Classes on my campus started August 24, and we had our first intro physics lab session the following week. In a physics class for non-majors, the first few weeks can often be disorienting as the students are adjusting the study styles that work for them in other fields to a new subject. It’s not uncommon for me to sense a lot of frustration and concern from them. And it’s not uncommon for me to feel a little overwhelmed by helping everyone get oriented.
The lab we were doing was relatively simple: use a motion detector to record the motion of a ball when it is tossed straight up and then caught after it falls back down. The students used a software program to plot both position and velocity versus time data and make some conclusions about the nature of the acceleration due to gravity. (Hint: it’s constant all the way through the motion.) We had not yet covered the topic in class.
But during the lab, something magical happened: the students discovered that principle for themselves. Some groups furrowed their heads as they realized the data did not match the prediction they had made moments before. My TA and I glided around the room, giving encouragement to groups when needed, asking questions that helped them advance their thinking. Rounds of “ooohhhhh!” went through the room as students worked through the difference between prediction and data and understood.
In an activity as mundane as the first lab of the semester, there was the bright warmth of the joy of students confronting misconceptions and adjusting their understanding. Later on I thought to myself, “this is what it is all about.”
I hope to remember that lab session later on, when the semester feels as though it will never end, when the students are feeling a little let down after receiving their first test grade and their mood affects me a bit. There is much joy to be had in our profession: we have the privilege of helping our students attain the ways of pursuing knowledge. May we never lose sight of that.
What small nuggets of joy have you seen in your teaching so far this semester? Let us know in the comments.
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