Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Workshop Physics Overview

21st Century Pedagogies

Dickinson College

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What is workshop physics?

Workshop Physics is a new method of teaching calculus-based introductory physics without formal lectures. Instead students learn collaboratively through activities and observations. Observations are enhanced with computer tools for the collection, graphical display, analysis and modeling of real data. Typical Workshop Physics classes meet for three two-hour long sessions each week and students use an Activity Guide published by John Wiley & Sons.

The Workshop Physics Project

The Workshop Physics project at Dickinson College represents an attempt to redesign the teaching methods in introductory physics courses to take advantage of recent findings in physics education research and introduce students to the use of modern computer tools. In the past 15 years, the program has received major grants from the US. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation for curriculum development, equipment acquisition, and the conduct of teacher workshops. A number of observations and assumptions have guided the development of workshop physics.

Reducing Content and Emphasizing the Process of Scientific Inquiry

In developing Workshop Physics we assumed that the acquisition of transferable skills of scientific inquiry are more important than either problem solving or the comprehensive transmission of descriptive knowledge about the enterprise of physics. There were two major reasons for the emphasis on inquiry skills based on real experience. First, the majority of students enrolled in introductory physics at both the high school and college level do not have sufficient concrete experience with everyday phenomena to comprehend the mathematical representations of them traditionally presented in these courses. The processes of observing phenomena, analyzing data, and developing verbal and mathematical models to explain observations afford students an opportunity to relate concrete experience to scientific explanation. A second equally important reason for emphasizing the development of transferable skills is that, when confronted with the task of acquiring an overwhelming body of knowledge, the only viable strategy is to learn some things thoroughly and acquire methods for independent investigation to be implemented as needed. This follows the adage "less is more."

Emphasis on Directly Observable Phenomena

The guiding principle for retaining topics in introductory physics is that they be amenable to direct observation and that the mathematical and reasoning skills needed to analyze observations be applicable to many other areas of inquiry. In choosing topics emphasis is placed on the development of operational definitions and empirical relationships prior to the introduction of formal definitions and theoretical relationships.

Eliminating Formal Lectures

Although lectures and demonstrations are useful alternatives to reading for transmitting information and teaching specific skills, they are unproved as vehicles for helping students learn how to think, conduct scientific inquiry, or acquire real experience with natural phenomena. In fact, many educators believe that peers are often more helpful than instructors in facilitating original thinking and problem solving on the part of students. The time now spent by students passively listening to lectures is better spent in direct inquiry and discussion with peers. The role of the instructor is to help create the learning environment, lead discussions, and engage in Socratic dialogue with students.

Using the Computer as a Flexible Tool

Computers, when used as flexible tools in the hands of students for the collection, analysis and graphical display of data, can accelerate the rate at which students can acquire data, abstract, and generalize from real experience with natural phenomena through analytic modeling. Three computer tools are used often in Workshop Physics: spreadsheets, Computer Assisted Data Acquisition Software/Hardware, and Video Analysis & Capture . The digital computer is an essential tool for any inquiry based learning experience in physics because it has become the most universal tool of inquiry in scientific research. The computer has had a profound effect on the nature and scope of physics research. However, even computer-aided inquiry takes time, and we believe that students cannot engage in the process of guided inquiry and direct observation, even armed with computers, and still "cover" the amount of material normally introduced in an introductory physics course sequence.

Course Materials and Organization

All the introductory physics have been taught in a Workshop format at Dickinson College since the 1987-88 academic year. Students meet in three two hour sessions each week. There are no formal lectures. The course content has been reduced by about 15% percent. Each section has one instructor, two undergraduate teaching assistants and up to twenty-four students. Each pair of students shares the use of a microcomputer and an extensive collection of scientific apparatus and other gadgets. Among other things, students pitch baseballs, whack bowling balls with rubber hammers, pull objects up inclined planes, attempt pirouettes, build electronic circuits, explore electrical unknowns, ignite paper with compressed gas and devise engine cycles using rubber bands. The Workshop labs are staffed during evening and weekend hours with undergraduate teaching assistants.

The material has been broken up into units lasting about one week and students use an Activity Guide which has expositions, questions, and instructions as well as blank spaces for student data, calculations, and reflections. The Activity Guide can be used with a standard calculus-based textbook. Currently we are using a new text entitled Understanding Physics by Cummings, Laws, Redish and Cooney. In general the four part learning sequence described by cognitive psychologist David Kolb is emphasized. Students often begin a week with an examination of their own preconceptions and then make qualitative observations. After some reflection and discussion, the instructor helps with the development of definitions and mathematical theories. The week usually ends with quantitative experimentation focused on the verification of mathematical theories.

Summary and Conclusions

Although computers play a vital role in Workshop Physics courses, the central focus of the program is on direct experience. Thus, we'd like to think our activity-centered program could survive without computers. Nevertheless, the availability of a relatively high performance microcomputer for every pair of students has significantly enhanced our program. Although, we are constantly striving to use computer tools to their full potential, it seems that every time we design a better approach another new computer technology beckons. However, the majority of our students state that they enjoy being more active and acquiring transferable computer skills. The results of tests on student mastery of difficult concepts in mechanics, heat and temperature, and circuits show statistically significant gains over those of our pre-Workshop Physics students. In spite of these learning gains, there is still room for improvement in both the curricular materials and the computer tools. As we expand and refine our program, we are combining our efforts with those of David Sokoloff at the University of Oregon, who directs the RealTime Physics project, and Ronald Thornton at Tufts University, who directs the Tools for Scientific Thinking Project. Individuals at these institutions are collaborating in the development and testing of new computer tools and curricular materials to promote active learning in introductory physics courses.