Physics First, Designed to Last

“Can I get some volunteers to hold lasers?  We’re going to see sound by making our own laser show.”

On the day I visit Andrew Lappin’s ninth grade conceptual physics class I immediately know that it’s not like anything I remembered from high school.  There are no dry textbook readings or worksheets. No dated filmstrips from the 1970s. No, this is Wildwood upper school’s new introductory science class and it’s definitely captured my attention.

Ninth grade students look at Lappin’s $10 laser show “projector”

To help his students conduct their laser show, Lappin has constructed a makeshift speaker system inside a cardboard box, connected to a stereo receiver. Two rubber membranes cover the speakers on which Lappin has glued small plastic mirrors, which are aimed at a blank whiteboard.

“By the way,” Lappin tells his students, “you can make one of these at home for less than $10.”

“Seeing” sound

The room goes dark and the students point their colored, single-beam lasers at the mirrors. Lappin cranks The Beastie Boys and the show begins. Laser lights begin to dance on the whiteboard, in sync with the drums and bass.  The students are amazed.  Who thought physics could be this awesome?

Homemade laser show

In its inaugural year at Wildwood upper school, conceptual physics follows a trend in science education known as Physics First. The premise is that physics is the most essential of all sciences; the foundation upon which biology and chemistry are built. Additionally, Lappin’s class is designed to reinforce Wildwood’s algebra course, which most ninth graders also take. “After seeing and discussing something like this laser show” Lappin tells me, “students study the math behind the concepts.”

“But,” he adds, “they need to grasp the concepts first.”

So, before delving into the math, the class begins a thoughtful discussion on the physics concepts behind what the students saw in the laser show. In case you’re wondering: Sound travels in waves. The waves coming out of the speakers, the students correctly hypothesized, altered the surrounding air, causing the rubber membranes and mirrors covering the speakers to vibrate.  Those vibrating mirrors distorted the laser lights, causing the light to “wiggle” and “dance” on the whiteboard.  So, indirectly, we see the sound.

Ninth grader Clem C. connects the discussion to a real-world phenomenon. “This reminds me,” she says,  “of how the windows shake when you play really loud music in the car.”  Other students nod their assent and make their own connections.  “I wonder if this has anything to do with the Doppler effect?” says fellow student, Thomas E., who then explains the phenomenon to his classmates.

Some conceptual physics math forumlas

“Making connections is one of the reasons we went to a Physics First curriculum,” Lappin later explained: “To help students recognize physics concepts in their everyday lives.” Another goal, Lappin added, is for students to carry forward this ability to make real-world connections in their biology and chemistry courses in tenth and eleventh grade, respectively. Finally, Lappin posited, is that, “because many concepts in these later courses have their roots in physics, our students will be strongly prepared for the other upper school sciences.”

Academics aside, I was hooked. The laser show and discussion got me thinking about the scientific phenomena all around me. I left conceptual physics class reminiscing about my own high school experiences and wishing that I had had teachers like Andrew to help me to discover the science all around us. This is clearly an advantage that these Wildwood students will take with them through the rest of upper school and beyond.

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