Mr. Greg Schwanbeck, an 11th & 12th grade physics teacher at Westwood High School in Mass., likes to let his students fiddle with electrical circuits. He hasn’t bought wires or transistors, however. Instead he turns to something called the DC Circuit Construction Kit PhET. Short for Physics Education Technology, these interactive simulations were created at the University of Colorado - Boulder. PhETs run Java applets from a browser. Mr. Schwanbeck loves the fact that you can visualize hidden forces like resistance (in the
aforementioned PhET) -- something not easily accomplished in a physical
HS science lab -- to introduce new topics, reinforce students’
understanding of a concept, offer extra credit assignments or visualize
abstract concepts. Just one look at his Physics course homepage
-- there are too many linked PhETs to list -- and it’s clear that Mr.
Schwanbeck also finds the simulations accurate and scientifically sound.
(The research group has an impressive list of publications, and rigorous design process, incorporating a developer, content specialist, teacher, and education researcher--a truly magic quad!)
represent the bleeding edge for technology use in Mr. Schwanbeck’s
classroom. As a nine-year veteran teacher of physics, earth sciences,
astronomy, and calculus, much of his teaching experience and pedagogy
lie in subject areas that require a hands-on, inquiry-based approach. He
readily admits that a good portion of classroom time is dedicated to
traditional physics lab work and some engineering design. Employing new
technologies for technology’s sake just doesn’t make much sense when you
can use the natural world around you. But conversely, continuing to
rely on classic pedagogical tools when better ones emerge doesn’t make
much sense either, suggests Mr. Schwanbeck, who earned an Ed.M from Harvard’s Technology, Innovation, and Education program.
in point: the textbook. He laments the fact that most textbooks “don’t
include real world problems” in part because they give students “all the
variables needed” to solve a problem. In real life problems, he says,
“you need to figure out what to measure.”
So what game-changing technology does Mr. Schwanbeck use to combat textbook problem sets?
not beautifully edited lectures, or acclaimed snips of Sal Khan -- just
random (but carefully selected) YouTube videos. If this doesn’t make a
ton of sense, that’s in part, because it shouldn’t. Dissecting videos, like this one of a rock being thrown down a 1,500 foot hole,
intensifies a sense of the unknown and forces students to ask questions
and make assumptions around the event at hand; it “lets the kids pitch
the problem” and later after solving it, “reflect on how accurate the
answer is,” observes Mr. Schwanbeck.
feels that this process, even if his class works through only a single
video during its 45-minute class period, is much more effective than a
dozen plug-and-chug textbook problems on the same topics.
the face of it, sharing random videos seems to involve Houdini-like
risks: what if students ask questions you can’t answer? Mr. Schwanbeck
says social media is helping him mitigate that risk. He particularly
likes a clever Q&A site developed by Stanford’s Mr. Dan Meyer, called 101qs.com.
The site lets anyone post an image or video and prompts others to ask
the first question that pops up in their minds. The site aims to tease
out and aggregate inquiry-based problems. Mr. Schwanbeck has posted some
videos and then watches to see what kinds of problems they might prompt
his students to ask.
Mr. Schwanbeck shares materials via Twitter and then solicits questions
from the physics-savvy friends and followers that form his personal
course, these checks don’t guarantee that he is prepared for every
possible scenario combining with his teaching experience, these
technology props give him confidence that he can field many of the
questions students will have about a given video. (You can see a growing list of the videos Mr. Schwanbeck collects here.)
He hopes to create a comprehensive list of in the spirit of 101qs.com
that will allow any teacher to tackle video-based problem solving with
it comes to assessment, Mr. Schwanbeck has yet to buy into the Big Data
craze. With 25 students on average per class, he still relies on
building strong relationships to spot trends, such as students who are
excelling or struggling. “I would hope I can just walk over and say,
‘Hey, are you getting this?’” he says. Formative assessments usually
come in the form of lab reports and test scores, while summative
assessments are determined through traditional pre and post-test
measures -- a combination of state standard exams and his own cumulative
Where he does find value through technology is with Google Forms. All of Westwood High’s classes are managed through Google Apps for Education so
every student has easy access to Google Docs. From time to time, Mr.
Schwanbeck asks students to enter their homework answers in a Google
Form by 11 pm the night before
it’s due. By looking at the form’s summary view, he can easily the
review the distribution of answers, and identify common misconceptions
before diving deeply into the individual problem sets. This speeds up
the feedback cycle as getting the full class results from grading papers
can often take a few days. Armed with information about the problems
that stumped his students, Mr. Schwanbeck can adjust the next day’s
syllabus to revisit old concepts or zoom ahead to new ones.
Mr. Schwanbeck says several administrative tools make managing his classes easier: Engrade helps him share assignments and grades, Remind101 lets him communicate deadlines to students (here’s how), and the occasional Socrative mini-assessment also helps gauge students’ understanding. But he’s most psyched about GatherEducation, a brand-new synchronous virtual classroom education powered by the iPad and Microsoft Kinect. (Full
disclosure: Mr. Schwanbeck has been the primary beta tester for
GatherEducation. At the time of writing, he had received no compensation
for his time and feedback.)
noticed that during test review class periods, only about a third of
the students were fully invested in prepping for the test; the rest of
the students were either sublimely confident or tuned out. To maximize
in-school class time, Mr. Schwanbeck decided to do reviews after
school--in a “virtual classroom” created in GatherEducation.
To do this, Mr. Schwanbeck picked an evening a few days before an exam and shared the review time with students. From
home, students could tune into the review, participate and ask
questions from their virtual desk as he lectures in front of the Kinect. What they saw on their computer screens was his avatar, gesturing and putting up notes just like he did in class. (Here’s a video of how it works.)
biggest draw he says, “is being able to pull from my existing
strengths.” There’s no new pedagogy or training involved, and with the
exception of drawing on an iPad instead of whiteboard, he can mimic his
normal classroom teaching style.
the end of the day, Mr. Schwanbeck still relies on solid pedagogy and
building strong relationships with his students. With the exception of
GatherEducation (which is used outside of the school), all of the
outside technology he incorporates as part of his core physics
instruction is available via web browser and, at least for now,
completely free of charge.
technology needs should be evaluated much in the same way as a new
textbook, he contends: Does it improve teaching and learning? Is it
going to benefit the kids? Does it free up the teacher to focus on other
ways to make student learning better? And does it make things more
questions with tough answers to be sure but all thoroughly addressed in
the technology that Mr. Schwanbeckhas incorporated in his classroom. If
you know of alternative technologies that satisfy these questions, or
are having trouble addressing them in the context of your own science
classroom, drop us a note; or even better, mention us on Twitter (@EdSurge) and include the #DILO hashtag. Let’s have a conversation!
Technologies used by Mr. Greg Schwanbeck:
- DC Circuit Construction Kit PhET (Short for Physics Education Technology)
- Google Apps for Education