Legos, or something like them

Today I ventured yet again into the world of SCALE-UP classrooms. This time with a bit of success! The professor that teaches the class I help out with talked for a while about crystal structures – simple cubic, body centered cubic, and face centered cubic.

The structure of how the material was presented itself went a little bit like the following:

  • Introduce the concept that atoms pack together
  • Speak on the three main cubic crystal types: SC, BCC, FCC
  • Figure out coordination numbers and “n;” how many full atoms belong to a unit cell
  • From the above, do theoretical density calculations
  • Build ball-and-stick models to look back at the prior items discussed.

In hindsight (isn’t it beautiful?!) the order should have been a little bit different, and I think will wholly influence what we do going forward with models and hands-on activities.  Distribute materials early on so students can manipulate them and practice ALONG WITH the lecture rather than practice AFTER the lecture.  Specifically these 3D style models a few students struggled to see it right away. I think they would have benefited to look at the models with the lecture as opposed to after.

I’m intrigued to see, going forward, what happens when we give out materials early on during a lecture. I can see (as I know I would have been this type of person!) how it would be tempting to play with “toys” and not pay attention. The balance between the two is going to be the most difficult part to manage.  Do you give students hands on examples early and let them tinker at the expense of their full attention? Or does that tinkering immediately instead keep their attention for longer periods of time?


I learned a few things that some people struggle with and yet I take for granted.  First off, seeing how a unit cell clips spheres into eighths comes naturally. To some people, it doesn’t. I made this little doodad in Mathematica to illustrate it for a few students and it seemed to help them out quite a bit.

A bit of fun on-the-fly learning happened, too.  As I was teaching them that no matter what atom you are in a crystal structure you see the SAME crystal structure all around you. If we start out with just the center atom of a BCC crystal other center-BCCs would make their own cube with a previous corner as their center-of-cell.

Another Mathematica doodad:

BCC structure with blue at the body center

BCC structure with yellow at the body center








Still a BCC structure. Notice the lower left corner of the yellow unit cell functions as the body center atom of the blue while the upper right corner of the blue unit cell functions as the body center atom of the yellow.

Anyway, that was pretty mindless rambling, but what we discussed in class today. FCC was very difficult to construct and didn’t really teach much – it looks more like a mess than anything.  I’d stick to BCC in the future.

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Surge 108 Layout

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This is the room in which we attempt to SCALE-UP. Surge 108, on VT’s Blacksburg campus.  It’s only looked like this for about a month! The instruction of students in this room is still very much in its infancy so … Continue reading

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A contract. A syllabus. A noose.

Before I started to blog myself I figured I would check up and see what other people were saying. You know, peer pressure and all. Lots of us have nothing more special to say than greet the world with open arms in a manner done since 1974ish, if you can believe Wikipedia (we all do, don’t lie). Anyway, my inspiration for this post comes from here (a fairly generic URL, so lets hope Mr. Rhoads doesn’t change it).

I’ve never agreed that a syllabus should be a contract.
– Campbell

We’ve all been in the situation where our syllabus is our contract.  One that we don’t have to sign or agree to.  Its just… there. The guillotine-shaped elephant in the room. Don’t like it? Leave.  It’s a noose from which to hang if things go awry.

But what happens if a syllabus IS a contract? They are, by definition, something agreed upon by both parties.  Hopefully with the input of the aforementioned parties. Why can’t we write syllabi WITH our students instead of FOR our students? Probably because curriculum supervisors somewhere would all have a conniption in unison. “You must cover chapters 1-12, 17, and 23. NO EXCEPTIONS.”

I’m realizing, as I write this, that the above might only be true in engineering/science classes. Can somebody who might be an arts person let me know if not getting to every one of Sartre’s works would be detrimental?

