Middle School Science
This year, we are studying Physics. I have used the four-year science/history cycle described in The Well-Trained Mind for eight years now; this is the end of our second cycle (which goes Biology, Earth Science/Astronomy, Chemistry, Physics). Recently, I wrote about our Chemistry studies last year, and now I’d like to tell you what we’re doing in Physics–and what I would change if I were starting over.
My goal was to have a really solid year of Physics at the 8th-grade level. Clearly, however, an 8th-grader taking her first year of Algebra is not going to be able to do a traditional Physics course with all that complex math! What I wanted was a good grounding in the ideas of Physics, but without very much math at all. After quite a bit of poking around for textbooks, I figured out that what I was after is called Conceptual Physics.
There are only a few textbooks in Conceptual Physics. I ended up choosing the textbook by the guy who thought up the idea of a math-light physics course in the first place: Conceptual Physics by Paul G. Hewitt. The one I got is the current 11th edition and it is a college textbook. My daughter has not found it to be too difficult for her–I think a good reader wouldn’t really have a problem–but I found out later on that there is a high school textbook. If I’d realized that I probably would have gone with it. (Although maybe not; I was able to preview a lot of the college text online which helped me decide, and she really is doing fine and enjoying the textbook.)
Conceptual Physics is my spine, and I designed everything else around that. I figured that since physics is both complex and very hands-on, it might be good to have a lecture series to watch on TV to reinforce the material and help do examples. I looked through The Teaching Company’s offerings (otherwise known as The Great Courses), and chose a DVD series called Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works, taught by Professor Richard Wolfson. The course description says that “it doesn’t rely heavily on equations and mathematics, using nothing more advanced than high school Algebra and Trigonometry.” More on that below. During my planning, I arranged the DVD lectures so that they would match the textbook chapters. This came out to usually doing two 30-minute lectures per week, but not always.
I also wanted lots of lab activities. Some I came up with on my own; I ordered fancy magnets, ferrofluid (look it up; it’s amazing), the world’s longest Slinky, and other fun things. I also got eScience Labs Introductory Physics (version 3.2), a boxed set that is supposed to have a full year of lab activities. It comes with a CD-ROM that gives instructions for each lab and questions for students to answer. It is mid-high-school level; not serious Physics, but enough questions to make it fairly hard work. However, you can also just do the activities to illustrate the principles, and that is fun for any age! I figured out a schedule for labs to match my textbook.
We have been doing all this work with a group. Last year, we had one extra student for chemistry, and that was quite fun–plus it was good for me, because I had to plan those labs and make them happen! I could never put it off and think we could do it next week. That student is not homeschooling this year, but all of a sudden several of my friends are homeschooling their kids, and before I knew it I had a group that included three high school students, three middle schoolers, and five elementary-age children! Students age 12+ come to the lectures and read the textbook; the rest of them use Real Science 4 Kids Physics and only come to the labs. (At first I thought the 12-year-old was too young to use the college text, but he turns out to be a natural engineer. He got the textbook late, caught up, and is loving it.)
As if this is not enough, I chose some supplementary books for the older students to read if they felt so inclined. These are not required, but they are great resources:
- Physics for Future Presidents, by Richard Muller. This is a great book on everything a person should know about physics in order to be an informed citizen. My 13-year-old daughter just read it recently and thought it was great. I would love to have every high school student read this book.
- The Cartoon Guide to Physics, by Larry Gonick. Handy for understanding tricky concepts!
- The Story of Science vols 2-3: Newton at the Center, and Einstein Adds a New Dimension, by Joy Hakim. I told students that if they select the Physics chapters and read one per week, they will end up with a good idea of who is who and what they did.
Lastly, in order to keep all these students informed, I started a Facebook page. They aren’t all on Facebook, but their parents are! I post information, announcements, and neat videos or images, and our syllabus is available there for reference.
And how has all this turned out?
The textbook is fine. Although I wonder if I would have been better off with the high-school text, everyone is reading and understanding just fine, and my daughter–who was not really excited about Physics in September–tackles her chapter first thing every Monday morning and says she really enjoys it. I feel pretty good about it.
The DVD course is pretty interesting and has some good examples, as I hoped. It also turns out to have a different definition of “doesn’t rely heavily on equations and mathematics, using nothing more advanced than high school Algebra and Trigonometry” than I do. When the math comes up on the screen, we all stare at it in despair. After that happened a couple of times, I started fast-forwarding when the math starts. Later on in the course, some of the lectures get pretty advanced. If I could choose again, I might go with a more conceptual course by the same instructor, Physics In Your Life, though then I would probably worry that it was not rigorous enough! On the whole this has worked out fine, though. My students are still showing up regularly for lectures, so I guess we are doing OK.
Hosting labs is always fun. The box set tends to draw lessons from very simple activities, and sometimes I wish I had something on a bigger scale, but for the most part it is going fine. The kids enjoy the activities, and I try to tell them the principles behind what we are doing. Labs also give me a great opportunity to talk about science in everyday life, and using our knowledge to think about what we see around us. We have had some good conversations on why we should understand scientific principles and how to avoid expensive (yet completely unsound) products. The very best days are when my husband, who is a true Physics aficionado, is able to be present and talk with the students. He is much more eloquent than I am, and would be a better teacher, but sadly he has to earn a living.
The Facebook page was a good idea. It’s easier than emailing everyone, and the videos get a good response. There are some amazing Physics videos out there! We have especially enjoyed some of Veritasium’s videos; our favorite was the giant Slinky.
It’s a bit early yet to declare this a good year for science, but I think we are well on our way to being able to say that. So far it’s been fun, and everyone is learning.
Featured photo: Iron filings and a magnet. The filings are in a jar of oil so they can be easily observed. The magnet is in a test tube so it will stay clean.
Jane-Emily–Jane-Emily is a classically homeschooling LDS mom of two girls, and a librarian at the local community college, very part-time. She loves to read and will pick up almost anything. She also loves to sew and mostly does quilting, heirloom sewing, and smocking. And she’s a Bollywood addict.