Practice Based Curriculum

With CST’s coming soon we have been reviewing content and I’ve been thinking a lot about what we have learned and how we have learned it.  I feel like the way I designed my curriculum focused too much on the “what” and not enough on the “why.”  While many of my students are doing well and have certainly learned a lot, I don’t feel like I’m creating many new scientists.  I feel like we went through the material the way the state standards organize it, which is very similar to a book’s table of contents.  I worry my students may be good at physics, without being that great at science.  Today I felt inspired, and starting coming up with a curriculum plan to focus on basic science skills, with physics being the case study.  I’m thinking about designing a why curriculum, that could apply to any science, and picking physics as my area of interest.  Below is what I came up with over the last 45 minutes or so, with standards referring to California State Standards for Physics.  I think a lot of this is similar to the intent in the ASU Modeling Curriculum that I failed to highlight while I went through it.  The pace is also slowed down and much more emphasis is put on the individual practices.  I would love any and all feedback.

Unit 1: Measuring

Standards: 1a

We see and experience many different things on a given day.  As scientists we try to understand out life better by measuring everything that we experience.  By giving numbers to our experiences, we can compare them, rank them, or plot them on a graph.  Numbers allow us to explore what is going on in our lives and look for ways to predict future events using models.

We will measure everything in our lives.  We will discuss observation and find ways to accurate describe what we observe.  We will rank ourselves as a class.

Observation (relative observations, relative motion, map directions)

Measure distance/height, speed (distance/time)

Make Galileo’s Inclined plane measurements

Recording information (lab notes, data tables, Cornell Notes for research, information organizers)

Unit 2: Modeling


As scientists, we try to make sense of what we observe and measure.  Models take the information that we gather and describe patterns.  When we discover a pattern, we can predict what will happen at a later event.  The ability to predict allows us to make better choices to optimize our desired outcome.

Graph stories

Equation of a line

Constant Velocity Model

Unit 3: Cause and Effect


Standards: 1b, 1d

2 a-g


While it can be useful to understand a pattern and be able to predict the outcome, it can be even more useful to understand the causes for patterns and behavior so that we can manipulate them to our advantage.  Things happen for a reason.  The better we understand that reason, the easier it is to affect the result.

Functions – and lots of equation solving



Unit 4: Communication of Ideas

Science is an ever changing field.  Many scientists work together to gain a better understanding of how the world works.  In order to work together, they have to be able to effectively communicate their ideas.  It can be easy for you to work together in groups because you can talk to each other and show each other what you are observing/manipulating.  It gets difficult when scientists need to communicate their labs to other groups of scientists that are in different rooms/cities/countries.  Communication is very important because you want other people to be able to read a paper and understand what you did and what you discovered.

Lab Reports

Poster Presentations

Classic Case Studies

Asynchronous trans-class labs

Unit 5: When Models Break Down


Standards: 1c, 1e, 1f, 1g, 1k


Sometimes we have a model that works perfectly in some situations, but completely fails in others.  That’s ok.  Our world is complicated, and sometimes we need to re-evaluate our observations and create new experiments.  We need to be able to identify when a model will work and when a situation requires a more complex model.

CV vs Acceleration

Impulse/Momentum vs FBD’s and Newton’s Laws

Energy with friction

Unit 6: Case Study


Standards 1e, 1f, 1g, 1i, 1L

2g, 2h

Over the last few months we have developed ways to explore our world and achieve a better understanding of how things work.  Our goal, in all of this, is to improve our lives and the lives of those we care about.  Before we can make any time of change, we must understand the problem and the principles at work.  Now we will use this process to choose an area of study, as a group, to explore and explain.

Group Project on mechanics case study

Background research (Cornell Notes)

Lab design and execution

Data collection and modeling

Lab report/Poster Presentation

Feedback and reflection


6 thoughts on “Practice Based Curriculum

  1. I really like this idea Andrew! What would you think about adding an engineering task focusing on a problem students identify in their school or community?

    • My idea with the case study part is exactly that. They get to choose to try to understand something in their life that matters to them. I have a few TED talks saved as inspiration for this (there is a great one about a guy in Africa that built a windmill for his home). I need to spend more time thinking about ideas for this to help support the students.

  2. Andrew this is cool. So a first semester plan? Sadly- that’s all I got to all year in physics! I’ve been struggling ths year with convincing my students who struggle with algebra to stick with physics, and this makes for a nice rationale.. I agree an eengineering project would make a good capstone. We are building rockets and students must make multiple representations of their designs (ie fbd, motion maps, algebraic functions and bluprints.) The focus for the engineering unit could be design, prototypes, optimization and communication?

    • I have definitely had a similar experience with struggling algebra students in my physics class. My idea with this is to really slow down the beginning of most curriculum plans and work to build a narrative that focuses on the usefulness of the scientific process.

      I hope that when students go through this and have a question about something in their life, they can then think “Can I measure this? Is there a pattern? How can I predict what will happen next? Can I change what will happen next?” To me, that thought process is what science is all about, and I think it really is useful to be able to understand/predict/change aspects of one’s life.

      I definitely need time to sit and think about what a good project would be and what the engineering process would be and how best to scaffold that. I think the “When Models Break Down” there can be a discussion about optimization and redesign to get more of an engineering aspect to it.

  3. Designing the “what” and ignoring the “why” is something, sadly, that all teachers do at various times in their career. And it’s always bad juju. Authentic learning is always predicated on an understanding of the “why.” When you forget that, be prepared to be reminded…

  4. So I’ve been working more and more on this while geeking out on the NGSS and I think I might look at the second semester as more of an engineering process with a few big key projects. NGSS seems to really support engineering practices and I think it can be more engaging for the students to try to solve a real problem.

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