As I’m gearing up to teach a summer physics course for non-majors, I’m thinking of a variety of things that I might do to engage this set of students in the wonder of the physical world. But how to hook them into things that might seem boring on the surface, such as the electromagnetic spectrum?
I’ll be using a variety of techniques, such as driving questions for each module, clicker questions, hands-on activities, and observations of the natural world. But one that I’m planning to make better use of is video and movie clips to inspire curiosity and investigation.
Movies add real visual impact to a presentation, but even better, they make use of the power of narrative to hook students in. And when used cleverly, they can be great jumping-off points for a lecture topic. Here are a few possible uses of videos:
1. Illustrate a concept
This is probably the most common use of video, but is my least favorite. Why? This is akin to the type of boring undergraduate lab that serves only to confirm what we’ve known for hundreds of years — e.g., that a block of wood slides down a smooth metal ramp more quickly than it does a wooden ramp. These so-called “confirmation” labs offer no opportunity for creativity. Similarly, a video that only serves to illustrate what the instructor has been discussing is often kind of a “no-duh” moment. Now, there can be a time and place for illustrative videos, as in the case of a video that does a remarkable job of providing a visual depiction of an abstract concept, or a surprising implication of a concept. But overall, I prefer the use of video to lead into a topic.
2. Create a “need to know”
What about using videos to generate questions, and a “need to know”? For example, one astronomy instructor I know (Ed Prather) shows a video clip that discusses how zebras’ black and white stripes absorb different amounts of light energy, and poses the question of whether the white stripes or black stripes will show up as bright in an infrared camera image. It’s an interesting question, since the white stripes reflect more light, but the black stripes absorb more to begin with. But then he stops the video before the infrared image is shown. The students’ curiosity is piqued, and they’re interested in knowing the results. He uses this as an opportunity to delve into a discussion activity about the topic of infrared light, absorption, and reflection. The zebra story serves as a motivator for this activity, and a concrete referent that students can keep in mind while learning about the abstract ideas. Then they come back to the video to see if they can correctly predict the outcome using what they’ve learned. Note that the same video could have been used in a very different way, to simply illustrate the ideas after they’d been presented in class. Do you see why I consider such “illustrative” use of video to be a potentially missed opportunity?
3. Inquiry starters: Phenomenon-based learning
We often start a topic, at least in the sciences, by outlining the background of the topic, creating a simple picture, and building up an understanding of something complex. But what about starting with the complex, interesting thing, and then gaining the tools to understand that complex idea through a variety of activities? You might show students an object, picture, or video of something a little confusing or curious and ask them to generate a series of “I wonder” questions. In the sciences, this could be achieved with many existing YouTube or other videos of interesting phenomena by simply turning off the sound, leaving students to view the phenomena without hearing the explanation. These “I wonder” ques
tions can then be used to lead into activities or lecture, tailored to students’ innate curiosity and questions. They can also be used to generate inquiry questions for a laboratory or other hands-on activity, providing authentic motivation for students to explore a phenomenon. For example, a video showing a levitating superconducting magnet could lead into questions such as “is the magnet cold?” “What kind of material is that?” “Will it still float if you put a piece of paper between the two magnets?” These questions could be used to generate inquiry activities about magnets and superconducting magnets.
4. Video demonstrations and experiments
What if you would like a large class to be able to engage in meaningful inquiry and debate, but there is no associated lab? One method that is gaining popularity is to use a video demonstration or experiment broken into two pieces — the experimental setup, and the final outcome. The first part of the video is shown to set up the experiment and the question about the outcome. Students then work together to predict what they think the outcome of the demo or experiment will be. In this way, the video serves as a jumping-off point for whole-class inquiry. Then, after students have worked through their predictions, the end part of the video is shown. Much research shows that this type of predict-then-show approach to in-class demonstrations and experiments is much more effective than simply showing the demonstration. Note that you can achieve this same sort of benefit through simulations (such as the PhET simulations) by setting up a virtual experiment and asking students to predict the outcomes.
5. What, if anything, is wrong?
Hollywood is great at making things flashy, but are they always good at making things right? Of course not. This, again, is particularly useful for the sciences. There are a few great sites, such as Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics, Bad Astronomy Movies, or The Good and Bad in Sci-Fi, where you can get great ideas for video clips of good or bad science. These can be great little puzzlers for students to figure out whether what is shown is possible or not.
So, happy movie-watching, and here are a few resources to help you out:
- Downloading videos from YouTube. If you can’t be live on the net, here are some tools to download videos for offline viewing.
- MovieClips.com. An extensive (12,000 and growing) catalog of short video scenes from a variety of films. In developing the site, Movieclips’ founders have worked collaboratively with Hollywood studios and are therefore able to provide high quality, free, and legal video clips. Movieclips offers a powerful search function that allows you to find scenes by actor, title, genre, character type, mood, and even dialogue.
- TeacherTube. This community-based website provides free educational videos, suggested and rated by a broad teacher community.
- Teachers’ Domain. Teachers’ Domain is a free digital media service for educational use from public broadcasting and its partners. You’ll find thousands of media resources, support materials, and tools for classroom lessons, individualized learning programs, and teacher professional learning communities.
- National Science Digital Library. This free digital repository of media for educational use includes a search by audio/visual media, subject, and grade level.
- NOVA Education. This free digital library is tied to teaching standards and includes video, audio segments, interactives, and much more.
Image by Vrysxy on Wikimedia