February 02, 2017 Filed in: Articles
Sara Cormier, Instructional Assistant, McMaster University
The Department of Physics & Astronomy at McMaster University recently redesigned the first-year physics course for the Life Sciences, Physics 1A03. We needed to design a course for a large number (~1800 students per year) who may or may not have taken any physics in high school. For many of these students, Physics 1A03 will be the only university physics course they take. It was essential that we make the course fun and relevant and help instill an appreciation for physics. We needed to create a course that was useful and exciting for students whose predominant interests lie in the life sciences, but also provide enough background physics for those students who may wish to continue in a physics stream. This was a challenge, but September 2016 marked the first anniversary of Physics 1A03 and I think it is now safe to say that we successfully met (or exceeded) our goals.
Physics 1A03 was a complete redesign. For one, the course is blended, which means it has a combination of digital components which students complete independently, and in-class lectures taught by a professor. Traditional university courses have three hours of lectures per week and our past physics courses were no exception. Physics 1A03, however, has only two hours of in-class time with an hour of online content each week, as well as a lab component. Since this online content was new, we had to create it from scratch. This was the fun part. We created 10 online modules, each ~30 minutes. Students typically take an hour or more to work through each. The idea is for students to watch the module for the week, prior to attending class. This way class can be used to review and practice material they have already seen. Here is one example
of a clip from a module.
We also use class time to highlight current research that connects to the physics topics being taught. The modules themselves include worked examples, videos, and lots of “checkpoints” for students to practice and check their understanding. An example of a video we filmed is included above as well as the opening montage from the modules which is included below. Dr. Mike Massa, Dr. Kari Dalnoki-Veress and myself appear in the video and served as the three-person development team for Physics 1A03 along with ample help from the Science Media Lab at McMaster. The narrator in the opening montage is Dr. Mike Massa.
We also created two mascots that appear throughout the modules - Einswine and Physics Girl (see figure). Our mascots help us work through examples and served to create unity between the 10 modules.
One of the goals of blended learning is to open class time to practice and discuss instead of simply lecturing. This can become a challenge when each core section has about 300 students. To encourage collaboration in class we use interactive iclickers for multiple choice questions and encourage students to discuss their answers with their neighbours. We also encourage students who have selected the correct multiple choice answer to teach those around them.
In addition to in-class multiple choice questions, we have included a homework question once a week at the beginning of class. Students are given 6 minutes to answer a calculation based question that is shown on the screen. Each student has slightly different numbers in their calculations based off of their student numbers to discourage any cheating. They hand the question in at the end of the 6 minutes and the assignments are marked by hand by our teaching assistants. The questions themselves are based off practice problems students have already seen. We have included many participation aspects to make the class more involved and to provide further incentive to attending lectures. The in-class homework questions are worth 5% of the final grade and the iclicker questions, which are participation based, are also worth 5% of the final grade. We have also included many demonstrations in class to help create excitement and understanding. We use these demonstrations as discussion points asking the class probing questions such as “what do you predict will happen?” and “why?”.
The lab component is also very collaborative and interactive. There are four traditional physics labs performed in a lab room. The labs are designed to be fun and non-stressful. In groups of two or three, students answer a series of probing questions concerning the experimental setup by taking measurements and making observations. They discuss their findings with a teaching assistant. There are no formal lab reports and no pre-labs. The idea is for the students to see first-hand, through lab experiments, that the physics they learned in class and in the modules, works. If students attend the labs and actively participate, they receive full marks. There is also a take home experiment which is a new addition to first year physics. In groups of two or three, students are asked to create a 5 minute video of a physics experiment and explain the physics behind it. We intentionally leave this open-ended to give students room to be creative. The results have been great. A particularly fun example of a video that was submitted last term is included.
We are thrilled to report that Physics 1A03 is a success. Student evaluations at the end of term are overwhelmingly positive for all aspects of the course and the failure rate is very small (<5%). Feedback obtained from instructor evaluations, although anecdotal, include comments such as:
- “I enjoy the frequent demonstrations and iclickers that helped gage my understanding”
- “I enjoy the labs because it’s not very stressful which creates an environment for learning”
- “The Modules contained all the information that I needed and were relatively easy to get through”
- “I like how each class has demos so that it makes the class interesting and we can observe what we are learning in real life (3D) instead of just looking at a screen”
- “I thought that the module demonstrations were cute and thoughtful.”
- “The labs really helped me understand concepts taught in class and the module videos were very creative and engaging.”
- “The modules are great and easy to follow along. Even though I was new at physics I was able to understand what was going on.”
Despite the large classroom, Physics 1A03 is fun to teach, fun to take, and serves to give students an appreciation for physics.