Ithaca College Quarterly 2004/2 Science Dynamos


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Fusing Peer and Faculty Instruction

At the same time Ithaca College was hiring a practically brand-new department, there was a great deal of emerging research about how physics is taught. "We used to teach by lecturing," says Briotta. "But research shows that unless we make sure that kids get the concepts, all the lecturing in the world won't work. Research led by Eric Mazur at Harvard University shows that kids learn from one another."

Michael "Bodhi" Rogers, hired last August, holds a master's degree in archaeology as well as his physics Ph.D. He is the driving force behind the department's incorporation of what Mazur and others now call peer instruction. At IC, Bob Ross in biology, Joe Miller in chemistry, Dani Novak in mathematics, and physics lecturer Britt Scharringhausen also tested its use this past year.

Rogers explains how it works: "The class is broken up into small groups. The professor begins by asking multiple-choice questions designed to elicit answers showing if there are problems understanding concepts. Students respond with flash cards or electronic transmitters. If most of the students get the right answer, I state the correct answer and move on."

"If there is a mix of answers," he continues, "the students talk to one another; this is the peer instruction part. I then re-poll the class, and if most of the students are right I move on. If the answers are still mixed, I'll give a detailed explanation. In a more traditional lecture approach there is no signal from students when they do not understand; the teacher continues, and students who have problems remain where they lost the thread."

"This approach allows the students to more or less tell you what they need," Rogers says. "The professor is there to help out. We call this student-centered learning the 'guide on the side versus the sage on the stage' technique."

The implementation of peer instruction isn't the only exciting transformation in the way physics is being presented. Faculty member Beth Ellen Clark Joseph, hired in 2001, came up with the idea of holding a series of lectures and conversations, open to the campus and fueled with gourmet coffee and cookies. A recent Physics Café session explored faculty member Bruce Thompson's elephant seismic project -- a collaboration with his daughter, a Cornell graduate student; colleagues at other institutions; and his students, particularly Jamie DeGregory '03, Matrika Battarai '04, and Alex Williamson '05.

"My daughter was working on the elephant listening project," says Thompson, a geophysicist. "Because forest elephants are under the rain forest canopy, the researchers cannot conduct counts by flying over. So they listen to elephant calls and try to analyze the data to determine the size of the herds. I suggested that we also measure the vibrations of their footfalls. One day the researchers saw elephants walking around but noted that their footfalls weren't detected by the geophone I sent with them (which is designed to measure ground vibrations), although the elephants' trumpeting and rumbling calls were. This blew their minds. We wondered if the elephants have a second way of 'hearing' their calls by feeling these ground vibrations through their soft foot pads."

Thompson, who has incorporated some peer instruction techniques in his own classes, occasionally employs a "just-in-time" teaching approach that he thinks is equally effective. "The day before class I e-mail my students questions that focus on the reading. They e-mail their responses, so I can see how prepared they are. It is a good way to get them to read the book and a way for me to judge them." Briotta also uses this technique, developed by Gregor Novak at Indiana University-Purdue University, and like Thompson has adapted and customized it for his own use.

Peer instruction techniques have been a hit with students. As double chemistry-physics major Eric Leipensberger '05 explains, "Fellow students can catch a mistake in logic because they have, 9 times out of 10, made the same mistake. The peer instruction system can show a teacher where the logic is going astray in the minds of the students. That is very helpful because they know what things need to be focused on and approached in a different manner."

Finally, department members are enthusiastic about plans to create performance-based physics classrooms and a hoped-for B.S. degree in physics. (Currently IC offers only a B.A.) The classrooms would use minilabs and interactive computer simulations and add personal response system units and tablet PCs to the peer-instruction question response method. And instituting a bachelor of science degree, explains Keller, would give students hoping to attend graduate school a "less flexible but more comprehensive experience than the bachelor of arts, part of which students design themselves with their faculty advisers."next

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