Energy LOL Diagrams and Skits

My students have been doing research on power plants to study how electricity is generated and to continue taking an energy perspective in analyzing the natural (and unnatural) world.  This week they created energy LOL diagrams to detail the energy transfer process in the power plant.  These diagrams involve an initial bar graph to show the amount and type of energy at the start of a process, a circle where the system is defined and any energy that enters of leaves the system is diagrammed, and a final bar chart to show the amount and type of energy at the end of the process.

I’m amazed at how well the task to create these diagrams forced students to understand the step by step process of their power plant.  At the end of the period, all students were able to explain how their power plant worked with confidence.  In all of my classes there were so many “aha” moments when students recognized patterns and realized they understood how it all worked.

In the following class, students used their energy LOL diagrams to develop and perform skits that detailed the energy transfer process in their power plant.  Students have done energy skits before (Energy Theatre) for simpler problems.  This day went really well because students were just talking to each other about the energy transfer process in their power plants and worked to come up with movements.  I mostly just monitored students and assisted occasionally when needed.  There were several students who got really into it and gave me high fives afterwards.

In one of my classes there were only about 10 students since the older students were taking CST tests.  These students were in four different groups that had different power plants.  For this day, students had to teach the rest of the class their process, then as a whole class they came up with a skit.  They did this for all four power plants, which really drove home the point that spinning turbines were in all of the power plants and many of them used some sort of fuel to create steam to spin those turbines.  It was really fun watching the students work together in the smaller class setting and help create skits for power plants that they haven’t been studying.

At the very end of the day, students wrote down similarities and differences between the skits as a way to reflect and have that information stored in their notebooks to be used at a later date.  Many students said they had fun and I got fantastic videos of each performance.


Right now my physics classes are researching how different types of power plants work.  Each group is responsible for a different type of plant and will make a poster presenting how that plant works, along with the work they have done to explore electromagnetism and create hand generators that utilize Faraday’s Law of Induction.  In addition to learning about how the power plants work, students are looking information on amount of CO2/kilowatt-hour, cost per kilowatt-out, and what percentage of all US power is made by their type of power plant.  This information will help them compare values across all types of power plants. 

They are a little slow at research and anything reading related and have difficulty with overall comprehension.  I’ve done some work with them to help them use subtitles to their advantage and identify key words for the different topics they need to learn.  All of this is helpful and they will be successful in the end, but I worry that their may be too much structure.  I identified the common information for them to find and then they searched for that information.  Being able to find information is an important skill, but I want to help build their ability to figure out what to look for.  Maybe carbon emissions and cost makes sense to me but something else might be more important to them. 

Most of the advice I’ve gotten from mentors about projects is that more structure leads to more success, but if I’m creating the structure then they never learn to create that structure on their own.  I’ve been trying to think back to how/when I learned how to do research and I don’t recall many science classes that included any research projects.  More often, we just focused on the lab side of things and as a result had less real world connections.  Applied physics was just examples here and then, and then my own drive to apply what I learn to the world around me.  Most of that work was never part of the curriculum, but came from random conversations and working with physics/astronomy clubs after school.

I think most of my research ability came from history classes.  From elementary school through high school there were projects where I had to get books to learn about a topic or (later on) search online.  Most of my structure and ability to do large research projects came from my 10th grade World History class where I had to write an 8 page paper on the leadership qualities of a chosen person (I chose Gandhi).  It was this project where I learned a method of writing a sing note on an index card with the source, page number, and a tag from the different sections of my outline.  I learned a process for doing research that I was able to then apply in later history classes and in a few classes in college.  If I had a different teacher, or the teacher didn’t lead us through this process, I might not have any good method for writing a research paper.

While this process was helpful, I still don’t know where I learned how to identify the important information that went on each index card.  It may have just been years of practice.  When I look at my students, many of them cannot identify key information like that from a larger text.  I could teach them the index card method, but it isn’t much good if they don’t know what to write on each card.  Learning from reading is such an important skill that many of my students lack, and we never explored it during any of my education classes.

Agree/Disagree Instead of Right/Wrong

I recently read this article about how work is defined in schools of different economic classes and found many of the observations very interesting (Thanks Byron Philhour for sharing).  While there are many aspects of the article that I found fascinating, I’ve been particularly fixated on one story where a school stopped using the words “right” and “wrong” when discussing student work.  Instead, they guided other students to say that they either agree or disagree with how the student solved the problem.  The teacher reported that by November, all of the students adopted that terminology when describing work.  I really like this idea because it focuses on the process, rather than the result and could lead to more emphasis on the reasoning involved with a problem and may help students to evaluate different methods of solving a problem. 

In my classroom I have the four corners of my room labeled as Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, and Strongly Disagree as a way of having students physically move during a discussion and then share out from their new, like-minded groups.  I’m interested in how this practice can work with the language change for evaluating solutions.  Students could be assigned homework problems to post up around the class and as we go over them, move to the “Agree” or “Disagree” corners and share their reasoning.  I think the physical movement, combined with the sentence starter “I disagree with _____ because…” could help students adopt the new language by being constantly reminded that it is agree/disagree rather than right/wrong. 

I wonder if the movement practice can become a subtle, automatic response during class time.  If a student disagrees with something said by teach/student they could just walk over to that corner and wait for the opportunity to share their disagreement.  It might be a difficult practice to initiate and has the possibility for abuse, but I think it could be a really cool classroom practice. 

Group Responsibility

I’m in the middle of a new project where students are learning about how electricity is generated.  They are working in large groups (5-6) mainly because that how big my tables are.  I would prefer to do this project with groups of 3-4 so there can be a little more accountability for each student but I’m working with what I got. 

Group projects have been a struggle for me because often the work that is completed isn’t exactly equal.  I often did not like them when I was a student because I had members who didn’t pull their weight.  For this project I set up their grades into three categories: Group Grade, Individual Grade, and Peer Grade. 

The project has a checklist of 10 components, which works well with  my 5 person groups.  They get a group grade that is 10 points, one for each component.  Each member is the leader of 2 parts of the project and will receive 2 points per components for an additional 4 points.  Finally, the group members will grade each other at the end of the project and will get the peer-determined fraction of 2 additional points.  I like this set up because each day there is at least one person who is leading a section and had extra motivation to help encourage the group to get their work done, and everyone shares some credit for that day’s work.  If a group has one member who does nothing, the people that complete their work could get 14/16 points (87.5% B).  An A grade required a group to find a way to work together, but if a member doesn’t pull their weight, the rest of the group isn’t hurt that much.  If that member receives a zero for the peer grade, they will get 8/16 (50% F).  I feel like this is a pretty fair system because you can get a high B if you and most members do their work and students who do not complete anything get an F. 

I also like the project aspect because they have a clear idea of everything that must be completed and know exactly how to get any grade.  The days are planned out so it is up to them to finish on time.  While behavior isn’t perfect, many classes are getting a lot of work done because even if individual students don’t care, the rest of their group does.  I’m also interested in other models of group grading, such as getting a lump sum of points as a group and agreeing as a group how to split those points up.  I think the system I have is better when first learning to work as a group because it is clearer who will get how many points.  The lump sum of points system would be a fun way to do future projects once they have a bit of experience.