To increase student passion and development in STEM, I have designed and crafted new and innovative enrichment courses in both computer science and high-level physics. This includes an on-ramp course in computer science principles, a second-year computer science course, and a two-year rotation of four semester long physics courses.
One of my greatest loves in teaching is that of challenging students in innovative ways. From that passion, I developed two initiatives to create new opportunities for our students to push themselves in both physics and computer science. While I have personally taught most of the courses involved, the goal has been to create a consistent program that can be taught by other teachers. This year, there are two new teachers involved in teaching computer science courses.
The student reaction to the creation of these programs has been tremendous, especially given that the courses are entirely optional. Having full classes of engaged, motivated students who have bought into the mission of learning for learning’s sake and stoking intellectual curiosity is truly inspiring.
Through this entry, I hope to inspire other teachers to think creatively and flexibly about what it is they are teaching as well as finding ways to give students choice and autonomy in what they learn. This narrative will explain each of the two major programs, and will be followed by some more reflections. Longer form student testimonials are included as a separate document.
Physics Enrichment Program
“I chose to take quantum and nuclear physics because it seemed like the coolest way I could possibly spend the module block. It’s so nice to be able to take a science module in addition to my regular 9th grade physics course”. – Marissa, 9th grade
Our science curriculum starts with a conceptual based physics course that covers basic mechanics and some waves/optics. There was a need to give students who were curious and passionate about physics more opportunities to delve into it.
I was involved in the redesign of our school’s daily schedule, and one of our important additions was a new block in which elective courses could be offered. After two years of piloting elective physics courses in this new block, I started to expand the offerings last year. This sequence is aimed at students who have a passion for science and a strong mathematical background. The goal is to develop advanced problem-solving skills while learning serious physics content.
“The courses have galvanized the enthusiasm and curiosity of my peers and me through these opportunities to explore material in high-level physics and to consequently develop essential life skills, such as critical thinking.” – Ben, 11th grade
2014-2015: Electricity & Magnetism
2016-2017: Electricity & Magnetism – fall
Optics – spring
2017-2018: Quantum & Nuclear Physics – fall
Thermodynamics – spring
“I was quite nervous seeing as I had never really taken a higher-level physics class, but after only one class, I realized there was nothing to be scared about.” – Shayna, 11th grade
After the first few courses had 4 to 6 students, we had 7 students in Optics last spring, and now 17 students in Quantum and Nuclear Physics. This includes students from all grades: the current course has 6 students in 9th grade, 4 in 10th, 6 in 11th, and 1 in 12th. One of the risks involved in such a course was how to manage differentiation for a multi-grade class, which would be important to encourage and inspire the younger students. As the courses have gotten larger, this is an area that can continue to be developed.
College level textbooks and materials, as well as resources from the AP Physics 2 curriculum, have been used in the creation of these courses.
“The difficulty of the module itself has fostered a safe community for learning, because everyone involved is a part of the class by choice.” – Liora, 11th grade
Electricity & Magnetism
Electricity & Magnetism will begin with the study of electrostatics: electric charge and electric fields. It then looks at electric potential, energy, and capacitance, followed by a study of electric current and circuits. Finally, it will look at magnetic fields, induction, and Faraday’s laws.
Optics will study the ray model of light in detail, the formation of images, refraction, and lenses. It will look at Huygen’s principle, diffraction, interference, and spectroscopy. Optical instruments including cameras, the human eye, telescopes, and compound microscopes will be studied.
Thermodynamics extends the understanding of the atomic theory of matter, the gas laws, and kinetic theory. The course will look at heat and energy transfer, specific heat, latent heat, and heat transfer. It will study the laws of thermodynamics, heat engines, and entropy theory.
Quantum & Nuclear
Quantum & Nuclear will study the special theory of relativity, the early quantum theory, and basic quantum mechanics. It will also look at nuclear physics including radioactivity, half-life, nuclear reactions and fission, and how nuclear reactors work.
