Explore the World of Physics Outside the Classroom

by Biao Jiang, Assistant Professor
Natural Sciences Department

Physics education is always considered as a challenge due to its complexity in nature. Especially, when it comes to community college, our students need to put more effort to achieve success in learning physics, since they have highly diversified academic backgrounds. In order to encourage student to keep passion in understanding complicated and abstract physics concepts, I adopted many teaching strategies to facilitate the learning process in the last few years, including active learning, group discussion, online discussion, classroom activities and so on. All these methods help student in learning physics theory, however, it seems that none of them shows the real impact of physics theory to student’s real-life. The learning experience could easily create a mirage that the purpose of learning physics is to obtain the 4 course credits. Even worse, when the motivation is distorted, passion of learning will fade away quickly. As a faculty, showing student the impact of physics knowledge to real-life and how could apply knowledge to serve community becomes essential.

I had been searching for the solution since the start of my adjunct career at Hostos until an inspiring conversation with Prof. Francisco Fernandez, chairperson of Natural Sciences Department. Prof. Fernandez designed a course project for his chemistry class, which required student to investigate water condition of Harlem River by applying knowledge they learned in the classroom. In this way, student realizes the value and power of science in real-life practice, knows the importance and impact of chemistry theory. This conversation opened my mind, and allowed me to create a research project outside the classroom to motivate my student in understanding physics theory and principle in-depth. Meanwhile, scientific research done by student could give back to the community in the way of supporting the progress to improve the living environment.

In my designed project, students apply physics knowledge, sound pressure level, learned in general physics II to serve their beloved Bronx community, where most of them grew up, and investigate serious environmental noise pollution situation near noise sensitive areas, for example, community hospital, public school, senior housing and residential home. Reviewing prior research reveals that the side effects of sound disturbances such as trains and urban traffic can have a negative effect on the health of recovering hospital patients, the ability for student to learn, and overall happiness and health of local residents. Student designs the detailed research plan, collects thousands of data, processes data with state of arts computational software, generates research report and offers suggestion to decision maker with solid data support. This unique experience highlights the fact that real change could be made by learning and applying physics knowledge, and then enhance the overall physics learning outcome.

The implementation of the project starts with lecture discussion. The core concept of this outdoor research is sound pressure level, which is used to evaluate the noise pollution condition, is also a key component in General Physics II. During the lecture, in-depth explanation is given through different methods, such as literary review, documentary, classroom demonstration and group discussion. By going through all these classroom activities, student understands the essential elements of this research, and realizes the necessity of implementing this research for the community.

The second part of this course project is lab preparation. General Physics II, which is the motherboard of this classroom research, is equipped with a lab session, and can be ideally used to prepare student to digest the implementation of the research. In the lab, student connects knowledge learned to scientific measurement, and compares words on the book with real-life experience. Several trials are done during the lab session so that student can obtain adequate training and be familiar with the equipment. Once required skills are acquired, student will be confident and believe that achievement can be reached through his/her effort.

Teamwork online and offline is another crucial component of this project. As more than one location will be researched, students will be placed in multiple teams, and each team will be given the chance to lead the research at specific location. Team meeting is required, so that team members can share their plan ideas and discuss plan details. Due to packed class schedule, student may not have enough time to stay together, so CUNY’s Blackboard plays a very important role in teamwork. Online discussion area serves as alternative teamwork space, and allows student to exchange ideas, files, graphs and data.

In order to assess student outcomes, several methods are adopted. One of the methods is a survey of student attitudes to research. A general anonymous survey is given to collect student’s opinion about this classroom research. Survey starts with questions regarding student’s brief personal and academic background. Second part of the survey emphasizes on the comparison of how well the student knows how to use the equipment and software before and after this research. Few other questions are also asked, such as “How did you feel about participating in this research?”, “How engaging was this this research?”, “Does this research address an issue that is important to your community?” and “How relevant do you think this lab is to authentic real-world activities?”. At the end of the survey, student gives suggestions to this classroom research. Another method is including research related questions in quizzes and exams. Student learning outcomes are evaluated based on how well student can answer these questions. This is essential component of the assessment because it can indicate the enhancement of the learning experience by adding the research module. Manuscript preparation and oral presentation are also important in assess student outcomes. Direct student learning outcome is the scientific paper written by student. In the manuscript, student should review noise pollution issue, describe research implementation, interpret numerical data into physical meaning, discuss results and provide recommendation. By evaluating student research paper, student learning outcomes can be fairly assessed. An oral presentation is planned to be held in the last week of the semester. Grade is given based on the presenter’s knowledge of the research and presentation skill.

Thanks for the supports from Prof. Francisco Fernandez, Prof. Yoel Rodriguez and Prof. Nelson Nunez-Rodriguez, I have integrated this project in General Physics II for 2 productive semesters. Although this project covers only one physics concept, student improved most quizzes and exams grade to a large extent. More importantly, student seems motivated and proactive in learning physics. Project team members not only work together to discuss project related issues but also help each other solve difficult practice problems. More and more students devote their time in research, work hard on scientific paper writing, and practice their presentation skills. Three of them presented their work during several school events and participated in state-wide competition for undergraduate research project. Student survey shows that this research project provide student with positive momentum in learning, however, I am still improving the design based on the suggestions provided by student to better facilitate the learning process.


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