Physics in Context: Linking Physics Instruction with Students' Prior Learning and with their Future Careers

Community college students enter the physics classroom with important skills and knowledge, including both some valid foundations and some undesirable misconceptions. They also bring expectations about the ways they will (or won't) use physics in their careers or in other aspects of their life outside the classroom. Beginning under a major grant from the National Science Foundation's Advanced Technological Education program, the Math-Science-Technology Center (MSTC) at Sinclair Community College has been working:

  1. to align physics instruction more carefully with prior instruction (particularly classes in algebra and trigonometry), and
  2. to incorporate more realistic applications of physics into the physics classroom.

One important technique in these efforts has been the use of "control systems" as a basis for student learning activities in both mathematics and physics. All of our students will have opportunities to use physics and mathematics in their careers, but not necessarily in the same ways that professional physicists and mathematicians practice their trades. Control system activities engage learners in using physics and mathematics to create automated systems. They use calculators and computers in the classroom in much the same way that engineers, medical workers, technicians and others use the embedded computers that control many operations of automobiles, hospital instruments, home appliances and industrial machinery. These control system activities have been in use for over two years with graphing calculators and the CBL. The new generation of computer/calculator interfaces (particularly the LabPro from Vernier Software) is now making it possible to use the same type of control activities with MBL equipment.

"Digital probes" can now be supplemented with "digital doers"--devices that make things happen. During the workshop, participants will "make and take" an inexpensive output devices that can be used with the CBL, CBL2, the LabPro and other interfaces. Participants will return to their institutions with the following items, ready to use:

  1. A "servo-motor" pointer, which turns a flashlight, a mirror, a prism, or other items in the direction specified by the calculator or computer,
  2. A stepper motor, which precisely controls linear position, and
  3. A general-purpose circuit that can be used to control a wide variety of external equipment, including RC cars, Pasco motorized carts, buzzers, fans, etc.

There will also be an opportunity to share and discuss issues relating to teaching physics more effectively, particularly for students enrolled in technician/technology education programs. There will be extensive discussions on how to use various strategies, tools, and tactics to overcome problems and barriers to learning at two-year colleges. Important issues such as standards, assessment, diversity, and technology utilization will be addressed at various points during the workshop. Discussion and information on the needs of the technological workforce and its connection with the activities of this workshop will also be presented.

The workshop leaders have many years of experience in developing and refining curriculum for introductory physics students. In addition, and more importantly, the workshop leaders have had extensive experience with the implementation and adaptation of curriculum in a variety of institutions and for many types of introductory physics students along with the training of faculty in using and developing their own curricula for their technology-oriented students. This workshop is designed for two-year college teachers who are interested in using and developing new authentic learning tasks in introductory physics courses.

Participants will be given the opportunity to visit the Advanced Integrated Manufacturing (AIM) Center at Sinclair Community College. The AIM Center is a National Center of Excellence in the National Science Foundation's Advanced Technological Education Program.