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Make Physics Real with Writing Prompts—Not Just Practice Problems

To make thermodynamics relatable, this professor brings them to life with pop culture examples, guest lectures, and one-pagers.

Educator

Willie S. Rockward, PhD

Chair and Professor of Physics, Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland

PhD, MS (two), and BS in Physics

As you might imagine, thermodynamics—a branch of physics that focuses on heat and temperature in relation to energy and work—can be a brain-bending field full of math, math, and more math in support of a number of complicated theories. (For consideration: The four laws of thermodynamics start with the zeroth law.)

Now, imagine, if you can, the approach that an equally complicated man might take when teaching thermodynamics. For consideration: Willie Rockward, PhD, is a pastor, a professor, and the department chair of Physics at Morgan State University’s School of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences—an institution to which he transitioned after two decades teaching at Morehouse College in Atlanta. His longstanding approach to one of his Morehouse courses—Thermodynamics—is one he is working into his current teaching at Morgan State. He does not shy away from the complicated nature of the subject, but he does lead students in an unexpected direction.

Challenge

Physics often equates to math, math, and more math

Without context, students struggle to “see” how complex calculations relate to real life. And understanding those implications is what physics, including thermodynamics, is really all about.

Innovation

Shifting some emphasis to real life—and writing

For Rockward, making physics real means bringing in interesting guest lecturers and sharing current examples of thermodynamics. To make sure it sinks in, he supplements practice problems with an assignment that doubles as an assessment: one-page research summary papers.

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Adding pop culture and writing to the equation

Rockward says the secret to his success with students begins not in science and arithmetic but in pop culture. “I do my best to connect physics to the real world and [modern] culture,” he says. “Even complicated principles can apply to simple stuff like cooking, driving, or sports.” (Case in point: He once brought a plate of spaghetti to class and built the day’s thermodynamics lesson around it.)

“I do my best to connect physics to the real world and [modern] culture. Even complicated principles can apply to simple stuff like cooking, driving, or sports.”

— Willie S. Rockward, PhD

Though this approach has done much to bolster engagement, Rockward wanted a way to ensure that students were absorbing what they were hearing and seeing. Practice problem sets could not help him determine whether the deeper real-life connections were making sense. So, at least eight times each semester, Rockward asks students to create a one-page research summary of a recent lecture or guest seminar.

He has found that asking students to write about the fundamental theories and real-world examples covered in class can be unexpectedly empowering. He has noticed that the equations and laws somehow become easier to understand. It taps into the widely held belief that one of the best ways to check your comprehension of a topic is to try to explain it to someone else.

The exercise also serves as a sort of assessment—both for Rockward and the students. It makes it clear to students when they do not know enough about the subject. This can help him see which students might be able to work through practice problems but unable to explain the “why” behind each step.

Context

“A great advantage of the one-page research summary is that it pushes the students to read the chapter and additional resources on that topic! My students are completely surprised by interesting yet unknown [to them] facts about the subject.”

— Willie S. Rockward, PhD

Course: PHY 360, Thermodynamics

Course description: Primarily involves a study of the laws of thermodynamics. Includes the kinetic theory of gases and an introduction to statistical mechanics. Covers temperature and the zeroth law of thermodynamics, thermodynamic equilibrium, diagrams, equations of state, work, heat, the first law of thermodynamics, kinetic theory, engines, refrigerators, the second law of thermodynamics, reversibility, the Kelvin temperature scale, entropy, thermodynamic potentials, Maxwell relations, phase transitions, and the partition function.

Lesson: The physics behind writing a meaningful one-pager

Rockward’s writing assignments are one-page summary reports that achieve three key goals:

  • To stimulate students to dig more deeply into the subject matter
  • To encourage the application of subject matter to real-world examples
  • To minimize the time spent grading

Here, Rockward offers pointers on using his approach.

Start with relatable (and compelling) speakers

Rockward often invites local guests to speak to his class about current events or culture. Topics have included the rescue of trapped Chilean miners, robotics and astronomy, and comic book superheroes. These serve to bolster engagement, demonstrate the applications of the textbook theories, and provide students with some compelling subject matter for their papers.

Share a rubric that students can refer to throughout the semester

Assessing one-page summaries is not difficult or time-consuming if you offer a clear rubric, Rockward says. (He also shares examples of both high- and low-quality work submitted by students from previous years, to give his class an idea of what to aim for and what to avoid.) Here is what his rubric outlines:

  • The paper should include exactly four paragraphs and a title (which should be the topic of the talk).
  • The paragraphs one and two should first explain (in five to seven sentences each) who the speaker was and what their topic covered.
  • The third paragraph should discuss how the topic relates to thermodynamics (connecting the lecture to the principles applied).
  • The final paragraph should summarize what the student learned from the talk and/or additional research. Some questions to consider in the conclusion: Did you like the idea? Why? Why not? Was the speaker engaging?

The approach saves time in grading, he adds, because student submissions are all presented in a single format.

Require footnotes for all research

Students should include footnotes in their papers, citing all sources outside of the speaker. Rockward notes that many of these students will go on to pursue a doctorate degree, so they need this kind of practice. Just as important: If they hope to make an impact with the results of their future research, they will need to be able to produce publishable written summaries for journals.

Share the grading system to show you are serious

Rockward uses a weighted point system. Research summary assignments are worth 15% to 25% of the final grade, so students are well aware that these papers are important and are not meant to be dashed off at the last minute.

Learning outcomes of Rockward’s one-page papers

Using this written format, Rockward says, has helped hundreds of students, most of them sophomores and juniors who will continue on to get their doctorate degrees. The reasons he says it has stood the test of time:

  • It gives students an opportunity to practice their writing skills, which means they must think beyond math to explain theory and its relevance.
  • It helps students learn to search for reputable sources and details.
  • It helps students separate some of the more memorable real-world details of a lecture from the basics of thermodynamics.
  • The format is clear and repeatable—no ongoing explanations are needed.
  • The act of summarizing helps students see what they have learned, forces them to challenge misconceptions, and clarifies any confusion about the lesson.

If you follow this approach, Rockward tells students joyfully, “you can have a basic understanding of every single thing in the universe.”

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