Randal Harrington

University of Maine


Two questions currently being faced by university physics departments are: (1) whether to teach courses for non-science majors that focus on helping students understand basic concepts or on providing them with an overview of the history of science and it's relevance to society, and (2) how to best provide an environment for the preparation and support of elementary, middle and secondary science teachers. Recently, several physics departments have reported success with teaching courses for non-science majors that focus on the role of science in society. Instructors of these types of courses often report large enrollments and high student satisfaction.1 However, it has also been reported that these types of general survey courses often fail to adequately prepare our future teachers to teach science.2 This is of particular concern because these courses are usually the only science courses that future elementary school teachers are required to take. Our current project involves the reform of the introductory course for non-science majors so that it is taught in a way that is consistent with how we would like our future teachers to teach. This physics course will serve three roles: (1) a place where students with no background in science can learn fundamental concepts and develop scientific reasoning skills, and (2) a place where pre-service K-8 teachers can learn the most effective methods of teaching physics and physical science through direct modeling and, (3) where teachers of physics and physical science can learn the most effective ways to teach physics by serving as peer instructors or interns in the course.

Description of Course (Pre-Reform)

Prior to Spring of 1996, the introductory physics course for non-science majors at the University of Maine was, by default, a one semester general survey course that was modeled after our other introductory physics courses intended for science majors. Students were expected to learn primarily through non-interactive methods, i.e., listening to lectures and reading the textbook. Outside of office hours with the instructor, there were no additional structured activities to help these students learn the material (i.e., no help center or open lab time during which students could meet to discuss problems.) There were no required homework assignments and only an optional laboratory section containing activities that were not directly linked to the lecture. The laboratory experiments were of the verification-type in which students used apparatus to verify that a particular relationship was "true," in contrast to an inquiry approach in which students develop their understanding of fundamental concepts through direct observation. Assessment of student understanding was solely in the form of standard multiple choices tests which required the student to recall material discussed in the lecture or contained in the textbook. The results from the standard Force Concept Inventory Test, which was administered both before and after the standard course, showed a negative gain in performance (Pre FCI 24% and Post FCI 20%, N=121).3

Reform of the Introductory Course for Non-science Majors

Reform of our introductory physics course for non-science majors began in Spring, 1996. The optional laboratory course was made mandatory by combining the old laboratory and lecture courses into a single course and the amount of time spent on laboratory experiments was expanded from 2 to 3 hours each week.

Our overall pedagogical philosophy maintains that students learn best when they derive their understanding through directed observations and reasoning. Thus, our newly redesigned laboratory experiments and tutorial sessions are based on adaptations of Physics by Inquiry and Introductory Tutorials in Introductory Physics developed at the University of Washington under the direction of Lillian McDermott.4,5 In addition, we have been developing new materials based on research by our physics education group on student conceptual and reasoning difficulties.

Although a completely laboratory based course may be ideal (e.g., Physics by Inquiry at the University of Washington or Workshop Physics at Dickinson College) we believe that these courses are not easily implemented at universities and colleges that currently have large introductory lecture courses for non-science students. By developing tutorials and laboratory experiments on a wide variety of topics usually taught to non-science majors, our hope is that instructors at other schools could more easily incorporate this work into their existing courses. A typical tutorial or laboratory session could require the student to do one or all of the following: (1) create operational definitions to differentiate between related concepts (e.g., radiation vs radioactivity, conductors vs insulators), (2) describe a concept in words or diagrams (e.g., heat transfer, wave motion), (3) analyze the behavior of a physical system (e.g., electric circuit, pinhole camera), and (4) construct a scientific model for predicting the effect of specified changes on a physical system (e.g., electric current, heat capacity). Special attention is devoted to helping students relate the formal concepts of physics to real world phenomenon.

Use of Peer Instructors (Pre-service Teachers)
and Interns (In-service Teachers).

At the University of Maine pre-service teachers typically perform their teaching practicum as a student teacher in the final semester of their senior year. These situations usually do not provide the future teacher with a model for how best to teach a particular subject area. Subject specific teaching methods are often taught in educational methods courses in which future teachers do not have the opportunity to work with real students and they do not get the opportunity to experience what is necessary to develop and teach a fully integrated curriculum. To address this problem, we decided to use our redesigned course as the foundation for a seminar on teaching physics. A prerequisite for taking this seminar is the successful completion of the algebra or calculus-based introductory physics course. Peer Instructors and Interns enrolled in the seminar are required to participate in TA training sessions, tutorials and one laboratory section where they work closely with an experienced graduate student in physics.

We offer a similar experience for in-service teachers during the summer. In this seminar, current middle or secondary teachers who teach physics work with students as interns in tutorials and laboratories and also attend the teaching seminar sessions. This experience would expose these teachers to new teaching strategies that they could incorporate into their own classrooms.


1. For a discussion of these issues see, Wehrbein,W. M. , "Guest Comment: What shall we teach nonscience students about science?," Am. J. Phys. 64, 363 (1996); Hobson, A., "Will Non-Scientists Choose Physics?," Phys. Teach., 33 (1995).

2. See for example, McDermott, L. C., "A perspective on teacher preparation in physics and other sciences: The need for special science courses for teachers," Am. J. Phys. 58, 734-742 (1990); Arons, A.B. in "What science should we teach," in Curriculum Development in the Year 2000, A BSCS Thirtieth Anniversary Symposium (BSCS, The Colorado College, Colorado Springs, CO, 1989), pp. 13-20; Tobias, S. in They're Not Dumb, They're Different, (Research Corporation, Tucson, AZ, 1990), p. 36; and Dykstra, D.I., Boyle, C.F. and Monarch, I.A., "Studying conceptual change in learning physics," Sci. Educ. 76, 615-652 (1992); McDermott, L.C., "How we teach and how students learn - A mismatch," Am. J. Phys. 61, 295-298 (1993).

3. Hestenes, D., Wells, M. and Swackhamer, G., "Force concept inventory," Phys. Teach. 30, 141-158 (1992).

4. McDermott, L. C. and the Physics Education Group, Tutorials in Introductory Physics, University of Washington, under development and supported by NSF.

5. ___________, Physics by Inquiry, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., (1996).