Michael Ralph: For our first segment of the New Year, we are excited to welcome a couple of guests to the show to talk with us about their efforts at doing some research while they’re still undergraduates. So we’re going to welcome 1st Nahuel Acosta, welcome.
Nahuel Acosta: Well thanks, thanks for having me.
MR: Noel Acosta is the beginnings of a physics teacher and he immigrated to the United States from Uruguay and has been through the ELL system and is now going back to help out other ELL students. We also have Auriana Anderson. Welcome.
Auriana Anderson: Hello.
MR: Auriana Anderson is a pre-service teacher in the UTeach program at U. Mass. Boston. She emphasizes that there are different ways to teach but everyone can learn, so welcome both of you. How are you doing?
NA: I’m doing great.
AA: I’m doing good, doing good.
MR: I actually got to meet these two at the Uteach conference where you were sharing a poster on some research that you’ve done as an undergraduate, So let’s just start there. You want to tell us a little about what you were sharing at the conference?
NA: Yeah, sure. What did we share at the conference? We had a poster about quantum mechanics, and could we teach it to any grade level? So basically, can you grab this big concept and big complicated concept and shove it into elementary kid students and middle school and high schoolers. That was the idea of the poster.
Laurence Woodruff: Why would you even want to try to teach quantum mechanics to elementary school kids. This sounds like a ludicrous endeavor. There are other things that they need to know before quantum mechanics right? Why bother with something that is so advanced within the realms of physics and they don’t even… has the term physics even been contextualized to these elementary school kids? Why? What is the point? Why bother trying this? Whose idea was this?
NA: I guess, personally on my end, it would be because I’m super interested in physics. That’s personally. But then the other thing is, according to Alioscia which is a professor at Umass Boston who’s very into the quantum field stuff, He’s been proposing the idea that quantum mechanics is going to be a job opportunity for people who are going to be coming right out of high school. Companies are going to be looking into people who know some basic quantum mechanics as similarly to how a lot of people want people to know computer science, they’ll be companies who would want people to have some basic understanding of quantum mechanics or quantum just in general
AA: Yeah. Elementary students tend to be more creative. They explorer more. When we went into each lesson, don’t think we had the same lesson plans. For the elementary kids we broke it down a little bit more, but the idea was to see if they could have an understanding of the quantum world after we were done with the lesson, which, I think we got them to understand it.
NA: When you approach a quantum problem, most of the properties that you’re used to, like the car is blue, then you put it in a box, and then you take the box out, the car still blue. But in a quantum system that might differ. You put something in the box, and then when you look at it again it’ll be a different thing. We can talk about the spins and stuff like that if you wanted to, but the idea is that if you started at an early age, start thinking about those concepts of, well, really physics could be… it’s a way of describing the world, and if you start describing the world that really tiny stuff that really deals with the weirdness of quantum mechanics, right? If you are dealing with the weirdness at a young age you’re more willing to accept the fact of what quantum mechanics is and then maybe work with that idea later on in life.
AA: So me and Nahuel are total opposites actually. Before I began on this project, I’m not going to lie, I hated Physics. Absolutely hated it. I hate it.
AA: Sorry. But I did. When I got into the lesson, I think what helped me a lot with being able to understand the quantum world a little bit more than I did, is that the way we talk less. We used quarters and we categorize that as a warm up to show the classical world, our world, that we can see, and then we switch to the quantum world where you can’t see things. The way that we did the lesson actually ended up helping me understand it more and I think that’s why I was able to do this project and teach it in classes and help other kids understand it, because before, I was, “Nope.” Anything he said about physics, I was, “No I don’t want to hear it. I’m all set.”
LW: What was the target content knowledge or skill you wanted them to develop about quantum mechanics, and how did you assess whether your lessons had promoted that understanding or skills in the students you worked with?
NA: The content that we were trying to assess was how the properties of an object, well we can’t really say objects in the quantum world, they are not really objects, but the properties of a thing, a particle in this case, or the properties of a button, our lesson, we use buttons to describe the quantum world, that the properties in the quantum world are not set in stone. You can’t say the button is black because it is a black button. If you take another measurement of that black button they’ll still be… Ok, hold on…
AA: I think, to synthesize that we wanted to show how in the classical world we can see things and they don’t change on us but in the quantum world, we can see one property, but when we try to see 2 at the same time, it doesn’t happen. It doesn’t work that way. If you’re doing black and white, and you see black, but then you try to see big or small, you’re going to see big, but then you go back, and you say, “Oh this was black,” and it might be white now. That’s kind of the idea.
MR: Yeah. We read a paper from Alioscia Hamma that you sent to us and it described some of your lesson, and I remember seeing not just the… I feel a little weird imagining teaching students all is a lie and the world as an illusion. That’s a little bit of an abstract message, but there’s a lot of math that I thought I saw in analyzing the probabilities and percentages distributed across multiple events. What was it like trying to incorporate some of those fairly abstract math ideas with the various groups of students your work with.
