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2017 Meggers Project Award Winners Promote Science Education Efforts

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The William F. and Edith R. Meggers Project Award is a biennial award of up to $25,000 that funds projects aimed at boosting interest in physics and improving the quality of high school physics education. Three proposals were funded in 2017. We follow up with the awardees on their projects.

Promoting high school physics research through international competition

The United States has not had a regular presence in the International Young Physicists’ Tournament, an annual competition where high school physics students work alongside teachers and professors to solve and present their solutions to open-ended physics questions. With his Meggers Project Award for his proposal, “Promoting research experiences in High Schools through the participation to the International Young Physicists Tournament,” Elia Eschenazi, chair of the department of mathematics, physics and statistics at University of the Sciences, worked with high school physics teachers Gerald Jennings and William McWatters to change that.

The tournament consists of 17 research questions that are published a year in advance. The teams are expected to design and run experiments to address the questions and present their findings.

“These problems are involved research questions. They’re not trivial,” said Jennings. “It’s showing students what research looks like at an academic level.”

To determine who represented the United States at the 2018 IYPT in Beijing, the three instructors held a national tournament modeled after the structure of the international competition.

Though only five American students got to attend, the impact was much greater. The team had 35 additional students working behind the scenes to help solve the problems ahead of the tournament, and some high schools worked on the problems independently without entering the competition. Jennings even tied some of the experimental questions into his Advanced Placement Physics classes with 70 students working on them.

The American team didn’t place in the international tournament, but they’re still proud of their work against other teams with much more experience. Some of the teams they competed against had teachers who have been participating for over a decade. The three U.S. teachers feel better prepared for this year’s competition and are planning a camp to train more teachers in the process.

The benefits extend beyond research experience for the students involved. The teachers gained valuable insights into physics research that they can take back to the classroom.

“I learned more in a year of doing this than in any of my college physics. I’m just doing research, and I can turn it around and have it impact my teaching,” said Jennings. “My understanding of physics has increased a lot, and that impacts the accuracy of what I teach and the depth of what I teach.”

McWatters agreed. “We all learned a heck of a lot of physics, that’s for sure.”

Giving hands-on modern physics experience to teachers and students

Building on the objective of giving high school physics teachers and students hands-on research experience, Matthew Perkins Coppola, assistant professor of science education at Purdue University Fort Wayne, and Mark Masters, chair of the department of physics at Purdue University Fort Wayne, used their funds for their proposal, “Physics Festival for Student and Teacher Teams,” to organize a five-day summer workshop, where attendees built and investigated models around four topics in physics -- light as a wave, light as a particle, resonance, and acoustics -- with the end goal of presenting their projects at a regional science fair.

Seven teachers, five high school students, including three girls, and two physics undergraduate students attended the workshop, which followed a “lecture and build” format. The attendees were trained on modern techniques, including 3D printing and Raspberry Pi programming, and learned about all of the topics before splitting off into smaller groups to work on building the experimental apparatuses. During lunch, they had guest speakers discuss their career paths after studying physics.

Behind the scenes, several undergraduate students gained research experience working on the prefabrication of the materials used for some of the projects ahead of the workshop.

One student ended up demonstrating his project at his first science fair competition. He had over 100 visits to his booth, won the regional fair and got to attend the state science fair. Additionally, many of the teachers that attended the workshop have taken the activities back to their own classrooms.

Teaching physics through code

Chris Orban, assistant professor of physics at Ohio State University, Richelle M. Teeling-Smith, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at University of Mount Union and Chris D. Porter, postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State University, were awarded the Meggers Project Award for their proposal, “Bringing the Hour of Code to the High School Physics Classroom.” Their goal was to expand Physics of Video Games, a series of coding activities, which Orban had previously made and tested, and to train high school physics teachers to use these activities and other coding projects in their classrooms. Their method of implementation was multifold and included creating videos to go along with the Physics of Video Games activities by running coding workshops for teachers and running camps and hackathons for students.

Though Orban already had a series of Physics of Video Games activities, a portion of the grant was used to create four more hour-long physics and mathematics-related coding activities. They also created instructional videos to go along with all the coding projects, which feature underrepresented groups in physics.

“We want the diversity on the channel to reflect the diversity of the students watching it,” said Orban. Their YouTube channel, STEM Coding, currently has more than 4,500 subscribers and more than 30,000 views.

Through workshops and camps, Orban and Teeling-Smith have been training teachers on using the coding activities in their classrooms. About 20 teachers attended their workshop at the 2018 American Association of Physics Teachers summer meeting, and they are planning on hosting another workshop at the 2019 meeting. A multiday camp in 2018 had 35 attendees from all over the United States as well as Egypt, and is set to host at least 20 teachers this year. For teachers that wish to take advantage of these resources but cannot attend a workshop, Orban and Teeling-Smith provide online instruction and regularly host video chats.

Many teachers come in with no coding experience but leave realizing that coding can be both fun and applicable.

“It plants the seed and lays the groundwork and allows them later on to have a leg up on implementing coding in their classroom,” said Orban.

Orban is currently in the process of applying for Next Generation Science Standards approval for the coding activities, which will allow for them to be adopted into science curricula in several states without deviating from state standards.

Orban and Teeling-Smith are also involved in summer coding camps at their respective institutions, where they go through the coding activities they developed with students.

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