My Experience Using Modeling Instruction in Chemistry and Physics Classes

Mrs. Natalie Pickett, Chemistry & Physics Teacher, Dobyns Bennett High School, Kingsport, TN

My Experience Using Modeling Instruction in Chemistry and Physics Classes

During the past two summers, I participated in the Modeling in Chemistry and Physics and Chemistry Modeling Instruction Workshops at East Tennessee State University for a total of 10 weeks (five weeks each summer).  From this experience, I have learned more about teaching chemistry and physics than any other professional development program I have had the opportunity to attend.  I was able to learn new techniques to address common student misconceptions or lack of understanding.

Previous to these trainings, I was using Chemistry in the Community materials but knew that the chemistry EOC was looming and feared our students would not be adequately prepared.  I observed several chemistry classes in Greeneville that were using modeling instruction. I had acquired some of their modeling resources and attempted to use the ideas in my classroom with limited success. At that point, I knew I needed professional development to be able to teach my students using Modeling Instruction.

The first summer all of the teachers received chemistry training from one of the originators of Modeling Instruction, Larry Dukerich.  I spent the day switching between teacher-mode and student-mode. I engaged with the material and worked on how I would be able to lead students to what I wanted them to know rather than telling them. I had my whiteboards made and received the much-needed equipment. I was ready to start Modeling Instruction in the fall.

The first semester of teaching with modeling instruction was challenging because it was so different from how I was teaching and how I was taught when I was in school. It seemed to take forever to get through a lesson and to get the students to understand a concept.  The extra time seemed to be worth it because the students engaged and enjoyed chemistry. Then the students took the first test and bombed it. Nuclear bombed it!  I was in full troubleshooting mode and searched for what could have happened. I realized the emphasis on the deeper understanding of chemistry was not what was on the assessment. Instead it was a lot of significant figures (barely addressed in the unit) and some of the questions were just plain tricky. Lesson learned; really look at the test before the next unit.  Each successive unit went better than the first since the students knew the basics of board meetings and I knew that I needed to supplement the materials with extra checkup quizzes before the big test.

The second semester I started revising: cut the mass and change lab out of the first unit, moved it in with reactions, added more of the Tennessee specific standards, and put in some direct instruction where it just made more sense to spend 15 minutes rather than 2 days. This was my trial run for the EOC. I know, I know we are not supposed to teach to a test. However, when there is a deadline looming, I want to make sure I have it all done before, rather than after, that date.  I kept the essence of Modeling but we’ll just call it a hybrid.  Students  still did whiteboards and lab explorations to develop key ideas such as the combined gas law, thermochemistry, etc.  What I added was a direct instruction lesson on writing and balancing nuclear equations and more differentiated materials. Some of the materials in the Modeling Instruction asked my students to run before they could walk, so I gave them a chance to practice walking before they tackled the killer quantitative energy problems in unit 2.

The next summer I switched courses and became a physics teacher. This time the approach was much different because our instructor, Mark Davids, focused on how to use modeling instruction in conjunction with a more traditional approach.  He did not go through the whole modeling curriculum, instead he focused on what he added when he taught physics. I fully appreciated this because it was too painful to only use Modeling Instruction when the students are trying to learn something completely new to them. They need a little more than a single lab to fully understand how to solve a physics problem.

The past two summers of Modeling Instruction training at ETSU have improved my teaching immensely.  I understand my subjects better and how my students can use models to make sense of difficult topics.  I feel more confident in my ability to design and revise units so that they are both rigorous and meaningful. Students are more engaged and motivated with this method of instruction. I also know that Modeling Instruction fits well with the Tennessee teacher evaluation process and what is expected in level 5 classrooms. As for the EOC, I’ll tell you at the end of this semester.

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