Students in AP50, an introductory applied physics course at Harvard’s engineering school, prepare an epic prank. For credit!
This Harvard Gazette article describes an undergrad course in applied physics at the university’s engineering school that sounds like a blast. The course, taught by Professor Eric Mazur, is significantly more interactive than your standard physics class. Instead of listening to lectures, students take part in challenging group projects that require them to learn underlying physics concepts in order to complete the work (one example given in the article: studying elasticity in order to build a highly accurate catapult); instead of a textbook, they use a collaborative online text; and instead of traditional exams, they work in groups to come up with a single answer to a given question.
This reminds me, tangentially, of the idea of an “authentic audience” motivating students to improve their writing (which was described in the “Twitter is making kids smarter” article we posted about last week). In both cases, the concept being taught is not presented as an end in itself (“learn this because you need to.”) Instead, students are given an inherently attractive goal to work toward, and the concepts are learned on the way to the goal. In one case, that goal is writing for an authentic audience. In this Harvard class, the goal is launching stuff from a catapult, or opening a safe with a laser cutter. (They do that in the class, too.) Professor Mazur compares this teaching style to a “Trojan horse”: the teaching is almost snuck into the work.
What do you think about this approach? Is learning more effective when students are motivated in this way? Teachers - have you had any successes, or challenges, in leading your students in open-ended projects like these? Do tell.
- Spencer (email@example.com)