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Spring Break and new experiences

Posted by Arjendu on March 30, 2008

It was Spring Break at Carleton, and I took advantage of that to journey through India with a 5-year-old kid in tow. I could write about the trip through a cross-cultural studies perspective, I suppose. The external and cultural differences between the United States and India, even as they shrink every month, every minute practically, remain huge. And yet I find that I am just at home when I step off the plane in either direction. Perhaps it’s because I am never fully at home in either place.

But this trip was far too personal an experience for me to analyze in this forum at the moment. Suffice to say that I am back in circulation, tired but happy for having made the trip. And ready — whether I like it or not — for the new term which starts tomorrow.

I have two unusual experiences ahead of me this term, with regards to teaching. The first: I am trying out something new in my introductory mechanics class, and I’ll blog the results over the next few weeks. This class suffers from the same issues as introductory mechanics did at Rice (where I taught before I came to Carleton) and at almost every other school, I’ll bet, although being at Carleton it is relatively small (the cap is ‘only’ 48 students).

This course has a large and varied population. This variation exists (a) in terms of previous exposure to the material, (c) likewise in terms of interest in continuing in Physics (it is part of the requirement for Chemistry majors and pre-meds but we also recruit our majors in this course), and (c) comfort with mathematics. It is also a fast-paced course with a lot of techniques to be mastered, in principle. At the same time, however, there are relatively few major concepts to be grasped (if not just the one: F= ma)

I taught this course my first 3 years at Carleton, and it was a fundamentally frustrating course in terms of trying to find the right rhythm and pace while trying to accommodate everyone’s preparation, inclination and speed in mastery. One result of my frustration was that I created a course that used Chabay and Sherwood’s ‘Matter and Interactions’ format (with a focus on computation and modeling) to draw away some of the more prepared students — but this was a small group, extra-prepared.

I am teaching the ‘big’ course for the first time in 4 years this Spring, and here is what I intend to do: Some of it will be consistent with what I have tried with success in other, smaller classes: I ask students to read the textbook, email questions to me before class, and then I construct lectures or activities in response to these questions. Students also spend a fair amount of in-class time working on problems together while I circulate between the various groups. This spring, I will do an extreme version of this: Students will be asked to read the textbook and come into class prepared to work on problems. With a class of 48, I will not be able to read and respond to questions from all the students. Also, in my estimation, there are not enough complicated ideas – as opposed to applied techniques – for me to use a lot of class time lecturing. So the focus will be entirely on problem solving, and self-paced mastery. I will be able to provide directed help as needed by the students, and monitor individual learning. This comes at the expense of exposition time, of course, but I am reasonably sure this is a fair trade-off in this class.

I expect this to be somewhat successful, but it is unlikely things will work as well as I would like the first time with this approach. But here goes anyway.

The other new experience will be co-teaching an Interdisciplinary Computational Modeling course with my colleague Cindy, which I will write about more later.


4 Responses to “Spring Break and new experiences”

  1. philosopherP said

    I teach a logic class with similar challenges… I’ve found working problems in class to be the most productive time. I ask students for suggestions for problems to work — which gives them incentive to figure out what they don’t know before they get to class.

    I’ve also come up with a couple of ways to devote more time to those who need more help. I call them ‘optional’ time periods — in which we don’t do any new concepts. Sometimes these are self-selecting groups, other times I base it on a one-problem ‘practice’ quiz. Either way, it lets the students who are very capable know that coming to class other times is necessary and it rewards students who work hard and master the problems.

  2. Chad Orzel said

    What’s your experience with Matter and Interactions been like? I’m starting an intro honors E&M using the book for the first time today, and I’m looking forward to it. I’d be interested in hearing from people who have used the book before, though, if there are any major pitfalls to be avoided.

    I’m with you in worrying about the variance in preparation, though. Most of my class has had mechanics out of M&I volume 1, but two of them tested out, and one other took it a couple of years ago, under a different curriculum. That’s going to be… interesting.

  3. arjendu said

    Thanks PhilsopherP. Asking students for their suggestions for problems has paid off handsomely in the junior level classes for me — I’ll have to think about how it might work here. I have to say the kids were a little startled by the idea: I heard one explain in tones of shocked outrage to someone not in my class that I made them search the textbook for the one problem they couldn’t already do and then assigned that as homework. Quelle horror!

    Chad: I haven’t looked at the E+M volume of M+I so I couldn’t say much about it. I love the basic perspective that Chabay and Sherwood have of building intuition from the ground up. In mechanics I also very much appreciate the fact that they don’t hide behind the math: Usually we just teach those kinematics problems we can solve cleanly analytically (which are fundamentally boring to the students — who cares about projectiles?) but using the computer makes the grand vision of Newton mechanics clear (when you’ve programmed a binary star system or else a 3-body problem your 3rd week of college, you feel you’ve arrived!).

    Ruth and Bruce run very good support email lists ( for their curriculum — you could learn a lot from that group.

  4. […] also blogged about it then, and that’s proving useful notes for me this time: Spring Break and new experiences So far so good Stable and unstable lectures Refusing to throw stones and Almost […]

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