Truth. There IS importance in covering material. But let’s have some flexibility in HOW it’s covered. We all know there are different learning styles and that lectures can’t cover them all. But why the lack of flexibility in the assignments we let students do? (“Let” them do, see what I did there?) Instead of forcing a final, let students pick.  If they’re a) wonderful writers or b) looking to improve their writing skills, why not let them substitute a term paper? Sick of the homework? Fine, skip it. But tell me about one way insert-academic-field-here affected your life today.

When a star athlete signs a contract it is loaded with incentives.  Let’s entice our students to do well instead of demand it. Truly earn a grade, not just get assigned one. Pick your poison; live and die with your perceived strengths rather than my required evaluations.

I can live with a complicated gradebook, can’t you?

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Flying Solo

or how not to use a SCALE-UP classroom

With the primary instructor out of town, I was left to teach my first full class period in our SCALE-UP classroom. I was confident in the material and had no qualms about presenting it but I wasn’t sure quite how to involve the students. I, despite my best efforts, lectured to them.

First off, the material was DRY. Seriously. We first talked about electron configurations in atoms [1s2 2s2 2p3, anybody?], then how these electrons interacted and created bonds between particles and finally wound up with how one might discern a physical property from these bonding types. There was a LITTLE bit of success when I asked them to talk among themselves about σ (electrical conductivity) as well as strength, but I wouldn’t consider it an incredibly useful discussion.  It took… two minutes. Not sure that counts as a problem-based learning exercise.

But then I tried for one. I had thought about it ahead of time, made this fancy little graphic [actual science content – warning!]. I asked the students to come up with some geometrical terms that might be used to describe the picture below. I prompted them with a few – how deep was the well? how symmetrical were the halves? how quickly did it change direction? – only after I saw they had no idea what I was asking about the first time.

Not surprisingly, the three answers I gave them were indeed THE answers. But what physical properties might the correspond to? Dead silence. Nobody had any idea.  The exercise had flopped.  So I guess I learned a few things.

  1. One instructor is NOT sufficient to facilitate conversation with 120 students.  Not that there was much conversation… but if there had been I certainly would not have been able to structure any degree of it.
  2. PBL (Problem Based Learning) in the future is going to require very specific prompts. I think what I asked them to do was more of a suggestion. Handouts (or even physical words on the chalkboard or overhead) would have provided better direction.
  3. The dryer the material the more effective an example like this is.  But dang, it’s got to be a better example than this one!

Live and learn, right? That’s what the education process is about.  Speaking of education… who wants a quiz? Of the above, which has the highest Tm? highest stiffness? highest strength? Lowest CTE? Answers: ˙ssǝuɟɟıʇs ʇsǝɥbıɥ :q ˙ǝʇɔ ʇsǝʍoן :ɔ ˙ʇuıod buıʇןǝɯ puɐ ɥʇbuǝɹʇs ʇsǝɥbıɥ :p

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Originally my blogging adventure was supposed to begin with a GEDI (Graduate Education Development Institute) class called Contemporary Pedagogy but during that same semester I was invited to begin co-teaching a course in an innovative learning environment.  Considering both have to do with pedagogy I figured I’d talk about the two of them in parallel.  So here goes.

SCALE-UP.  What the heck, dude? It stands for “Student Centered Active Learning Environment in Undergraduate Physics” but has since kind of transformed into a more general style of class. Doing some quick browsing it seems that the SCALE-UP concept originated at North Carolina State University but has spread – for good reason!  The concept of a this style of class is active, hands-on learning. Instead of being lectured at students aim to investigate a problem. Instead of a one way discussion (prof to student) this style of learning is more conversational.  IDEALLY students teaching other students.  An exchange of ideas.

From what I can tell these classrooms tend to be <100 students. Ours is 120. It makes me a little bit nervous that one professor and one teaching assistant can adequately facilitate discussion with 30 groups (our room is set up as 30 groups of 4 students). I guess we’ll learn as we go!

So here it is, my foray into a new pedagogy I’m excited to explore.

MIT’s TEAL (Technology Enabled Active Learning) Classroom. I don’t have pictures of our classroom just yet, but I’ll keep you posted.

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