This semester I’m teaching a First Year Seminar entitled “Hamline Mythbusters.” It’s the second year I’ve done it and I wanted to get some mid-term notes down, using this post to process some of my thoughts about the course and to ask for help on the issues that have crept up.
The syllabus has changed a little from last year but the basic ideas are the same. The students nominate, define, investigate, and film myths. They also write a paper about myths busted by the summer “common read” book. Finally, they prepare a set of screencasts describing a science project they’d like to do next semester if they were to take the first course of our calculus-based general physics sequence.
For the most part, the students are still pretty enthusiastic about the mythbusting portion of the course. Just yesterday we sat and watched the five groups present their youtube videos (3 up now, the other 2 had technical difficulties uploading but we could still watch them in class). The students clearly had a good time making the vids and really enjoyed watching each others’.
Most work days the students knew just what they had to do (ranging from doing voice overs, through going to the hardware store, to getting permission to use golf clubs on the soccer field) and they tended to jump right in.
I’ve only just started reading the 2nd drafts of the paper on the common read book but already I see students responding well to my screencast-based comments. They seem to be getting the difference between a paper about the book and a paper that connects their own beliefs to their experience reading the book.
Also, my “Draft grading” plan is working well for me, once again.
Daily screencast updates
Last year I would show up to class and ask what the groups needed, often because I would invariably not be able to check in with every team before the end of the previous class. This often led to me running around and trying to provide the resources they needed to get something accomplished that day. You know, things like “we need a high speed camera”, “we need to work in the machine shop”, “we need a car to go to Menards” etc.
This year I’ve asked all the teams to stop work with 20 minutes left in the 90 minute class period. At that point they need to produce a screencast for me explaining what they accomplished that day, how the big picture has changed, and, most importantly, what they needed from me the next time. This has really turned out to be great. I know with a couple days notice how many groups need a Vernier kit, which groups need a high speed camera (I have 5 to check out), and who needs a part ordered with expedited delivery. It also gives me a chance to email them and ask for some clarification before the next class period is upon us all.
What could be working better
Learning about how to approach questions in the lab
In this first round, the students attacked the problems with vigor. I’m mostly pleased with the results but I do see opportunities for them to be more organized in their approaches. If you drop a jawbreaker and it breaks, at what height could you drop it from and have it still survive? Is there a difference between dropping it from a height and throwing it up to a height and letting it fall from there? Two magnets seem to be stronger than one, but do their force vs distance curves have the same shape? If keeping a ball low in SocCourt is good, is there a trade off in power/repeatability/accuracy? If heating a golfball seems to travel further, what is a plot of the average distance vs temperature of the ball? If an ultrasonic rangefinder is thwarted with a tilted piece of tin foil, is the same true for a radar gun? How would we even do that?
Some of these questions were asked in the process of making the videos (note how I describe the process – not “in the investigation” but “making of the video”) but, in my opinion, not in organized enough ways. Now, I know I could have forced those questions and directions but I was purposely pretty hands off at this stage. I’m really hoping that our conversations this coming week, as we prepare for the next round, we can find a way to motivate the kind of thoroughness I’m looking for.
Class-wide discussions of the investigations
Over the last few weeks the groups worked separately on their myth, with only 10 minutes in each class period when everyone was together (usually for announcements from our New Student Mentor, our Campus Colleagues, and me). I put in the syllabus that they’d review each others “milestone” screencasts but I really dropped the ball on that. I want to make sure in this next round that they both focus on their own myth but also find ways to help as many people as possible with brainstorming and critiques of approaches.
There are a few policies in the syllabus that I am enforcing either unevenly or in ways that are counter-productive. Here’s an example: If you don’t meet with the Campus Colleague, you fail the course. Basically I just wanted to make sure it happened (along with showing up with a copy of their “personal essay”). Unfortunately, several students missed their meeting times. I sort of over-reacted a little and threatened to kick them out of class before offering the chance for them to make it up. I stand by what I’m having them do to make it up (make another appointment and present a short report to the class to help them with their common-read essay — like “The history of the veil in Muslim culture” and “The history of graphic novels”) but the threat lingered a little longer than I meant it to.
I’m also giving them too much slack in their milestone videos. These are vids they make clarifying their myths and explaining the methodologies for their experimentation. I definitely need to harden up those deadlines so that I can have a more communal conversation about their approaches.
Ok, so this was much longer than I meant it. If you have some thoughts for me to improve, especially if you’ve taught in a Problem-Based Learning environment, I’d appreciate any comments below.