Computer Science Curriculum
“The Computer Science II course has been one of my favorite classes in my time at Gann because it challenges me in ways that no other course has… The exciting challenge that Computer Science II has been helped cement my decision to major in Computer Science next year in college.” – Jacob, 12th grade
After teaching a computer science course here for the past 9 years, following the AP Computer Science curriculum, I saw a need to expand our offerings. Students were coming in to Gann with a lot more comfort at basic computer literacy, including things like installing software on their own. Our robotics team has students learning basic programming for the First Tech Challenge. And finally, many students were learning independently through programs like Codecademy. Many of the student who had taken my course have gone on to become computer science majors and software engineers. This new computer science program will dovetail into our broader school plans for an innovative open campus.
“I was initially interested in computer science because I heard that it was the “future”, but I did not really understand why. However, after my first few months of taking CS1 I can say that I am just beginning to understand how much is possible with coding.” – Emma, 10th grade
I proposed a new set of elective courses for this school year:
Principles of Computer Science
This is an introduction to the central ideas of computer science for students who have no exposure to the field. The course will focus on creativity and innovation in developing computational products as well as developing computational thinking that can be used in all disciplines. It will also study the impact that computing has had on people and society and look at the ethical impact of these technologies.
Computer Science 1
In this intensive course, students will learn computer programming and the art of program design. The course covers the fundamentals of computer science using the programming language Java. Students will first learn the basics of Java syntax, then move on to study iteration, arrays, recursion, object-oriented programming, and sorting and searching algorithms. Students will be prepared to take the AP Computer Science A exam in the spring.
Computer Science 2
This course follows up on the CS II course by broadening exposure to the field in two areas. They will begin by learning functional programming using the language OCaml as an alternative to object-oriented programming. The second half of the course will focus on an introduction to computer organization, systems programming, and circuit design. This will culminate in the design of their own pipelined RISC processor.
We offered these to all grades, and were very surprised that the signups represented about a quarter of the returning students – 53 students! These students have all chosen to take these courses as electives beyond their normal course requirements. We ended up having to run two sections of the new Computer Science 1 course. Those sections have 17 non-seniors, so we will have a large group progressing to Computer Science 2 next year. The 8 students currently in Computer Science 2 are operating at a very high level, doing large college level programming projects with a significant amount of independence. The Principles and CS1 sections are being taught by two new hires, one of whom manages the robotics team and one of who is chairing the new department that has been created because of this work: Department of Computing, Design, and Fabrication.
Overall Teacher Reflections
Many aspects of designing and teaching these courses has involved re-learning topics such as thermodynamics, and learning new subjects or technical skills such as atomic physics or programming in OCaml. One important impact on students has been for them to see myself and the other teachers who have taught these courses as lifelong learners who are willing to be on a journey with them as contrasted with the model of “teacher as complete expert”.
An important part of my teaching philosophy that I try to live out in my work in my leadership capacities as well as in my teaching is being willing to challenge students. At times this has meant taking risks that can fail, places where teaching stumbles on how to get new concepts across, how to run new laboratory experiences, or how to manage new, large programming projects. Students consistently amaze and impress when given opportunities with no “expectation ceiling”.
When all this work is done in the context of a collaborative learning environment where students know they can trust the teacher, the risks feel much less like risks and more like exciting new challenges. When students see a teacher who is flexible, nurturing, and a lifelong learner, they mirror those qualities back.
The biggest factor that has impacted the students who have taken these courses is centered around notions of student choice and autonomy. When students choose to study in an area of passion, they come to the experience ready to lean in and be passionate about the work. I remember the first parent-teacher conferences I had when I taught Electricity & Magnetism for the first time. The parents universally reported that this was the one class their child talked about at home by a large amount. I attribute that to the way people experience things in life that are things they chose to be a part of compared to those that are mandatory.
In upcoming years, I look forward to continuing to develop these programs to improve their richness as well as the ways they differentiate for students with different levels of skill and experience. There will also be a need to design a systematic way to manage independent studies for students who take all of the courses in either sequence before their senior year.
In conclusion, I hope that people who read this proposal find themselves inspired about finding ways to help students explore their passions, whether it is in a STEM field or not. The excitement and deeper learning that results should be an important part of any educational experience.
Chris has been a teacher at Gann Academy for 10 years. He has been the Chair of Mathematics for 8 years and served as the Chair of Science for 2 years. He has taught everything from Algebra 1 through AP Calculus BC, computer science, and senior physics. His love of student intellectual curiosity in the sciences is only matched by his love of board games.