts. We also added structural changes to the lab portion to promote in the students a sense of importance and ownership of what we were trying to teach. In general, I think that these changes were, by the end of the semester, positively received and provide a strong way forward for future lab developments in Physics 131 and other courses within our department.

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Reflections on P132 Spring 2019

The semester is (well) over, the grades are in, and the course evaluations have been returned. Based upon this feedback, I must say that I think the strategy used this past semester to apply the TBL strategy in the large lecture hall of Physics 132 was fairly effective. Our changes to the laboratory curriculum (developed in conjunction with Paul Bourgeois and David Nguyen) also seemed to be positive. This post will focus on the team-based learning aspect of the course in the lecture hall. I will reflect on what I did differently and how it compares to both the previous two semesters’ iterations of the course. I will also consider my other prior experience teaching in large lecture halls. The lab will be dealt with in a later post.

Note: this material has now been replicated on the page describing P132

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