Hands-on at a distance: Making sense of physics with Jill

Karmela Padavic-Callaghan for Illinois Physics

IPaSS program fellow Jill discusses her commitment to teaching physics through hands-on projects, adjusting to remote instruction and being inspired by Interactive Online Labs developed at the University of Illinois.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon and Jill is having office hours with a student. They are about to hit a breakthrough.

Since Jill, a physics teacher at a public high school in Central Illinois, is conducting her physics class remotely, the student is trying to take a measurement at home. Usually, they would perform it during an in-class laboratory session, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made that impossible. Their approach does not seem to be working, and Jill has to troubleshoot the measurement device at a distance. She says that they managed to figure it out regardless. She is committed to hands-on exploration for her students, even during a global pandemic that has significantly changed the tools available to high school physics teachers like her.

“Usually, I would try to have at least two days of any week where the kids are running the show,” she explains. “Not being able to do that has been really hard.” However, after twenty-five years of teaching, Jill is well-prepared to be creative and try out new tricks and ideas. Students in her class are trying to measure gravitational acceleration with their phones. “I found an app for phones. And so, kids are dropping their phones,” she notes, almost as if there were no other option. Dull or passive classes are just not part of Jill’s philosophy.

Jill’s teaching career started, in part, with her own high school physics teacher. They followed the same path: first a degree in Engineering Physics from Illinois, then teaching. Thinking back on those times, Jill most remembers her own hands-on projects. “I really enjoyed the whole idea of trying to do something with your hands,” she says with a smile, “even though my projects in high school were horrible failures.” The spirit of building, and not being swayed by failure, are now mainstays of her classroom. She maintains a small makerspace in the back of her room so that students can build and tinker when they want to. She also tells her students that they do not have to get every answer correct on their first try. “It’s okay to have to battle through it.” She encourages them to take a stab at problems that seem very difficult. She believes that all students can do physics and that physics can actually be enjoyable.

Part of what has also been enjoyable for Jill as a physics teacher is the collegiality of the physics teacher community. Though she says many districts have only one physics teacher per school, Jill has found that when physics teachers connect with one another, they form a vibrant group full of freely shared ideas. Forming such connections is partly what drew her to the Illinois Physics and Secondary Schools (IPaSS) program.

The program combines the talent, experience and enthusiasm of Illinois’ top high school physics teachers – like Jill – with the research and content expertise of the University of Illinois. Working together, teachers and researchers are aiming to engage Illinois high school students in the highest quality physics experience. Funded by the National Science Foundation, IPaSS’s mission is to open pathways to engineering, help create a vibrant physics teaching community, and identify best practices to support both teachers and students.

“We’re all really good physics teachers” Jill says of her IPaSS cohort “and we are very different in our philosophies and our approaches, which to me is really pretty cool.” As someone who enjoys the creative process of building curriculum, she has found some of these different philosophies and new approaches to learning to be very attractive. IPaSS has, in this way, given her new tools and a new group of dedicated colleagues. Especially with the pandemic, she says she values the materials and support that she may have only wished to have in the past.

Jill during the Solar Eclipse in 2017.
Jill during the Solar Eclipse in 2017.
For Jill, one of the biggest takeaways from IPaSS has been re-imagining the hands-on work and labs that she and her students already value so much. “I have to change the way I think about labs a little,” she acknowledges. “This new perspective is much more about helping students design their own labs, rather than work through a specific lab to get a particular result.” As an IPaSS teaching fellow, Jill has been working on using Interactive Online Labs (IOLabs) more.

IOLabs are wireless devices slightly smaller than a graphing calculator that were developed as part of ongoing research in physics education at the University of Illinois. The iOLab includes over a dozen sensors allowing students to make measurements ranging from force, displacement, and acceleration to magnetic fields and electrical signals, all of which can be used in combination to collect robust data sets. Given the range of quantities the device can measure, and the fact that each sensor rapidly outputs data in the form of a graph that students can then analyze, the iOLab empowers them to take creative risks as they grapple with open-ended lab prompts. In other words, they are an extremely versatile tool that students can use to design and direct their own experimental procedures rather than just following those laid out in a traditional textbook or a lab manual.

Though she recognizes that there are notable differences between high school and college courses, requirements of AP classes and time constraints within students’ daily schedules, for example, Jill is already excited about implementing changes in her labs next year. Inspired by the iOLab model, she wants to make her students see labs as tools for figuring out answers to a particular puzzle, for taking charge of their own explorations and learning, instead of following the same pre-set directions as everyone else.

Solving puzzles about real-world phenomena, making all the different pieces click together, is what excites Jill the most about teaching physics to high school students. “The fun of teaching physics is seeing connections between everything and seeing that you really can make predictions about our world,” she says. Acknowledging that often students are intimidated by the subject, Jill says, “I like when people finally understand something that they thought they could not possibly get.” She recounts an instance when a student in her class got excited about making a connection between studying forces and impulse and archery. Her enthusiasm is palpable even through a computer screen. “For any kid that wants to learn, I am willing to spend a ton of time to help them do it.” She is joyfully resolute. Between her experience, her passion and the tools she has gained through IPaSS, she is bound to continue fostering all sorts of excitement and breakthroughs in her classroom.

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