The international field experience portion of the Teachers for Global Classrooms fellowship is framed by a guiding question. Fellows are expected to investigate this question during their time abroad and reflect upon it once they return. Here is my reflection:
My Purpose as a Physics Teacher
I recognize that a very small percentage of the students who pass through my Physics classroom will every go on to become Physicists. Over thirteen years teaching the subject, I’ve only had a few dozen go on to major in Physics or work in a field directly related to Physics. Sure, I’ve had many, many more major in or work in other STEM fields after their time with me. But still, the majority of my students pursue their interests in the humanities, the arts, social work, marketing, or any number of other, non-STEM fields. Such is the reality of teaching a college-prep level science course.
Thus, while teaching advanced concepts of Physics is a priority, it is not my top priority. I just don’t have very many students who will actually need to calculate the moment of inertia of a rotating body at any point in their future. However, the scientific method is a useful, lasting, and powerful piece of knowledge that will serves all of my students forever. Anyone working in a STEM field can speak at length about the importance of the scientific method. Furthermore, the scientific method, as a framework for thinking, can be applied in just about any field at all. For example: your interior design business is stagnated? Don’t make changes randomly--think about what variables you could adjust, make a hypothesis, test it out. Did business improve? Having trouble making friends? Don’t sulk, give up, or withdraw. Instead, determine what factors are in your control, how you might be able to change them, make a hypothesis, test it out. The scientific is an empowering way of thinking that enables to make informed, efficient, and effective decisions. Empowering my students with command of the scientific method is perhaps the most important thing I can do as an educator. Physics is just the vehicle with which I teach the scientific method and develop students’ problem solving skills.
To this end, I was very interested in exploring how the scientific method is taught in the Philippines. The Teachers for Global Classrooms fellowship provided me with the opportunity to visit a range of different schools in greater Manila and in the Albay province. Below are some of the key observations and takeaways that resonated with me:
An Emphasis on Hands-On/Active Student Engagement
The scientific method necessarily require active, hands-on student engagement. Teachers in the Philippines have embraced this necessity and strive to provide their students with opportunities to do, rather than absorb, science. I witnessed a number of classes taking place in science laboratories in different schools. At Bicol Regional Science High School (BRSHS), students had access to dedicated lab facilities for use in their physical science, biology, chemistry, and physics classes. Students at BRSHS also take part in long-term student-driven research projects (more on these later.)
That said, there is limited availability of laboratory space, equipment, and consumables, even at a science-specific school like BRSHS. Budget constraints seem to make running a fully lab-focused course, like the ones offered at my own Westwood High School where ~50% of class time is spent doing laboratory experiments, prohibitive. Such is the nature of the economic differences between the Philippines and the United States; I would love for my students in Westwood and U.S. students in general to realize how fortunate they are to have such plentiful laboratory access and equipment.
Throughout my field experience, I was beyond impressed by the resourcefulness of teachers and students in response to this limited availability of space/equipment/supplies. Teachers used a number of creative ways to get students active and engaged with science in ways that required little or no physical resources at all.
For example, I watched a Physics teacher at the Benigno "Ninoy" S. Aquino High School in Makati structure her class of 60 in such a way that all 60 students got to (at least) witness a quick Newton’s 3rd Law experiment. She only had a single set of materials with which one could construct a “balloon car,” so she got the most out of it by having a group of students construct it, then demonstrate it and present how they constructed it to the whole class. Here is a video of the moment the group got it working:
While the group assigned to the balloon car activity was at work, the rest of class was split into other groups as follows:
Group 1: Make a poster explaining Newton's 3rd Law Group 2: Make a poster illustrating several examples of Newton's Third Law in action Group 3: Create a performance about Newton's 3rd Law Group 4: Watch a tutorial [that went into some further depth than the class had already covered] on tablets and prepare to report what they learned to the class
It seemed to be a good way for the teacher to have all of her students actively engaged with their study of Newton's 3rd Law despite the limited amount of resources available. By having each of the groups present to the class as a whole, students were able to share in what their classmates had done. Would it have been better to have enough materials for every group to build a balloon-powered car? Probably. Is having one group build one and then demonstrate it to the class sufficient? Perhaps. Is this active, engaging approach to the subject closer to the spirit of science than a “sage-on-the-stage” delivery? You bet!
Student skits, oral presentations, songs, and other performances were a common practice across the schools I observed. Here is a presentation on the formation of volcanos, based off of a lesson taught by my partner teacher Angelo. Not pictured: the student hidden behind the curtain using a plastic bottle full of flour to puff "smoke" out during the eruptions:
Observation & A Foundation for the Scientific Method
At Bicol Regional Science High School, I was lucky enough to tag along with a 7th grade class as they made their first-ever trip to the school’s chemistry/biology lab (the school year at just begun.) The class was called Research I, which was focused on teaching the fundamentals of the scientific method. For this lab, students were developing their observation skills. They looked at various slides of plant cells, worms, and other things under microscopes and made detailed drawings of what they saw in their notebooks. The teacher explained to me that what they were observing (plant cells, mites, etc.) wasn't significant, but how they were observing was. In the next class, she explained, students would report their observations and then, with her guidance, construct a definition of observation. Students were excited to look through the microscopes and record their results:
Observation is, of course, a vital skill for those wishing to utilize the scientific method to have. The rest of the Research I course would continue to specifically teach students the tools of the scientific method, and the method itself. Many schools in the United States have similar courses. I remember taking a “scientific methods” course as a freshman in high school. Westwood High School’s Physical Science course exists primarily to teach students the tools of science rather than any subject-specific content. I believe such courses are important and should, perhaps, be expanded or offered more consistently.
