Guest Post: An EM Circus

08May12

(This post was generously contributed by @MissMolecules, a science teacher in Yorkshire.)

When @teachingofsci asked me to do a guest post, my initial reaction was panic. I’m not a blogger, I’m sure no one would have the slightest interest in my inane ramblings. I am a teacher however, and with Biology being my specialism, teaching Physics takes me way out of my comfort zone. The days of having the luxury of only teaching to your specialism are gone and in order to be an effective educator it is important that science teachers are able to teach physics, chemistry and biology up to GCSE level.  It is not my intention to be controversial, and I’m not so conceited as to believe that Science can simply be categorised into the three main disciplines but we are working in a time when there is a shortage of science teachers, Physics teachers in particular. I work in a very large 11-16 secondary school with a Science department consisting of 15 very skilled members of staff. Out of those 15 we have 1 Physicist, so due to circumstances, staff are expected to be competent at delivering all three Sciences up to KS4.

I teach a challenging BTec group, they require plenty of activities and stimulation in order to be engaged in lessons. The topic we were looking at was the Electromagnetic Spectrum and I was struggling for inspiration. After a chat with @teachingofsci, he suggested a circus of activities with an activity corresponding to each part of the EM spectrum.

This is the teachers’ guide to the activities that I put together after perusing TES resources and looking through various textbooks. Our wonderful technicians used this guide in order to put the circus together for me. (EMcircus_teacher as a pdf)

Each activity was numbered and had a student instruction sheet with it; I also gave students a copy of all the instructions that they could keep in their portfolio to help with writing up the task. (EMcircus_student as a pdf)

I provided students with a very simple grid to record their results on; I found it helped them to stay organised. (EMcircus_ws as a pdf)

I decided not to teach the Electromagnetic spectrum prior to this lesson. I wanted students to work at each station, investigate, discuss and think about what they saw, and then start piecing the spectrum together for themselves.

The students responded well to the practical session; they enjoyed the activities and were asking a lot of questions.  I staggered the stations that students started working at, but the practicals were numbered. This helped students organise their results at the end of the session and in the follow-up lessons. I had TA support and between us we spent a lot of time talking to students, asking them questions and encouraging them to think about what they were observing and what their results could tell them. An interesting point that came from discussion with the students was that a large number of them did not realise that tinfoil is actually a metal; they also had no idea where the metal comes from. This is a nice example of why dialogue with students is so important; often, a throwaway comment can lead to a whole lesson or series of lessons on a related (or even unrelated) topic. If students show an interest in something, it’s nice to capitalise on that curiosity.

In the follow-up lesson, students wrote up their results and completed the student worksheets. When writing up, I encouraged students to think about the effect of each type of EM radiation as it links well to applications. Students then organised their results using the number assigned to each activity. I gave pairs of students a large piece of A2 sugar paper and, using post-it notes to represent each activity, they started to construct their own models of the EM spectrum. This model was then refined until students had produced a poster representing the EM spectrum. Students added pictures and additional information corresponding to the appropriate place on the spectrum.

The EM circus lesson can be differentiated either up or down and adapted for a range of abilities and student needs. One of the main things I took away from the session, from a teacher’s perspective, was that with seven distinct activities the lesson needed a fairly lengthy introduction. These students needed the information but higher ability students may not need so much initial instruction. I was conscious that I wanted students do be ‘doing’ something as soon as possible, rather than just listen to me.

It just happened that this lesson turned out to be observed. It was noted that students were engaged, motivated and asking questions. No mean feat with the group it was delivered to I can assure you! I was really pleased with how the students responded to the lesson and I will certainly be using the format again. Any comments, suggestions of improvements or adaptations are very welcome.

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One Response to “Guest Post: An EM Circus”

  1. This is a really useful post and the circus of activities was, as Miss Molecules found, a good way to engage and motivates students. It can be difficult for teachers who have to teach a subject outside their specialism to use practical work in an engaging way. As a physicist who used to teach chemistry I can appreciate that.

    One way that non-physicists can get support is from the Institute of Physics. http://www.iop.org/education/teacher/support/index.html The IOP has a network of physics teachers whose role is to support anyone who teaches physics. That inevitably means non-specialists. The network coordinators are spread around the country, and they run workshops for teachers in their area. Over the summer there will also be a number of day conferences in the regions which are aimed at all teachers of physics. If you get in touch with your nearest network coordinator they’ll be able to let you know what’s coming up.

    I should also point out that the network of Science learning Centres run a range of physics for non specialists courses at many of the regional centres and the national centre in York.

    Carol Davenport. Professional Development Leader at the National Science Learning Centre


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