From a magazine called NorthWest Teacher, from about 2006 (no longer available on-line)
SEATTLE, Washington—In a corner of Eric Muhs’s classroom at Roosevelt High, a stack of physics textbooks sits at rest—the state in which they are quite likely to remain.
Instead of reading assigned chapters about the laws of motion, first-year physics students design and test trebuchets—medieval devices that use counterweights to hurl objects. They learn about light by building pinhole cameras, and test their understanding of refraction on a laser maze. More advanced students take concepts even further, pursuing research projects that connect them with university researchers and NASA scientists.
“You have to do it for yourself to learn about science,” Muhs says, describing the philosophy he has honed during a 15-year teaching career. “You really don’t learn any other way. Ultimately, you have to get your hands dirty.”
‘UNDERSTANDING BEAUTY IN THE WORLD’
On a typical morning, Muhs takes his first-year physics students on a whirlwind tour of refraction. “Refraction is the key to understanding a great deal of beauty in the world,” he promises. He weaves anecdotes and wry asides into a fast-paced presentation, keeping a roomful of teenagers engaged and laughing, even at 7:45 a.m. In a discussion that covers the physics behind rainbows, mirages, halos, and the mysterious green flash, he weaves in personal observations, a story from Jules Verne, a pair of refraction goggles, and a 17th century drawing by René Descartes.
When students interrupt with questions, he’s only too happy to shift gears and take off in an unexpected directions—such as Antarctica, where he traveled through a National Science Foundation program for science teachers. Drawing on that firsthand experience, he is able to explain not only why ice crystals cause distinctive refraction events called halos, but also what it feels like to look at the sky from a place where the horizon seems to extend forever.
“Every time I go through the material I teach,” he reflects later, “I learn more about how to understand it, how to communicate it.” Muhs developed his approach early in his teaching career. “I realized that I had less conflict with students if I put interesting things in front of them.” As he continues expanding his curriculum, he relies on his own instincts. “I don’t like being bored,” he says. “The good parts for me are when I have a chance to learn about interesting stuff in the world.”
His students seem to agree. “This is my favorite class,” says one boy at the end of the refraction lesson. “This is the first science class I ever enjoyed,” adds a girl at the next table. “I never had a science class before where we got to do so much stuff.”
Muhs’s approach is helping to attract a broader cross-section of students to physics—a subject that only about 20 percent of high school students pursue nationally. At Roosevelt High, physics is not only for the academic elite. Nearly an eighth of the school’s 1,600 students enroll in physics in a typical year. “We’re trying to make physics available to everybody,” Muhs says. “The concepts are clean and fundamental. Physics is going to help you understand the world. And it’s a stepping stone to anything you might want to study in college.” He teaches four sections of first-year physics, with boys and girls enrolling in almost equal numbers during their junior or senior year. “It’s a bit of a privilege to work with these kids,” he adds. “I try to make good things of it every day by giving them something interesting to think about.”
WHERE THE COOL STUFF IS
For students who get intrigued enough to want to take their understanding of physics beyond the introductory level, Muhs teaches a second-year class where learning unfolds through project-based experiences. Students work in teams, organized by the topic they choose to explore—solar energy, astrophysics, robotics. The solar energy team, for instance, started by building a solar panel to heat water then created a
“solar death ray,” a parabolic dish coated with a mirrored surface (that can heat water or toast marshmallows) .
Muhs fosters an environment where students take on the role of research scientist. His advanced students are expected to keep a day log, maintain a Web site about their research, interact with working scientists, and make community presentations about what they have learned. Most students rise to the occasion, but the teacher acknowledges that a handful “are not accustomed to that sort of academic freedom. There are a few who have to be prodded.”
During the afternoons when he’s teaching his advanced students, Muhs is in constant motion. “It takes a lot of energy—running around, solving problems, suggesting ideas.” Concepts like cosmic rays are not apt to be covered in physics textbooks, so Muhs is constantly expanding his curriculum and developing new resources. It’s worth the effort, he believes, to give students an opportunity “to pursue something as far as it will take you.”
As his students have discovered, the sky is literally the limit. Last year, one team designed and built a portable cosmic ray detector, using the device to recreate an experiment that once won the Nobel Prize. NASA used the detector with high-altitude balloons to collect data. That project earned Muhs the 2004 Vernier Technology Award from the National Science Teachers Association.
This year, the Roosevelt robotics team has been selected to send an experiment aboard a NASA flight that simulates zero gravity. Muhs is leading the expedition to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, in November, as part of a special event during the World Year of Physics 2005. The robot, contained inside an acrylic bubble, is designed to reorient itself during freefall to point at a light beacon. If all goes as planned, the robot will sense light, compute its direction and rate of spin, and counteract that spin by turning internal flywheels in the opposite direction—demonstrating the Conservation of Angular Momentum.
With a few months to go before launch date, the robotics students—and their teacher— still have far to go. Programming bugs need to be worked out. And there’s the matter of fundraising to pay for student travel.
For the teacher whose interest in the science of flight began in childhood, the effort will be worthwhile “to do something neat.” Not only that, Muhs will get to climb aboard the aircraft known around NASA as the “vomit comet.” During a typical four-hour flight, the aircraft completes 30 up-and-down parabolas, hurtling toward Earth at 660 miles per hour to simulate a zero-gravity environment. When he returns from the trip, Muhs will have a new set of adventures to weave into his classroom. “This is where the cool stuff in physics is today—the research that’s going on now, the questions we haven’t answered yet. I’m motivated to keep learning,” he says, “so I can incorporate more of that material into my teaching.”
To learn more about Muhs’s innovative physics projects, visit www.invisiblemoose.net