Setting Up Service Learning Projects in High School Physics
Students can apply their knowledge of physics to solve problems in their communities—like studying inclined planes to gauge the effectiveness of wheelchair ramps in their school.
It can be hard to ensure that students stay engaged in the dreaded weeks between the holidays and February break. I’ve found that this time of year is the perfect time for the implementation of service-learning projects in my high school physics classes. Service learning helps my students develop their civic character through empathy and community involvement while also helping them develop a strong understanding of the course content.
Many of my students have been accepted into college by the spring and find themselves just going through the motions of solving F = ma or J = Δp. In addition to this, our most mathematically involved unit on inclined planes (or the physics of ramps) is normally taught in the spring, when students are most likely to be somewhat tuned out. In years past, this has been akin to reteaching trigonometry to a brick wall. However, through the implementation of a project that my colleagues and I title “Inclined Planes for a Purpose,” I have seen dividends in terms of student engagement, excitement, and connectedness to their broader community.
Inclined Planes for a Purpose
The purpose comes in the framing of the project: analyzing ramps through the lens of people who rely on a wheelchair to get around. All in all, the project spans the course of about three weeks, with about two class periods a week allocated for students to work on their product or research, all while exploring the scope of forces at angles throughout the rest of our weekly lessons.
The physics: Within this project, students analyze the ramps in our school: where they’re located, what they’re made of, their angle of incline, why the students think the ramps were built in their respective locations, and how they could make our school more friendly and accessible to folks who use wheelchairs or have health conditions or impairments that make ascending stairs difficult.
Students are engaged in exploring the physics involved in ramps. For instance, they determine the values of the coefficients of friction of the various materials that ramps could be made from by analyzing the forces acting on a body ascending and descending an inclined surface.
Students are actively engaged in the physics and mathematics required by the state curriculum. Through formative and summative assessments, I track their understanding and knowledge of core content. I use a rubric to assess their growth, broken down into levels of proficiency toward the standards I’m looking to address. This rubric includes references to mathematical proficiencies and physics-related proficiencies, and it assesses students’ abilities to clearly and effectively communicate their research and the fruits of their endeavors.
The product: The product that students are expected to create is a model of a ramp that is visually interesting, designed to scale, and one that contains both macro and microscopic views of the physics of bodies interacting on an inclined plane. I encourage creativity in terms of the product that students turn in; sometimes it’s a hand-drawn model, and sometimes it’s a trifold, a CAD file, or a 3D printed model built to scale—or anything in between! I’ve even seen students pick up woodworking in their effort to meet proficiency in the standards addressed within this project.
Social and emotional learning: Even more striking to me is the empathy my students develop as their perceptions change over the course of the project. The project spurs significant social and emotional growth.
One student remarked to me, “When I was walking down the hallway, I saw a nurse wheeling a student from class, and she was frustrated because she couldn’t find the closest ramp back to her office and realized she’d have to walk farther than if she’d taken the stairs right in front of her.” Based on this comment, the class created a model of our school in which we indicated where ramps were and where else they could be added.
As an entrance activity for one lesson, my students were tasked to think of anyone in their lives they knew who might utilize a wheelchair, have motor difficulties, or work with folks with physical difficulties. We then broke into a think-pair-share to discuss these people in our lives, and almost every student could name at least one individual. One student remarked, “This reminds me of Scottie, a local guy who uses an electric wheelchair—I never thought of how difficult it must be for him to go about his day. My aunt works with him on occasion. I’m proud of what she does.” Many other students shared a similar sentiment and newfound respect for the struggles he must face daily.
One student even reached out to a local disability and employment agency and a university professor as part of the project to better understand the legal requirements of constructing outdoor ramps for people with disabilities. He wanted to better understand how to make the structures safe and effective.
Future Service Learning
Having observed this change in my students’ attitudes, I am now rethinking the motivation of many of my other units across my classes: How can I best engage students to empathize with folks of different backgrounds within the overarching study of science?
Moving forward, I’m planning to create a survey for my students to brainstorm cultural topics that they are passionate about and then try to bring those topics into our academic studies. Perhaps our electricity unit could be wired into the struggles of some folks around the world to get adequate power. Our waves unit can be studied through the lens of providing internet to all members of our local community.
Certainly, this will take time, a lot of fine-tuning, and plenty of do-overs, but that’s why we refer to our job as a “practice”—we’re always trying to better and better address the broader needs of our students as they emerge as community members and future civic leaders. I expect a unit revamp to start with one lesson at a time, one project at a time, and these to take several hours to flesh out in any practical sense, but I look forward to this process over the second half of this school year.
I intend to more effectively orient my lessons toward service learning and through the lens of valuing the struggles of all members of our community. I hope my students can see the value of using science to come up with effective solutions to the problems we see.