Teaching non-majors Light and Color (and making them love it)

by Stephanie Chasteen on August 18, 2011

I sacrificed my June and my sanity this summer to teach the non-majors Light and Color course (see below for course materials).  This was exactly the population I am interested in reaching with good science instruction — not the converted, science enthusiasts, but the often math-phobic rest of the population.  And I got my wish.  A class full of marketing, art, architecture, and economics majors.


To be embarrassingly honest, this was actually my first real teaching experience.  I’ve only been allowed (by my current grant) to act as support for existing courses, not to actually be the instructor of record.  So I have lots of experience facilitating group work, helping students individually, or working with instructors to design educational materials and then see how they work.  But I hadn’t ever gotten to be the person in the spotlight, deciding what to say every moment of the day.

And what an experience.  For one, summer courses are brutal.  An hour and a half of lecture every day, and an exam every week.  It ate up my life.  I don’t know how K12 teachers do it every day.But even if it hadn’t been a summer course — gosh, being responsible for all those homeworks and exams and lectures is *work*.  And it was quite enlightening — I realized the full disconnect between me and them when a student put her head in her hands and said, “I didn’t know there would be *math* in this course!” when asked to find “A” in the equation A/B = C/D (and all the rest were given).

I also spent quite a bit of time aedding some hands-on or interactive components to the lecture with small activities or worksheets.  I pulled most of those from my experience at the Exploratorium, particularly the wonderful physics activity archive of my old mentor Paul Doherty. [Geekgirl fun fact: Paul will be coming to Colorado to act as officiant for my wedding this September, and will be reading from the “book of Feynman“.  How cool is that?]

I pulled all these materials together for future instructors to use, and it’s online if you’d like to use any of it.  The lecture notes, clicker questions, HW, exams, and the activities and lecture demos that I used or created are listed there.  You can download that at our open archive page (which has course materials for a ton of other physics education research inspired courses at CU, including the junior E&M course I’ve been developing and researching for the past four years).  If you want to get the password protected stuff (like homework and exam solutions), just email me.

I also used a blog for my course website, which worked great.

The in-class activities seemed to be particularly helpful for students, especially since they’re non-majors and a little skittish about so much of the physics.  And it gave me a chance to see how they were doing on things before the HW.  This aspect of the course was really popular.  I also saw large gains on the CLASS (Colorado Learning About Science Survey).  Typically, student attitudes towards physics go down after instruction.   I can only imagine it was due to that part of the course, since that’s the only thing that was new.  I would doubt that as a novice instructor I could do anything hugely better than the other PER instructors at CU, so I’m really excited about the idea that hands-on activities might have been that beneficial to students.

One neat activity that I can’t recommend enough is the light walk (mostly focusing on pinhole images) developed by Bob Miller at the Exploratorium.

{ 1 comment }

Arwen from Chameleon's Tongue August 30, 2011 at 12:49 am

Sounds hectic but rewarding. The in-class activities would definitely make it more interesting for the students.

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