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.

Creating versus Solving

My school just got back from Spring Break and I planned a lesson to review some of the practices from before break while also starting to push forward so that students can begin their house wiring project.  I honestly didn’t think this lesson was that spectacular.  It was mostly students analyzing circuits and then creating their own circuits with specific objectives.  I think I have a worry about just doing worksheets that whenever they spend too much time solving something on paper I feel like I might not be doing enough or I am missing a chance to be more innovative.  The experience today helped me see that not all worksheets are the same and they can be solving something on paper for a large portion of the class and still be productive and engaged. 

I first started them off with a review type page.  I handed them a paper with 2 circuits on it and they followed their practice of highlighting the wire with max voltage (the total voltage of the battery/source) in one color and zero voltage in another color.  In some circuits, there are wires that aren’t highlighted because they aren’t at max voltage or zero (the wire between lights in series).  I was happy that they didn’t forget too much over the break and were able to easily solve this problem.  After working for a bit I had two people come up to the board to solve them and selected students either agreed with their solution or proposed a change.


“Do Now” circuit. Lights connected by wires.

After this we moved to a worksheet that had four rooms with lights wired along the walls.  This was the first time we looked at wires inside rooms so I wanted to slowly introduce the idea.  The circuits were no different from ones we did in the past, except that they were “fitted” along a square.  As I introduced this worksheet, I mentioned that we don’t see the wires in this room.  The wires are all hidden inside the walls and we are able to access them through outlets.  While the circuits do not behave differently, they have a very different look to them.  In the future, I think I will make the walls dashed lines so that it is easier to tell the difference between walls and wire.  Students once again highlighted max voltage and zero voltage.  They also had to label each light bulb as bright or dim.  Since we will be using a different type of light bulb for this project, I changed the design of the light bulb on paper to match and make the transition easier.  It took a bit of work for students to transition to this style of circuit drawing but they soon figured it out.


One of four rooms. Lights and wires are organized along the walls.

The final task was to draw four rooms and draw the battery, wires, and light bulbs for each room.  They had specific guidelines for the rooms: one room had 2 bright lights, one room had 2 dim lights, one room have 1 bright light and 2 dim lights, and one room had 3 lights and a short circuit (to practice noticing what that looks like so that it doesn’t happen on their projects). 

This was a difficult task for many students.  I realized that no matter how crazy I make a problem, they can analyze it and work through a solution.  Even if they get it wrong or make a mistake, they have a method for attacking the problem and can try it.  It is much more difficult to design and create something.  Even just copying a basic design and changing it slightly to match the new guidelines can be very difficult.  Thinking back on this year, I realize I’ve done a lot more tasks that involve students creating something rather than just solving a problem.  I’ve been requiring my students to find ways to apply their knowledge to new ideas and new tasks where they turn a blank page into something.  Last year, almost all of my work was solving an existing problem.  While it is more difficult, I think it is incredibly valuable.  Instead of doing a specific problem that may have one right answer, students find a single answer from many options that satisfies the problem.  There is a greater chance for creativity and they can just follow steps.

I’m looking forward to the final house projects.  Students will all have different floor plans and can come up with creative solutions to make the types of lights that I require.  They can help each other, but since each house is different, they can just copy.  We came up with useful wire templates, but it will be up to them to make it work for their houses.

Straws, M&M’s, and Resources

My last lesson this week was a short one (60 min classes instead of 85) and I wanted to make it especially engaging as the week ended and spring break started.  I’ve gotten away from the practice of giving a test right before a break, partly because I’m worried that after 2-3 other tests the students might be tested out and not perform as well, and partly because that means I don’t get to enjoy my break because I have to do a lot of grading.  I decided a very kinesthetic lesson (with some written reflection) would be a good way to wrap up the week and candy only makes that better.

We started with straws to get a new lens on resistance in circuits.  Students were first asked to take a deep breath and exhale through their mouth.  Following this, the took a break and exhaled through a single straw.  Easier or more difficult?  Students all agreed that the straw made it more difficult.  They gave reasons about it being skinny or narrow.  I connected this to the narrow filament of a light bulb (we did a TPR activity around this in an earlier class) to see that it is more difficult for air to move through a narrow tube, just as it is more difficult for electrons to move through a narrow wire. 

