First (Physics) lesson with a new sixth form class

I teach in a school with a sixth form which has an appreciable new intake to study for A levels, who join established students who already know each other well. I think the challenge for the first lesson is to have an engaging lesson, with some interesting material, and simultaneously to encourage students to collaborate and begin to reform as a united class who will work together. I appreciate the need to give a big picture of what we shall be studying, and the admin necessary for resources issue and explanations of expectations. However I also know that students have had a programme of introductory activities and that in every subject they will be hearing similar things. So my approach for many years is to have resources laid out ready, and to move on quickly from their listening to me, to the students working on an unfamiliar task.

What task? In different schools, over several decades, I have shared Physics teaching. And my section has often begun with materials, sensors or kinematics. So here are some ideas that I’ve used which may be adaptable for other subjects:

Materials (a sweet start) :

The way I teach materials was transformed when I taught the Salters Horners Advanced Physics course, when I learned that almost all material properties could be studied via confectionary. Students find it a difficult topic, as there is a great deal of technical descriptive vocabulary, whose meaning is precise within the context of material science, but which contains words that are used less precisely in ordinary life. For example ‘toughness’ refers to the energy required to break a sample, while ‘strength’ refers to the force, and a brittle material like glass may be strong but not tough.

So in the first lesson I give students a glossary sheet, with A Level standard definitions, examples and antonyms. I pair students together, trying to put new students with those who are old hands. This sets a pattern – that I sometimes tell them who is to work with whom, during the year I’d expect to ensure that each student collaborates with each of their classmates in different activities. Each pair is given a dish of mixed sweets (usual precautions about allergies, and cleanliness).

After 15 minutes or so each student must introduce their partner to the rest of the class (name, what they are studying, where they are from, why they are studying Physics), and then each pair describes compares and contrasts their sweets, using as many of the words from the glossary sheet as they can. The rest of the class are encouraged to ask questions for clarification.

This activity has collaboration, communication and critical thinking built in. Next year I plan to extend it with either Lino or Socrative. I’ll ask students to create sentences that show they understand the meaning of the words they have been using. If we use Lino, the sentences can be displayed anonymously, but I’ll have an email telling me who has posted what, in case the students have not quite reached the maturity we’d like in the sixth form.  I can also freeze the IWB display so I can check what’s posted on the computer screen, before showing it to the class. Then students can comment on the sentences to improve or correct them.

Resources: sweets – usually in a clean Petri dish. Contrasting examples might be – plain, milk and white chocolate squares, boiled and jelly sweets, caramels and boiled sweets, liquorice and strawberry laces, fruit and nut versus smooth milk chocolate, gums and boiled sweets… A couple of clean sheets of white paper, students can create a hardness comparison by seeing what sweet scratches what.

Glossary Material Words, follow up multiple choice test, Materials Properties Quick test

Sensors – an intro to useful electric circuits:

The lesson structure is the same as for ‘Materials’, but this time each pair moves to a different sensor device or circuit. The Physics task is to identify what the sensor responds to, and the output it produces. Students are then asked to consider how the sensor might work, and where it might be useful. A large class may have to work in threes – you need time for their presentations.

Examples: Thermocouple connected to digital voltmeter ( junctions labelled), thermistor connected to resistance meter, thermistor connected in potential divider (output to voltmeter), digital ‘tape measure’, dB meter, I use an old birthday card with sensors that enable the opener to ‘blow’ the candles out, pressure sensor, lux meter, light gate connected to timer, GM tube and counter (background count only!).

Follow up to the presentations and discussion could be a photo of each sensor and brief notes, written by the presenters. These could go on a class blog, and students could be required to write a minimum number of comments in a further activity, giving the chance to reinforce ideas of digital etiquette.

Kinematics –average speed:

Again, same lesson structure, but groups of three students each given the challenge to measure the average speed of a trolley down a runway by a different method. If each member of the group takes a separate set of results and then the students look at the spread, they can begin to think about uncertainty and what causes it. It is difficult to manage this in the first lesson, vital to have equipment set up beforehand.

Methods I used last year: In each case, one runway, jack to prop up one end, one dynamics trolley; hand held stop clocks and a metre rule, light gate positioned over centre of runway measuring time for card attached to trolley to pass through, light gates at beginning and end of runway measuring difference in times of interruption, ticker timer and tape, the last group had the linear air track, glider and a more precise timer connected to the light gates.  The aim was not to have a definitive answer between all the groups for the speed, but to appreciate effects such as the card moving through the gate at an angle, the trolley moving down the slope at an angle, decisions about where the distance began and ended i.e. to get a more sophisticated appreciation of causes of uncertainty than most students have during GCSE.

Last year as follow up to the presentations each group produced a poster, with a photograph of the equipment, explanations and results. Perhaps this year I’ll have a class blog space set up in time.

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About lifelonglearner

Teacher in Southern England enthusiastic about exploring ways to learn and teach, and evangelistic about sharing them. Specialism is Physics, but that's just a useful starting point.
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