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My Physics Lessons

Youtube Excel Tutorials at GCSE

Last term my Y10s were studying forces and motion.  Something I’ve had success with in the past is using Excel to construct models for stopping distance.  This gives students an opportunity to combine learning some good IT skills, generic modelling skills and to deepen their understanding of the key physics concepts – such as reaction time, braking distance, the equations for velocity and acceleration and so on.

As with a lot of integrated IT learning, there is a bit of a balance/ compromise in terms of allocating time and thinking between the specific IT skills and the subject specific concepts.  In a previous school I’d introduced the stopping distance model into a Y8 ICT scheme where they spent a term learning Excel.  This was the pinnacle project where they had to pull their learning together.

However, with my Y10s, the emphasis is very much on the physics – so I wanted the IT learning to simply provide the tools for the physics concepts to be explored without too much fuss.  Having gauged my students’ confidence with IT from various other processes  – including a previous video making activity and some websites offers as homework – I decided to see if my students could all just teach themselves the Excel skills using online tutorials.  I have used these myself at various times and I found it really helpful.  Someone with a nice clear tone tells you simply and clearly what you need to do and then you can play it back over and over again or pause anytime you like.  Youtube has hundreds of these video clips covering a wider range of applications.

After a 10 minute session sketching out the design brief for the stopping distance model, students were given a week to make one for homework, teaching themselves any skills they might need. I discussed the need for some drop down menus, a way of creating a numerical factor from a range of conditions such as ‘wet road’ or ‘tired driver’ and a user friendly interface.  I mentioned the term ‘vlookup’ but did not explain how it worked.   By the next night, a student had emailed me his first attempt – it was superb. He needed to tweak some of the scales and deceleration factors but it was a great model. In the next lesson, I showed his example to the class – to encourage them that, yes, it can be done.  By the next week, deadline day, I had almost a full set.  We got the science laptops out and students had to show each other their models for evaluation purposes.  The results were astounding. Some had really sophisticated interface features; others linked to graphs and most had used them to reinforce the key physics concepts so that, by changing the input variables, they could see out the total stopping distance would be affected using their own model. Vlookups, drop down menus and correct formulae were added in correctly; some had a range of pre-selectable initial velocities whilst others had a free entry approach.  The range of factors affecting thinking time and braking were explored really well, in some cases based on real research into the scale of effects such as the impact of water on braking force and so on.  The open ended nature of the task flushed out lots of different scenarios for class discussion.

There is a lot to learn from this.  I think a lot more integrated IT could be delivered if teachers didn’t feel burdened by the need to teach all the IT skills. Knowing that students can find this out for themselves is liberating.  Of course, some need help and some outcomes are better than others. But the students in my class definitely felt empowered by their own success in this activity and I intend to use this approach in future.  A key to this working was a) setting the expectation that it had to be done – so they had to find a way and b) using an early exemplar to show them that it was possible.

I have not done a rigorous evaluation of this yet.  A few still get mixed up with negative acceleration (which doesn’t need to lead to a change in direction…just slowing down) and negative velocity, where the direction definitely changes.  Still, they have their own tools to explore this further at home!

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