NA: I personally, when I was working with a little group in the middle schoolers, I did have trouble trying to explain that part of the lesson, the probity part, because we started collecting data, but then they started messing around the data, they weren’t super sure it was 50/50, so one way of simplifying the math was is to draw it on the board. Something that you explain. We started with buttons, and we measured the color. How many were black and how many were white. You have two boxes and you say, “Oh that’s a 50 percent and then it’s another 50 percent,” and then you grab those black buttons and then we say, “let’s measure the color again. What is the probability of having the color of these black buttons?”
LW:Ultimately you wanted students to understand about the impermanence of properties for quantum particles. How did you assess whether those students at each of those levels understood that concept?
AA: The way we assessed was at the end of the class we had worksheets for them to fill out. That basically asked certain questions that they should be able to answer at the end of the lesson. As I said, it was kind of hard to get them to fill out the lessons, fill out the papers, but from some of them I could see that students understand. A lot of them, it was kind of like, “I’m not too sure about it.”
NA: It’s weak, since the lesson had to work… students had to work in groups, each of them being set to different roles in the group. One is the button emitter, like an electron emitter, so the button emitter. Someone was the measurer, someone would look into it and give a recording, and then the observer which would be the scientists in this case, would be the one that put down the markings of how many black and white buttons they had. Each group had a recorder of it right in front of them, where we could hear what they were doing during the lesson and then and then like that at the end we could hear their questions. What kind of questions they were asking, what type of reactions they had when we presented different solutions to the problem.
AA: Part of the way that I did the recording process was based off of some of the stuff that I learned when I interned at Dana Farber about asking certain questions and answering it. I would listen to a recording, and then I would write the student’s answers and then I would categorize them and then from the categories that I made, we ended up making them into a Venn diagram and then put that together.
LW: Well, so you’re listening to the recordings in order to sort the student comments to help you assess the effectivity of this lesson.
NA: In the recordings who looked at that type of question, so a type of question would be something like, “Well when does the button change color?” for example. If a student said something like that, then I could definitely tell that they’re engaged and they’re thinking about quantum mechanics. I guess in the middle school example it would be, Something that would tell me that they weren’t getting it was when they were talking about probabilities and they weren’t really grasping that idea of it is a 50/50 chance, right?
AA: Yeah. The middle schoolers, you could definitely tell that they were not so engaged because, a lot of our recordings from middle school, it cut off because they would turn off the recorders, or they’d be… some of them in the recording were like, “What is this? Hahahahahahahahahah.” They’re just screaming in the recorder, so you can tell that we didn’t really have them engaged. I think to improve that, we could have… we already had pretty small groups… maybe even smaller groups and more attention on each group. We probably need maybe one or two more teachers in the classroom and to focus on each group and work with them.
MR: How many different middle school classes did you teach, or did somebody teach that was included in your dataset.
AA: It’s still an ongoing lesson, but right now, so far we have one elementary, one middle, and two high schools and then as we go on we’ll have more in middle school and more elementary.
MR: That was something that I felt some tension as I was just going through your poster was I know with qualitative methods you don’t want astronomical N. I understand that, but also I’m just remembering how different all of my different sections of classes were. If you were to go in and do a guess lesson in just one of my biology classes you would get really different experiences just depending on which students happened to be in there that day and the mood they happen to have that day and whether it was a field trip later that day. You know there’s so many reasons they could be different and so many of them don’t have anything to do with the lesson material. How or was it something that you have a chance to talk with your facilitator perhaps, how are you navigating, with only a small number of classrooms all those idiosyncratic differences that you get just between groups of students that don’t have anything to do with your lesson?
AA: In our program that we are in Uteach we learn how to work with what we have in the classroom. Even if there are different emotions, people are obviously going to be learning differently. There are a lot of things going on in different classrooms. That’s one big thing that we learn is how to adjust to all the different settings we are in, because when you become a teacher you’re going to have to.
MR: There are some different priorities between a practitioner, Auriana, as you describe, we have our students and we need to find ways to reach them. We need to find a way to teach them whatever the group may be, and that’s 100 percent accurate. I am on that boat. But then compared with the needs of a researcher, where if your goal is generalization then you need to have representation of all different kinds of students you could have, or if you want richness of context for the details then you need to make sure that you’re describing the characteristics of the groups who you are teaching or where you are you getting your evidence. Those needs are sometimes different, or at least what you are gonna do to meet those priorities are sometimes different. You say, “we’re just going out there to teach some guest lessons or try to figure it out,” Awesome. Awesome, without asterix, compared to if I’m working with my researcher hat on and I’m trying to synthesize from my data and try to draw some conclusions then I need to worry about some things that maybe are not of concern to me as a practitioner, but I do need to worry about if I’m going to be a researcher. It’s really great that you both had a chance to think about that tension while you’re still so early in your careers. I teach at the Uteach site in Kansas and I think it’s something that if you get a chance to experience earlier in your career then you’re more likely to appreciate the role that research plays in our practice as classroom teachers but then also it just better equips you to participate in that conversation and maybe even contribute back as your careers develop. I’m glad that you had a chance to work through it. It’s hard I don’t have an answer for you. So you’re hosting schools were different in lots of ways. It sounds like.
