Energy Theatre Debrief

Today was the first time I did an energy theater activity as an instructor. I decided to do this because

(1) I have been wanting to do some more physics (not just physics education stuff) with students in my teaching physics course

(2) I have been wanting to get them be engaged in some meaningful learning and learning activities, not just reading, talking, writing, and observing (although all of those are important, too)

(3) I wanted to shift our content focus, which has been heavily force and motion, to other topics.

(4) Today was a good day to be outside doing energy theater–it was sunny and 70 degrees!

Somethings that are really nice about energy theater include

(1) The rules are minimal but still provide a lot of structure, and the scenarios tied with rules provide a clear goal

(2) The activity just launches well–meaning that students start doing productive things, without looking to instructor, and without instructor having to answer a million question, or prod anything along. I spent most of my time away from the students listening, meandering back to ask a question or two, and then disappearing.

(3) There is lots to do, lots to negotiate, and lots of ways to participate–understanding the situation, deciding how many objects, what kinds of energy, what the signs for energy will be, how to mark the ground, who will start where, how many people they need, how things will evolve, how big a space they’ll need to fit everyone. The doing that happens, is by virtue of the physical space and the physical activity, seems naturally conducive for collaboration, listening, and discussing well.

(4) Different ideas about how to represent the situation arise (which is great), but, at the same time, much of this variations is reliable and predictable –has anyone done the submerged basket ball without the idea of buoyant energy coming up? The balance of diversity of ideas, with ability of instructor to anticipate and manage is nice.

(5) Students have to make decisions about how simple or complex to model the situation… should we include the air, or just the ground? Do we need to worry about the thermal energy of the ball? Do we need to give the rubberband some kinetic energy, or can we just say it gets potential energy directly? It’s easy for me to let them own these decisions.

(6) It is also easy, as an instructor, to see, feel, and hear how things are going and where they might be going. They are talking, moving, arranging, etc. It is also easy to ask questions that are helpful but not disruptive– “Did you guys decide how many objects there will be?” or “Have you guys discussed where everyone will need to start?” or “What’s this spot on the floor?” … or “Oooh. What’s that the sign for?”

(7) It’s also easy to suggest productive directions when they stall: “Well it sounds like you guys have two different ideas about how we should do this–Could we start by trying to actually do one and see how it works out, and then go back and focus on the other?” … “I have some whiteboards over there if you think it will help to try diagramming this out.” I like the ability to “do” things to see how they work, or write in order to plan more carefully. The talking, doing, writing aspects draw out different ideas, constraints, and realizations.

(8) Lots of issues and questions come up, including questions about choosing where “zero” energy will be? Whether or not energy needs to flow through object, or whether it can just jump straight over. Questions about whether energy can transfer and transform at the same time or whether it needs to do one or the other. Questions about how much thermal energy needs to be in each object, and whether they need to be the same. Questions about whether energy can be in an intermediate place where it’s not yet in second object but has left the first object, questions about can we invent new kinds of energy, questions about whether potential energy should be in objects or not, questions about whether all kinds of forces have respective kinds of energy, etc. etc. etc.

All and all in was a good day with energy theater. Students seems to notice right away that they’ve never been asked to do something like this where they keep track of what the energy is doing–that they typically are only asked to consider initial and final states, and maybe maybe some intermediate state, but not detailed tracking of where and how energy moves and changes.

Some of the most interesting discussions were when we had two plausible ways to model the situation, but individuals had different reasons to favor one or the other, or reasons to think that both were valid. It was interesting for me to see that some ways of solving the problems just “looked” better than others… and I wondered how much of that was aesthetic vs. scientific, or even both, because flow can be very aesthetic and is part of the science here.

The last part that was good about today was that students were “in” the moment a lot of the time, meaning that they were absorbed in the doing of arguing, listening, deciding, etc. It wasn’t forced or contrived.

OK one more things. The medium is just very good for negotiating and troubleshooting. If I had to be this picky about students diagrams (at first), it would seem like I was being an annoying teacher, but when the question is, “wait, where am I supposed to go next?”… Or “Wait, which of us is going to change to KE and which to PE when we step?”… it seems natural. Of course we need to know who and when and how, otherwise how will we move ourselves correctly. I can’t imagine a student with a static representation, student being so open to questions about the micro-details of energy transfers. I’d be nagging them.

4 thoughts on “Energy Theatre Debrief

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  1. OK another thing that I liked about today with energy theater is this: A bunch of physics majors moving around, waving their hands, moving string around only attracts other physics majors to come by and see what’s going on. What one of my students said to themas he passed them a piece of paper was, “You can join in, but you have to learn the rules we are playing by first.”

  2. Brian, this is so awesome! I’m delighted that you enjoyed it so much as an instructor, and your observations about the ways in which it was time well spent are really insightful. We hope to put out a TPT paper soon and this is very helpful. Let’s talk.

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