Formal Opportunities for Research
Students at Bicol Regional Science High School (and, I believe, at any regional science high school in the Philippines) are required to design, carry out, and report back on multiple major, long-term, self-directed research projects in order to graduate. This is the major focus of the 9th grade Research course. I sat in on a “pitch session” in which 9th graders shared their planned research experiments with their teacher and their classmates to get feedback for revisions before diving into the work. I was impressed by the level of sophistication in the students’ projects, which ranged from examining the effect of local herbs on the body fat percentage of mice to determining efficiencies of various solar energy sources. Several projects were planned to partner with and utilize the lab resources of a nearby university, again underscoring the resourcefulness of the community. I was also impressed by the skill of their teacher, Mam Noemie, as she presented clear expectations for students’ presentations and tactfully critiqued students’ proposals. Angelo, my partner teacher, wrote about her and her class on his blog Aloha from Ligao, excerpted below:
“The focus, at the moment, was more conceptual than quantitative: Mam Noemie wanted to make sure that the research proposals were solid and safe before the course progress towards quantitative methodologies… Mam Noemie never once said “that idea is bad”. She critiqued their design, their methods, their stated objectives. But, she never said “this is not a good research topic”. She encouraged them. She gave pointers for improvements, and commented that she had reminded them that their topic could be hazardous i they decided to go a certain way with it. But, she shied away from outright discouraging their ideas. In the end, the discussions remained solely on the proposed methods and research, and not their ideas themselves. I saw students who welcomed questions and critique. They were kids, however, and moaned and begged for “mercy”. But, all the same, they thanked their audience for their comments and wrote down reminders to make revisions and edits later.”
This class demonstrated the commitment to a real, student-centered, approach to teaching the scientific method more than any other class I witnessed during my field experience. I wish a program like this would be adopted, widely, in the United States. Here are a pair of the presentations I observed:
Enthusiasm for Science
I was consistently and thoroughly blown away by students’ enthusiasm for science and education in general during my time in the Philippines, a sentiment that I know is shared by the other fellows on the field experience as well. Students were attentive, curious, and engaged in every class I observed or taught. Leaving the classroom or general misbehavior was something I just did not see. Angelo and I taught a three-hour-long session on American culture to a room of about 100 students and not a single student left to go to the bathroom. Can you imagine that in my classroom in Massachusetts? I felt bad! I suppose we just assumed that they would leave if they needed to, so we didn’t build in a break. Now as a physics teacher I am well aware of the observer effect, so I am sure that there are classroom management and student engagement issues that exist and were perhaps masked by behavior adjustments made due to my presence in the room as a visitor. But let me tell you: there are a tremendous number of bright and conscientious students with outstanding work ethics in the Philippines. And they are hungry for education and determined to succeed. An enthusiastic science student!:
Areas for Focus
During my field experience I did make a few observations of ways that the Philippines might be able to strengthen their approach to science education and the teaching of the scientific method in general. It is important to note that all of these suggestions are global in nature--that is, they would likely apply to any educational system you might find throughout the world, not just the Philippines.
Ensure Student Performance Assessments Reflect Deep Learning
The vast majority of the skits, songs, dances, and other “live” presentations made by students to demonstrate their knowledge of a topic (and/or share that knowledge with their classmates) were meaningful and on-topic. However, some did not go in to enough depth or were only superficially related to their target topic/concept. For example, I watched one group in an 8th grade class present the Physics concept of friction as a dance. While it was a well-choreographed and entertaining dance, it had no discernible connection to friction. Another group performed a song they had written about friction. Again, it was a really well-done song. However, the lyrics went no deeper than a singing the formula for friction and chanting a textbook definition of the concept. There was no evidence that students in either group had firm conceptual understanding of friction, let alone how to apply the concept in practice. As I indicated earlier, I am a huge fan of these engaging ways of getting students active and allowing them to showcase their creativity. However, it is important that teachers ensure students’ performances reflect meaningful science.
Increase Opportunities for Formal Research
I was really impressed by the Research course sequence at Bicol Regional Science High School. This sequence formally teaches the scientific method and provides students with multiple opportunities to do “real” science. This is a course sequence I would love to see expanded beyond the regional science high school system, to all schools in the Philippines and to all schools throughout the world as well!
Find Opportunities for Formal Communication
Communicating one’s findings is a key and (often) final step of scientific processes. I did not see students asked to communicate their findings formally during my field experience (this could be because my field experience occurred very early during the school year.) While students orally presented to their classmates frequently, they did not seem to communicate their results in writing, either physically or digitally. This is an important piece of the scientific method, both when it is applied to pure science and when it is utilized in other areas of life.
Build Out Connectivity
Communication, research, and data analysis all require technology and connectivity. The students I worked with at BRSHS were connected to the world via their smartphones. Many had laptops as well, though without wifi coverage their use in the classroom was limited. To prepare students for our interconnected world, they must have access to the internet and practice using it for science, research, and other formal purposes. More connectivity and more technology will help the Philippines keep current and competitive.
Teachers and students face resource-related challenges when teaching/learning the scientific method in the Philippines. However, their collective resourcefulness, creativity, commitment to science, and overall passion for teaching and learning overcome these challenges, providing students with important skills and opportunities in science.