A Day In The Life of Greg Schwanbeck

A Day In The Life of Greg Schwanbeck

Greg Schwanbeck, an 11th & 12th grade physics teacher, shares his edtech tips.

By Leonard Medlock     Jun 12, 2012

A Day In The Life of Greg Schwanbeck

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!)

PhETs 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.

Case 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?


And 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.

He 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.

On 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.

Alternatively, Mr. Schwanbeck shares materials via Twitter and then solicits questions from the physics-savvy friends and followers that form his personal learning network.

Of 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 their students.

When 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 final.

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.)

He 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.)

The 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.

At 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.

New 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 efficient?

Simple 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)
  • 101qs.com
  • Twitter
  • YouTube
  • Google Apps for Education
  • Engrade
  • Remind101
  • Socrative
  • GatherEducation
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