Learning by Doing: Inquiry-Based Physics Course for Student Success

Activities Help Students Gain Physical Intuition of Concepts

A new inquiry-based section of introductory physics is being piloted at the University of Houston, as part of the Department of Physics’ ongoing commitment to improving student success. This new course is a section of PHYS 1301, the algebra-based physics course that is a requirement for many science majors.

In this inquiry-based course, students learn by participating in activities that reinforce physics concepts.In this inquiry-based course, students learn by participating in activities that reinforce physics concepts.“Instead of a professor standing in front of a class, lecturing that the formula for kinetic energy is ½ mv2, students will be throwing a ball,” said Rebecca Forrest, instructional associate professor of physics, and one of the co-developers of this course. “They’re going to be throwing it fast and slow, and they’ll be throwing one with less mass and one with more mass. They’re going to feel the energy and work associated with throwing and catching that ball.”

Inquiry-Based Learning Promotes Learning and Retention of Ideas

Inquiry-based learning works by presenting students with tangible questions, situations or observations, rather than presenting concepts as established facts. This process, which promotes the active engagement of students, has been shown to result in the increased learning and retention of ideas.

“Physics is not a required course in high school. If students haven’t been exposed to physics concepts before, this class is going to be harder for them,” said Margaret Cheung, associate professor of physics and co-developer of this course. “We see many of these students struggling, not because of a lack of motivation, but because of a lack of background knowledge.”

Student Activities“In this course, students learn by doing hands-on, inquiry-based activities,” Forrest said. “They are developing a physical intuition of the concepts.”

This semester, one section of PHYS 1301 is being taught as an inquiry-based course. In this course, students complete all of the homework, quizzes and tests that are required for all the other sections, the only difference being the method of learning.

Andrew Kapral, a Ph.D. student in education, will evaluate the effectiveness of the course as part of his dissertation with Catherine Horn, associate professor in the College of Education, acting as his advisor.

In the spring semester, the physics department will pilot a similar section for PHYS 1321, which is the calculus-based physics course that is required for many engineering majors. Once these sections have been piloted, the physics department hopes to offer multiple sections for each course.

Outgrowth of the STEM Teaching Equity Project

This course is an outgrowth of the work done in the STEM Teaching Equity Project (STEP), which provides professional development opportunities for K-12 science teachers, with a focus on teachers who serve high needs student populations.

Cheung and Forrest, both of whom are involved with STEP, have worked with local high school physics teachers, in order to identify the best approaches for enabling student success.

“We are trying to solve the problem on both sides,” Cheung said. “By working with high school teachers, we have been able to identify the subjects our students might struggle with, and we’ve also been able to communicate what the expectations in college will be.”

Development of this physics course is part of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics’ ongoing commitment to promoting student success by expanding the diversity and quality of course offerings.

“We need to credit the chair of the physics department, Gemunu Gunaratne, for his commitment to improving the college experience for undergraduate students,” Cheung said.

- Rachel Fairbank, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics