Physics and math in the real world
Scavenger hunts, baseball games, raisins and toothpaste: what do these things have to do with learning? Students of Allison Boley, MS, might have an inkling. In her first semester as an adjunct in the GCC Physics Department, Boley mines everyday life to help bring academic concepts to life.
This fall, her Physics 101 students explored stations along the wall of their classroom. At one station, they found a pile of travel-sized hand sanitizer; at another, boxes of raisins; yet another had tubes of toothpaste. Each of the seven stations came with a question like, “When you brush your teeth, is the friction between your teeth and the toothbrush an example of static or kinetic friction?”
Students carefully filled gallon-sized plastic bags with one item from each station, answering questions along the way or taking photos of the questions to answer with textbooks at their seats. “They were so quiet I wasn’t sure how the activity had gone over,” said Boley. “ … until they started turning in their bags.”
A student previously vocal about her distaste for physics was the first to praise the activity; others chimed in enthusiastically. Several weeks later, two students asked to do the activity again, with different questions for new knowledge they’d gained in the meantime. And GCC students weren’t the only ones who appreciated the hands-on exercise, as the contents of the collected bags were passed along to Arizonans in need.
For these GCC Physics students, learning continues outside the classroom; throughout the week, they take part in scavenger hunts, searching for real-life examples of what they’re learning about. In one scavenger hunt, students were asked to capture a picture of a transverse wave. If they return with a picture of a television set, they’re hot on the trail, as a TV emits electromagnetic waves in the form of visible light.
In another assignment, the hunt centered on the physics concept of centripetal acceleration. A photo of a beverage in a glass stirred in a circular motion would be a good example of the concept.
“Science and math concepts come alive when we interact with the beauty of the world around us,” said Boley. “When I was growing up, our classroom experiments were often in the category of, ‘Look at this volcano, isn’t it cool?’ And yes it was – but science wasn’t related to day-to-day reality, so for me, it seemed unattainable, ungraspable and out of reach, not something I could do. Whereas if we can relate to it, our confidence grows.”
This isn’t the first time Boley has harnessed everyday life as a pathway to learning. As a graduate student at ASU, she created an app for elementary-school children, “Fun Math at the Ballpark,” which helps kids learn math as they watch a baseball game.
Boley, never a huge fan of baseball, had difficulty sitting through an entire game. She realized the converse is also true: some students have a hard time sitting through math lessons. She decided the two could be combined, by helping students learn math while paying attention to the environment – in this case, a baseball game.
Parents loved using the app to help explain baseball to their children while at the same time incorporating math lessons. “I wish the app had existed when I was a kid,” she said. “It would have made baseball more interesting to me.” Even many adult learners have downloaded the app for a refresher in fractions, decimals and other math concepts, similar to those outlined in the course description for GCC Math 082.
Boley also teaches at the Children’s Museum in downtown Phoenix. She’s created two signature classes for little ones, from birth to five years old: “Math before you can add, or even count,” and “Science before you can hypothesize, or even analyze.”
Had Boley not received a full ride to Arizona State University as a National Merit Scholar, she would have attended GCC, as both of her sisters did. She earned both her bachelors’ and master’s degrees there and is now pursuing her doctorate and working as a teaching assistant. “I like teaching a lot; my career goal is to be either a full-time community college teacher or to create educational products and seminars,” she said.
Why her passion for teaching at the community college level? “The emphasis is on teaching, which I love,” she reflected. “I don’t want to focus on research to the point where teaching gets sidelined.”
She is open with students about her own academic path. Though she loved math and was always very good at it, she pursued physics because it was a challenge. “I didn’t want to be bored,” she said.
So she took up physics and struggled with it a lot. “But struggling isn’t bad; in the end, struggling and overcoming obstacles gives you a great sense of accomplishment,” she maintained. “What value is it to your character if you just sail through?”
Relating learning to the world we know is essential, says Boley. “We all fear the unknown, so if we can relate concepts to what we already know, we become less fearful.”
“We begin to recognize we’re already familiar with certain concepts, we just didn’t know what they were called.”