TTU Takes Part in National Teaching Experiment

Tennessee Technological University and Cookeville High School have joined together to take part in a national experiment that may affect how teachers around the country do their jobs.

The CPU Project -- Constructing Physics Understanding in a Computer-Supported Learning Environment -- focuses on physics and combines new computer technology with a new method of teaching called "constructivism." The core of the constructivist approach is that "students are not blank slates on which you can write the laws of science," as Stephen Robinson, Tennessee Tech physics professor, puts it.

The project pairs university professors with middle and high school teachers in their area to test a computer program that uses the new teaching technique. Robinson is working with Steve Glover and Barbara Huddleston at Cookeville High School. They are one of 24 teams in 18 states taking part in the project, which is sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation and administered by the Center for Research in Math and Science at San Diego State University.

Robinson, Glover and Huddleston traveled to San Diego this summer for a three week conference about the CPU Project. They and the other teams will test out the computer programs and teaching methods in their classrooms throughout the year and return to San Diego next summer to share their results. After that, the teams will run workshops for teachers in their area demonstrating the CPU methods.

Robinson and Glover have already used the new materials to teach a physics workshop to high school girls participating in the summer session of the Cumberland Career Equity Program at Tennessee Tech. "We got a very enthusiastic response from the students," says Robinson.

The computer program contains several physics topics -- for example, current electricity -- and allows students to carry out experiments and proceed at their own pace. One fundamental difference between the constructivist approach and that of traditional lecture and laboratory classes is that the former encourages students to analyze what they already believe about the topic -- for example, what they think will happen during an experiment -- even if it's wrong. Only by progressing through an experiment and proving yourself wrong can you change your beliefs, the thinking goes.

Robinson explains, "Studies show that students learn to please instructors and answer exam questions without really understanding the lesson. If ever faced with a new situation, they'll go back to their old ideas, because those are the ones they've built up over the course of a lifetime."

Robinson offers an example based on mixing colored lights. He asks what color one would expect to see if he shined a red light and a green light on the wall and the colors overlapped? Most people would guess purple, but the answer is white. Immediately, one's understanding of color is challenged. Colored light is different from color paints or crayons, and so the results are different.

The computer program that is a central part of the project allows students to work in small groups, making discoveries, developing theories and sharing them with others, with the computer providing help moving forward. Robinson describes this as the next best thing to a one-on-one student-teacher relationship.

The goal of the computer technology is not to make the teacher obsolete, but rather to give the teacher more freedom to interact with students at various levels, allowing the small groups to proceed at their own pace. "If students are having problems forming ideas or have no ideas, the teacher comes in with guided questions to lead them along the right path," says Robinson. "The computer allows for some things that can't be done in traditional lecture or lab format, like really complicated diagrams or simulations."

In his upcoming physics course for elementary education majors, Robinson will test out the teaching approach using a workbook that mimics the computer program. Cookeville High School teachers Huddleston and Glover will use the equipment in their new computer laboratory to incorporate the CPU Project in their classes in physics and physical science.

Teaching physics to education majors is a fundamental aspect of the project. Once the participants have mastered the CPU materials, they'll also administer them to area elementary teachers through workshops to help those teachers who need some instruction in the basic tenets of physics.

Margaret Phelps, professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Tennessee Tech, assisted with writing the proposal to take part in the CPU Project. She says that educating teachers is an important aspect of the project. "In general, teachers know less about physics than other areas. Many elementary teachers were licensed to teach before physics was required." If elementary teachers have a better understanding of physics themselves, the subject may be introduced earlier in a student's curriculum.

Robinson says this effort marks the first time the Physics Department at Tennessee Tech has collaborated closely with high school teachers in the community.

"We learned a lot just from being together for three weeks, talking about teaching," he says. "We're all trying to teach the same things. Some people graduate college having taken physics three times and still don't really understand it. Maybe there's something wrong with the way we're teaching it."