ScienceWise - Nov/Dec 2007

Science for science teachers

Professional development workshops for science teachers at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science

For more than a decade, the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, CPAS have been running a variety of public lectures, science shows and workshops aimed at bringing science to a wider audience, and helping others to do the same. Professor Sue Stocklmayer explains “Our mission is to foster an awareness of and an enthusiasm for Science throughout the community.” Science teachers are one group of people already actively involved in doing just that, because teaching science is about more than just facts, its about instilling a passion for science in the minds of students. And of course it’s those very students that will become the much needed scientists of the future.”

As a result of workshops specially developed for teachers in Queensland, the CPAS team has recently gone on to explore the idea of a series of workshops on specific physics topics. Based on feedback from teachers, the two areas of most interest were forces and fields, and these have formed the focus of the current workshops.

The underlying philosophy of the workshops is to help teachers to create fun and interesting classroom experiments and teaching methods that foster in their students a deep understanding of phenomena, rather than a just knowledge of the formulae. The workshops aim to be curriculum focused, covering material central to the understanding of the underlying ideas of forces and fields. The associated experiments require only commonly available materials and are designed to be thought provoking to students, yet easily achievable in a classroom situation. For example, when short strands of hair are suspended in baby oil and the bottle is brought near an electrostatically charged party balloon the hairs all line up – but why? What is it about the electrical and mechanical properties of the various objects that cause this effect?

The workshops have a special emphasis on common misconceptions, such as the frequent confusion that often surrounds the application of Newton’s third law - For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If a fly hits the windscreen of a truck, which one experiences the greatest force? From the fly’s perspective it certainly may not look like it, but in fact the force on each is exactly the same. And what is the exact difference between action-reaction force pairs and sums of forces on bodies?

Imagine that two people are pulling a rope that supports a stationary weight in the middle. Would Fred have to pull harder if the rope is attached to a wall than if Jane is pulling on the other end? The surprising answer “no” comes from action-reaction pair analysis. The rope tension that supports the anvil is created by an equal and opposite action-reaction pair and is the same regardless of whether the far end of the rope is held by Jane or the wall.

But why do students often make the wrong intuitive choice in situations like this? Most probably because they imagine a situation where the anvil is being lifted upwards. In this case the answer is different, because the anvil is moving. Whilst the wall can apply force, it doesn’t move and therefore can’t do any work. The energy to raise the anvil against gravity must come from the people pulling and if there is only one person, they have to work twice as hard.

In a similar way, the Fields Workshop explores the nature of fields and their commonalities whether they are sporting fields or the gravity, electrical and magnetic fields found in physics. Thinking in terms of fields is shown to be a powerful way of getting a deep understanding of the way in which electric circuits, motors and generators work.

Both workshops focus on the best way to teach strategies for breaking down problems to their basic conceptual components. Obviously at the end of the day formulae and mathematics do need to be applied, but if the students have a really good intuitive understanding of phenomena, they are far better able to set up an appropriate mathematical framework – which in turn will serve them well as they tackle the problems they may one day encounter as professional scientists.

The CPAS workshops are conducted in collaboration with the ANU Physics department and enquiries are welcomed from interested teachers throughout Australia. For further details please contact Professor Sue Stocklmayer

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