Aside

The First Day

This is part of The Inside Series, a series of posts from Beaver’s director of communications Jan Devereux on her experiences as a student in ninth grade honors physics. To read past posts visit The Inside Series page.

Laura Nickerson and the ninth grade honors science class

Imagine a teacher so excited about returning from summer vacation that her Facebook status is, “Yah! First day of school!” (And this, facing an uncomfortably hot and humid day in an un-air-conditioned classroom!) Already, I have a hunch this class is not going to resemble any class I took in high school.

Laura Nickerson can barely contain her back-to-school enthusiasm as she greets the eight students (and me) in 9th grade physics. “Ms. Nicks” is almost giddy as she tells us how she spent her summer break — not on a beach or in the mountains but at MIT, teaching and mentoring other physics teachers. (She also tells us how much she adores Felix, her King Charles spaniel, and that her favorite food is “anything French,” as we jot down answers to a few get-to-know-you questions on index cards.) She literally skips across the room handing out our first activity packet, and we dive right into a lab on the very first day.

The word of the day...and a really cool clock.

The lab involves building a simple electrical model. (“Model” is our first word of the day; each class will begin with a word and a problem of the day). We connect colored wires to a battery cell to “close” an electrical circuit, lighting two small bulbs. When we “open” the circuit the bulbs go off. Then we hold one of the wires over a compass and observe as the compass needle jumps counter-clockwise when the circuit is closed, and returns to center when the circuit is opened.

Ms. Nicks guides us through the activity, but she deliberately does not tell us what we should be seeing, or why electrical circuits work the way they do. This is not going to be the kind of class where the teacher lectures about scientific principles, as we follow along, highlighting whole pages in a textbook, and then assigns us a lab to demonstrate what she has already told us should happen. (We aren’t even using a textbook; we will be making our own by collecting our packets, some of which come from the CASTLE curriculum, in a binder, along with our words and problems of the day.)

My electric circuit

In the lab, we record our own predictions about what we think will happen and why. Making predictions, Ms. Nicks tells us, is very important because if we can identify what we are thinking before doing an activity, we will be better able to learn the principles behind what we observe, regardless of whether our predictions are right or wrong.

After one day of class, there is no mistaking that physics is Ms. Nicks’ passion. I predict that by the end of the term, if not before, we will share it.

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