Next, we exhaled through three straws at once.  These straws were placed side by side.  Students alternated between exhaling through one straw and three straws.  Which is easier?  Three straws allowed more room for air to leave.  There were different paths the air could take.  It was noticeably easier.  We connected this to the parallel circuit, where there are multiple paths for the electrons to travel through.  Each new straw (or resistor) reduces the difficulty (resistance).  There was a diagram on the board as a reference.  The straws were parallel to each other (assuming they didn’t get bent), and they allowed for multiple paths of air.  The light bulbs on the board were along wires that were parallel to each other and had three different paths.

Finally we had to look at a series circuit.  The three straws were connected to make one big straw.  This was more difficult than any of the previous configurations.  Students said there was more narrowness.  Some connected more straws to make it even longer.  The series circuit is more difficult for electrons to travel through.  Light bulbs are along one path of wire, one after another.  The straws make one path for air and straws are connected, one after another.  Adding more straws (resistors/light bulbs) makes it even more difficult for air (electrons) to go through.

I really liked how easy this activity was and how obvious the result was.  Every student could engage in the activity.  They now had a physical experience to connect to resistance in different configurations and added pictures of the circuits and the straw version of the circuit with some notes.  Following this, students wrote a paragraph explaining the activity and what it teaches us about circuits and current. 

After this, we did another activity with manipulatives.  Students moved M&M’s (electrons) through different circuit diagrams.  They moved in turns and counted how many M&M’s went through a light bulb each turn.  The rule: The voltage drop across the light bulb is the amount of M&M’s that move through it each turn.  After 10 turns they totaled the number of M&M’s that passed through each light bulb and compared numbers to what they knew (from previous tasks) were the relative brightnesses.  This activity was hands on, gave a reason for the brightnesses (with a model that could be applied in the futures) and helped illustrate that M&M’s (electrons) are spread out on the wire, not stored in the battery awaiting release. 

I found the straw activity in some Modeling resources that I had saved on my Dropbox.  I came up with the M&M activity on my own.  I’d recommend both for classes to continue to develop a conceptual understanding of circuits.  What I really want is a good source of great activities for exploring physics.  There is some much information on the web that it is hard to find these activities when you need them.  I shared the straws activity with some people in my fellowship, but I want more activities that are simple and very effective like this one was.  I’d love to have a bank of engaging, easy-access activities to use for all topics.

Fun with Play-Doh

The past two days we started to look at series and parallel circuits through a guided lab that uses Play-Doh instead of wires.  Play-Doh conducts electricity because of the high salt content.  Just the idea that Play-Doh can carry a current engaged many students.  Some didn’t believe it would work, others were just amazed. 

The students worked through 5 circuits, following pictures to easily make the circuit, then writing down observations on the light bulbs in the circuit.  They find that the light bulbs only light up if they bridge a gap in the Play-Doh wire (ie, there is no short).  They learn that two lights in series aren’t very bright, but are then surprised when the two lights in parallel are both bright.  Play-Doh allows shorts to easily be created by just taking another Play-Doh wire and tapping both sides of the light bulb.  This was perhaps the richest part of the experience.  Students had to reason why adding the alternative Play-Doh path turned the light off. 

Overall I really like this lab because students can work through them at their own pace easily.  Doing the task is simple, they just follow pictures.  Writing observations is simple, they just write if the light is bright, dim, or off.  Reasoning all of this is complex.  For the reasoning they need to think like a scientist.  I think the relative ease of completing the initial task helps students build momentum and confidence for the more difficult reasoning.  Also, from the other circuits work, it seems like they enjoy puzzles and wondering.  This activity is fun and they care about the answer because the lights turn on and off right in front of them without any kind of switch.  It’s almost like magic.

In particular I’m happy with the progress of one student in this activity.  I’ve had a student that shut down in all of his classes and just didn’t care about doing work, passing classes, or graduating.  He’s a bright kid and used to ask many questions.  He’s interested in science, and once taught the rest of his table the difference between a black hole and a worm hole.  Recently I haven’t been able to get him to do any work, even with the recent engineering a bridge project.  When the Play-Doh came out he was interested that it conducted electricity and helped make the circuits.  I’m hoping I can continue to engage him in this topic through these hands on, puzzle-like tasks.