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First-year physics course being transformed through experiment

A new course in introductory physics this term promises to affect the freshman experience of almost every student who enters 77 Massachusetts Ave. in the next decade or so.

Professor John Belcher, who heads the course, attended a meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers about five years ago and heard of efforts to introduce "active learning" into introductory physics courses at other universities.

He learned that a decade of research in science education showed that active participation by students enormously enhances their understanding of the material they're learning. This meant that students at MIT could learn more if they worked directly with physics instructors and fellow students doing hands-on experiments, rather than passively listening to lectures in large halls.

"I'm a space physicist, not a specialist in physics education," said Belcher. "But the research and my own experience convinced me that students were not internalizing physics. They didn't really understand the concepts."

Belcher, a Class of 1960 Fellow and a MacVicar Faculty Fellow, had just finished a three-year stint teaching 8.02 (Electromagnetism I), the second semester freshman physics course, in Room 26-100. The format of that course has been three hours of lecture to 500-700 students and two hours of recitation to about 30 students each week. The lecturer would perform a number of large demonstration experiments in each lecture, but students did no hands-on experiments themselves. The first-semester course, 8.01 (Introductory Mechanics) is taught the same way.

"It's not the ideal way to teach," said Belcher. "I would put tremendous effort into these lectures and they were very good. But by the end of the term I'd get less than 50 percent attendance in lecture. It was very disheartening." And the failure rate was high--10 to 15 percent. With no attendance requirement, many overwhelmed freshmen chose to try learning the material from reading the textbook at home.

After the American Association of Physics Teachers meeting, Belcher began looking seriously at a studio-format physics initiated at Rennesaeler Polytechnic Institute in 1994, and also at the way other universities, notably North Carolina State University, had modified and elaborated on that format.

"The [physics] department was enthusiastic about trying this approach," said Belcher. "When the d'Arbeloff and iCampus projects came along, Hal Abelson, co-chair of the MIT Council on Educational Technology, was also very supportive, and I proposed trying this at MIT."


This is the first semester that Electromagnetism I is being taught in a new studio format in a classroom that was renovated and wired just for this course. The effort goes under the acronym TEAL, for Technology Enabled Active Learning, with the course numbered 8.02T. Students work in groups of three at round tables seating nine, with physics staff walking around the room working with student teams. Every one or two classes, each group of three students performs an experiment that illuminates the principles being studied.

The periphery of the TEAL classroom in Room 26-152 has 13 whiteboards (one for each student table) and eight video projectors and screens. A camera can be directed onto each whiteboard and the board projected onto all the screens in the room, making it easy to show the work of a student or group to the rest of the class.

Each group of three students is assigned a networked laptop computer. The lecturer has a cordless microphone so he or she can walk around the room and work with individuals, groups or the entire class.

"The physics department has made a commitment to transform most of the freshman courses to the TEAL format over the next couple of years," said Professor Marc Kastner, head of the department. "We've been convinced by John's work that this is a better way to help students understand the physics concepts. And it's the exact way we should be using technologies--to enhance the human interaction, not to encourage students to stay in their dorm rooms with their computers.

"I think John has done a wonderful service, not only for the physics department but the Institute as a whole," Kastner continued. "He's put a lot of energy into this and I'm really proud of him."

"The real test of this will be in the spring of 2003, when we move TEAL into the on-term version of 8.02, with 500 or more students," said Belcher. "But the course has gone well this term, and it will only get better."


"Students attend class a lot more. In fact, they have to," said Sankha Basu, a junior in the class who did not pass 8.02 the first time around. "There are daily assignments due in class that take the form of group assignments. Students also pay attention because lecture is more interactive and hands-on. It's a marked improvement to 8.02 lecture."

Basu passed all his classes his first term at MIT before tangling with 8.02 the second semester of his freshman year.

"My streak of never having failed a class was about to end," he said. "I got overconfident after demolishing the first test and got apathetic. After all, lectures weren't mandatory and neither were recitations. The downward spiral began. I was not an avid attender. After a few weeks of sitting at 10 a.m. with 350 freshmen, the class began to thin out. Soon I also stopped attending. I figured if I was going to sleep, I might as well sleep at home.

"So I'm taking 8.02 again, but this time it's 8.02T," he said.

The course uses WebAssign, an automated system for submission and electronic grading of problem sets, which are due the evening before the next day's class. Problems are on material covered in previous classes as well as that to be covered in the next.

"This insures that students have some familiarity with the material to be covered before they walk into the class, letting the instructor cover material in a more sophisticated way," said Belcher.

Experiments for the course are chosen for their educational value. Three of the experiments were taken from those created by Professor Emeritus John King for 8.02X, the freshman physics course designed for freshmen who have an interest in experiments. Others were purchased from makers of commercial desktop experiments. Some have a data acquisition link that sends data directly from the experiment to the laptop computers used by students, where it can be analyzed.

"This format is making us rethink what a physics syllabus should be," said Peter Dourmashkin, a lecturer in physics who is teaching one of the two sections of 8.02T with Professor David Litster.

"Traditionally, in large lectures, you do what is possible to do in front of 500 people, not because it's what you should do. Now we're asking the question: What do we really want our students to learn about electricity and magnetism?" Dourmashkin said.


The TEAL project also has developed many visualizations and simulations to help students understand the abstract concepts they encounter in physics, especially in electromagnetism. This effort is a continuation of projects funded by James (S.B. 1953, Ph.D. 1957) and Sylvia Earl through the Helena Foundation; the Classes of 1951 and 1955; and the National Science Foundation. Examples of these visualizations are linked into the 8.02T home page, as is a list of the desktop experiments and their descriptions.

The TEAL Studio Physics Project is sponsored by the Department of Physics and the Center for Educational Computing Initiatives (CECI). Other people involved are Andrew McKinney, the CECI project manager for TEAL; Mark Bessette, technical staff member of CECI who is the TEAL 3-D illustrator/animator; Professor Yehudit J. Dori of Technion University, who leads the assessment and evaluation effort; Lori Breslow, director of the Teaching and Learning Laboratory, who guided the physics faculty in the the collaborative and active learning structure of the course; Al Lazarus, Sen-Ben Liao, Norman Derby, Nicholas Morgan and Justin Kasper, who help in the classroom teaching; Phillip Bailey and Ralph Rabbat of CECI; Joanna Binkowski of Academic Media Production Services; and Markos Hankin, William Sanford and Zachary Rouse of the physics department demonstration group.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 19, 2001.

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