MR: This is a hypothetical, but I’m imagining especially with the emphasis of our programs on, yes, teaching, everybody can learn, as you say, if you were to go back out and deliver a guest lesson in another middle school classroom in the same building, have you thought about would you make changes to the lesson?
AA: We could put one or two more teachers in the classroom just so that they’re all engaged all the time. There were three of us in that classroom but when one of us didn’t get to a different group, and we were all at other groups, then there would be a group over there and they would get distracted and stuff so I would say have more teachers in the classroom. And I try to get a little bit… I’m not going to say freedom but that other classroom, I don’t really think it was acceptable, that while I was asking a student question she kind of cut him off and was like, “You need to be quiet. She said it kind of rough. I was, “Oh my God.” Even if students are screaming out answers sometimes, I think that’s Ok. Obviously don’t let the class run wild, but screaming out answers sometimes is Ok. It actually can help get to a point in a lesson or help other students out. So I don’t mind that.
NA: Yeah. That kind that actually drove our conclusion of our poster. A lot, in terms of what we concluded in our findings. We felt like we can definitely do quantum mechanics in any classroom but the classroom has to have a culture of where you’re asking it thinking outside of the box right? You literally have to think outside the box to approach a quantum mechanics question.
MR: How are you going to take what you’ve seen and draw some lessons that will make you better as an educator? How will you promote the critical thinking, the agency of the students in your classroom whether or not talking about quantum mechanics. How will you help get them ready for these kinds of discussions in your classroom and in future classrooms? While you’re thinking I’m just going to tell you a sort of contextualizing story for me. When I think about I taught biology for a number of years before I came to KU and I can remember some times where I would be, “Oh. Students need to understand how to use the literature. I care about…” I mean it is why I do this show. I care about research. Students should be reading the literature, and then I leave my meeting and I go back into my classroom and I take a piece of literature that my students could be reading and I synthesize it into a graphic that I put up on a projector and I don’t ask my students to read paper. There would be times where it would take me a while to recognize that mismatch between what I believed my priority to be and this oversight that I had my classroom and I still have some of those of. I’ve caught some of them, but I still have some of them, and so really what I’m asking is how are you going to use this experience to inform how you approach your classroom so you make sure that you are helping your students be ready for when they encounter their version of this new event or this unfamiliar phenomenon.
NH: The thing is I don’t know if I have an answer to it. I’m mostly afraid of making the same errors every year the teacher makes, since I’m just starting. I’m mostly afraid of not doing inquiry based teaching and just going on the easy way out, whereas it’s gimmy just answers and let’s move on to the content, right? I’m mostly afraid of how am I really going to do it without…
MR: Yeah. It’s hard.
NH:… putting myself under so much weight that It crumbles entire class, right? Because I feel like it’s a lot of work to put it into a class so I do want to do it but I have no idea how exactly since I’m a new teacher, right?
AA: So I guess to maybe give some suggestions for that question, this past summer I co-taught a class and so did Nahuel, he taught his own class. Part of making sure you’re doing inquiry in classes, making sure you correct yourself, right away. A lot of times I’ll find when I’m tutoring students one on one, I remember recently actually I was explaining this math problem. I’ll say, “OK. Do it on the board,” right? Then he starts to do it and I’m like, “No not that..” and then I was, “Maybe I shouldn’t do that. Let’s go with the way he’s doing it because that is the way he learns. I shouldn’t try to adjust it to my own way. He ended up understanding the problem better in the end. If you can’t get it right away, just reflect on it and try to be better tomorrow. Also another thing I had noticed was during the lessons is their teacher would then go on the board and he would be, “How did you do it,” and they would be, “Auriana showed me,” and I would be, “Oh my God.” It is not that I even showed them the answer. I asked questions, and they ended up coming up with a solution. How do you get them to explain it themselves on the board? One thing I found, maybe this is not the greatest idea, they say, “Auriana, helped me do it.” I would be, “I did help you, right?.” “Yea.” “How did I help you.” They would be, “Ohh well. You asked me this and then I did that.” “Oh so you kind of got your self, right? So go ahead and explain that on the board.”
LW: Yeah. That’s good.
MR: Yeah, I think that’s a great way to do it.
LW: Some things I would say about some comments you made earlier. You’re afraid that you’ve got all this weight on you and you’re afraid of doing it wrong and you have got to be at peace with that you are doing it wrong. You just got to be at peace with that. You can’t be afraid of doing it wrong you have to bravely and boldly go and do it wrong because it’s too much to carry. It’s too much to carry your 1st year. It’s too much to carry your 8th year. It’s too much to carry your 10th year. Because the more that you figure out how you can you know, “I can do this now and I can do this now and I can do this now,” your ability to see other things that you have to improve also increases so you never gets to this place where you’re like I got it now I can stop growing. That’s never going to happen. So come to peace with doing it wrong so that you can actually come to peace with improving yourself so that you just keep getting better.
MR: Because it’s important. The mistakes matter, let’s not make any bones about it. The mistakes matter. Wouldn’t it be a shame if it was irrelevant whether we walked in and did a good job or not, but what we do is important, I’m right there with you. I really appreciate you both coming on this is some really thought provoking work that you’ve shared with us and give me some new things to consider for what I’m doing in my classroom.