Physics class at Ellis shows active learning's potential

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Ellis School physics teacher Sam Rauhala knew his ninth-graders understood physics better last school year as he increased the amount of active learning and decreased the amount of lecturing.

Now the school’s research findings point in the same direction.

In a study released today, Ellis found that more students believed that “learning physics will help me understand situations in my everyday life” after the class than before it, an increase from 58 percent to 75 percent.

While there was no control group for the study, Adam Leibovich, associate chair of the astronomy and physics department at the University of Pittsburgh, said the figure usually goes down when a college student takes an introductory physics course for nonmajors. The Ellis results are “unbelievably good,” said Mr. Leibovish, who worked with Ellis on the study.

The study indicated other attitude changes showing a deeper learning as well. Before the class, 39 percent disagreed with the statement that they “do not expect to understand equations in an intuitive sense; they just have to be taken as givens." After the class, 64 percent disagreed.

The changes are part of the school’s Active Classrooms for Girls project, funded by $50,000 from the Edward E. Ford Foundation and an equal amount from the Ellis Board of Trustees.

The physics classroom used to have rows of desks in the middle and lab benches around the perimeter. Instead, it now has several islands of circular tables, each with a touchscreen computer and the relevant physical apparatus, and chairs on wheels.

Mr. Rauhala used to spend about 80 percent of the required class at the board giving notes, solving problems and fielding questions, with 20 percent of the time in group work and lab. He has worked to switch those percentages, including having students review their homework in small groups.

Instead of giving a paper problem, such as asking when two trains leaving two places traveling a certain speed would intersect, he had the students predict what would happen and then engage them in finding a solution using constant velocity buggies, which are toy cars that run at a set speed. 

Or, when Mr. Rauhala wanted the students to learn about optics, they worked with several lenses on a meter-long device, experimenting as to which combination of lenses and distances would produce a telescope.

“They went in the span of a period from going through the motions to taking solid ownership of it,” he said.

With the round tables, there is no traditional back of the classroom in which to hide. “Even my weakest students academically were still throughout the entire year engaging with the material,” he said.

Lisa Abel-Palmieri, Ellis director of innovation, said that active learning has been added to other STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — classes as well. She said students are so engaged in the introduction to engineering design class that they sometimes have to be encouraged to stop and go to the next class.

Ellis officials believe the impact is being seen in other ways as well. Ms. Abel-Palmieri said only a few girls used to sign up for computer science, but this fall 19 registered for the class.

From the active learning experiences, Ms. Abel-Palmieri said, “They’re more willing to try something new in the STEM area. They’re more willing to take a risk.”


Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

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