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Lessons Learned from FIPSE Projects II - September 1993

Dickinson College and Tufts University

Workshop Physics and Tools for Scientific Thinking


The average introductory physics textbook is 1,000 pages long. The average physics student emerges from his first course in a state of cognitive overload, retaining at best a few formulas and definitions, and clinging to some of the very misconceptions about physical phenomena that the course was designed to dispel.

The Workshop Physics project at Dickinson College and the Tools for Scientific Thinking project at Tufts University were conceived to address the problems of teaching and learning introductory physics. Project faculty determined that these courses should prepare students for further study of physics and other sciences and should enable them to become proficient in the use of computers and other research tools. Most importantly, introductory physics courses should whet students' appetites to learn more science.

The projects, which originally were funded separately by FIPSE, merged in their third year.

Innovative Features

The Workshop Physics project resulted in the creation of two two-course sequences, one in calculus-based introductory physics and one in algebra-based physics. The principal dilemma confronting introductory physics instructors is choosing what to teach and how to teach it: relativity, quantum theory and chaos vs. Newton's Laws and classical thermodynamics; new pedagogies based on cognitive theory vs. traditional instruction and the digital computer vs. the electronic calculator. Accordingly, one of the faculty's most significant decisions was to reduce the amount of information delivered to the students in favor of enabling them to acquire transferable skills of scientific inquiry.

The choice of which topics to retain in the syllabus was based on the extent to which these lent themselves to direct observation, and to the broad applicability of the mathematical and reasoning skills required to analyze these observations. Topics such as relativity and quantum mechanics, which require levels of abstract reasoning beyond the abilities of beginning students, were eliminated.

Since all pedagogical decisions were oriented towards the goal of teaching students to think scientifically, lectures and demonstrations, whose value lies in transmitting information rather than helping students to reason like scientists, were abandoned in favor of direct inquiry and discussion.

The microcomputer is an essential tool in this approach. Not only can students work scientific operations quickly, but a microcomputer connected to a sensor (such as an ultrasonic motion detector, photogates, temperature sensors or geiger tubes) via an electronic interface can perform instantaneous calculations and produce graphs. The use of a microcomputer-based laboratory to produce a time trace of the position of a student's body, for example, can help that student grasp intuitively how a graph represents the history of change in a given parameter.


Using essays, homework and laboratory completion rates, performance on various tests, and interviews, project faculty measured student attitudes, conceptual development, problem-solving abilities, and computer and laboratory skills. The most fruitful instruments included a comparison of student ratings on the all-college rating system which has been in use for ten years at Dickinson; a survey of course management practices and student attitudes administered to over 3,000 students at 22 institutions; and pre- and post-tests of introductory physics students over a period of four years.Although, given the volume of evaluation data, analysis is not yet complete, the project has yielded significant gains among the more than 250 Dickinson students who have completed Workshop Physics courses since 1987.

Attitudes towards the study of physics have improved, as shown by the numerical ratings of calculus-based Workshop Physics students on the standard all-college evaluation forms. About two-thirds of the students in these courses express a strong preference for this method over the lecture approach, and enrollments in advanced courses have increased by 15-30 percent. Results for the algebra-based courses serving premedical students are less positive--only half of the students in these courses prefer the workshop approach.

Because of the direct experience with phenomena allowed by Workshop Physics, a greater percentage of students master concepts that are usually considered difficult to teach because they involve classic misconceptions. For example, Dickinson students show significant gains in graph interpretation skills needed for the study of kinematics after learning to interpret velocity graphs by producing graphs in real time on a computer screen with the aid of an MBL motion detector system. On the other hand, Tufts University students who listened to traditional kinematics lectures did not show a significant reduction in error rates.

Although the conceptual gains of Workshop Physics students are greater than those achieved by students taking conventional physics courses in many topic areas, the gains are not universal, and in certain areas Workshop Physics students perform no better that their traditional peers.

Student performance in upper level physics courses and in solving traditional textbook problems is as good as or better than that of students in the traditional curriculum. Moreover, Workshop Physics students demonstrate a comparatively greater degree of comfort working with computers and other laboratory equipment.

Regardless of format, female students react less positively to the study of physics than males. Nevertheless, women who enroll in Workshop Physics make proportionately greater gains than males in their appreciation of the use of computers. Despite women's supposed dislike for hands-on work, female students continue to comprise 30 percent or more of the physics majors at Dickinson.

Some students perceive Workshop Physics as taking more time out of class than the traditional approach, although surveys demonstrate that this is not in fact the case. A small number of students dislike the hands-on approach, and would much prefer a textbook and lecture-oriented pedagogy.

Project Impact

Despite the adjustments in schedule and teaching style required initially (the courses are taught in three two-hour sessions per week rather than the three traditional hour-long lectures and single two- or three-hour laboratory), Workshop Physics is now regularly offered at Dickinson. The amount of national attention the courses have attracted has helped to make them popular with students, faculty and administrators. Nevertheless, instituting academic change is a laborious and time-consuming process.

The assessment of a project such as this one can become problematic if it is not tied carefully to evaluation of students for grading purposes. Improperly planned assessment can yield mountains of unanalyzed data, and can rob faculty of valuable time.

Workshop Physics has so far resulted in impressive gains for students, yet much remains to be learned about how different individuals learn different scientific topics. Workshop Physics is certain to continue to generate subjects for investigation and reflection for years to come.


The project has received a number of national awards, such as the Merck Innovation Award in Undergraduate Science Education and an EDUCOM/NCRIPTAL Award for Best Software in Physics. The Director of Workshop Physics, Priscilla W. Laws, was awarded a Distinguished Service Citation from the American Association of Physics Teachers. The project has garnered close to three million dollars in additional grant funds from FIPSE, NSF and IBM.

Project Continuation

The developers of Workshop Physics are collaborating formally with faculty at the University of Oregon, Ohio State University and Rutgers University in the adaptation and testing of Workshop Physics and Tools for Scientific Thinking materials. Over 50 other institutions use these materials to various degrees and have adapted the project's curriculum to their own needs.

In addition, the project has attracted the attention of faculty from chemistry, biology and mathematics at several colleges and universities. Their joint interdisciplinary efforts include designing software, devising uses for the laboratory technology, and testing. At Dickinson, a new Workshop Mathematics program, recently funded by FIPSE, is investigating ways of adapting Workshop Physics to mathematics instruction.

Available Information

Copies of articles about Workshop Physics, and information regarding workshops for faculty interested in learning this approach may be obtained from:

Virginia Trumbauer
Department of Physics and Astronomy
Dickinson College, Box 1773
Carlisle, PA 17013-2896

Copies of the Workshop Physics Student Activity guides, both calculus-based and algebra-based, as well as an apparatus guide are available in both printed and electronic formats (for MacIntosh computers). The cost is nominal and purchasers are granted permission to modify and/or reproduce materials locally. The Microcomputer-Based Laboratory apparatus, including a serial interface, sensors, and MacIntosh software developed jointly at Tufts University and Dickinson College are also available for purchase.

Price lists and ordering information are available from:

Vernier Software
2920 SW 89th Street
Portland, OR 97225
Fax: 503-297-1760

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Last Modified: 02/22/2006