A ‘typical’ day in Ryan Lafferty’s AP Physics class at International School is anything but typical thanks to a projects based model the class is piloting this year.
“On any given day students could be working on an investigation, formal lab, listening to a short lecture, building items for their project, doing research, filming video, giving presentations, or taking an exam,” Lafferty said.
Lafferty developed the curriculum in conjunction with the University of Washington’s LIFE Center education researchers and its development is primarily funded by Lucas Education Research, which is a branch of the George Lucas Education Foundation. Lafferty said he wanted to be involved in developing the new curriculum because he was looking for a way to give his students a broader context for their learning.
“It’s fun – we get to try out what we’re learning,” said junior Louisa Heywood. “I’ve learned a lot and things stick in our minds better.”
The goal of projects based learning is to answer the question, “Why do I need to know this?” for students by putting the concepts they are learning into context, Lafferty explained.
The course content is encapsulated in different projects where students design their own questions related to a concept, then get first-hand experience with the concepts of physics through applying them to answer their question.
The result? Every project produced is different and driven by the students’ curiosity and creativity as they learn the content. The goal? An increased level of engagement that gives students a deeper understanding of the material.
Lafferty explained that curriculum development is a long process and that the curriculum is continuing to be refined. The development team began with outlining all of the learning objectives for AP Physics and then began brainstorming real world projects and consulted with experts including NASA engineers, Hollywood science advisors, archeologists, and detectives, among others.
“This year is our first pilot year, we have been revising the projects as we go with student feedback,” Lafferty said. “After each project we gather together a focus group of students and allow them to offer their advice on how the project went. The student advice has been highly insightful and has helped us understand what has and hasn’t been working with the projects based learning curriculum.”
One project involved students testing the best way to build an arch.
“In order to build the arch they needed to come up with an engineering plan to move the blocks out of the quarry to the build site,” Lafferty explained. “The concept of friction was essential to their understanding of how to move the stone blocks. In fact, each group calculated how many oxen/men would be required to pull their blocks across the ground based upon the concept of friction.”
“I like this class because we get to do a lot more than sit and calculate things,” said junior Andrea Dumitrescu.
Another project, “Sticks & Stones” involved discovering which from a selection of tools would best accomplish a task that the students chose. For example, one group asked which of the tools they would want to have if they were stranded on an island. The group had to determine which tool they could most effectively build and use. The students then created a video in the style of the Discovery Channel show “Mythbusters” to explain their question, process, and answer.
“It’s nice when we work really hard on a project and we get to the final part and it clicks,” said junior Annabel Goodson.